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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

R.I. virtual relay mixes social distancing with long-distance running

Seven teams used Zoom while zooming through a 100-mile race with Rhode Island themes such as "where the Benny's used to be."

The finish line that CJ Morin made in his backyard in Cumberland, R.I., for the "Wicked Rhode Race," a 100-mile virtual relay race with Rhode Island themes.
The finish line that CJ Morin made in his backyard in Cumberland, R.I., for the "Wicked Rhode Race," a 100-mile virtual relay race with Rhode Island themes.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — One team started running at 1 a.m., beginning a 19-hour, 100-mile slog through a ridiculously hot and humid summer day, accumulating fresh evidence to support their team name: “Running is Awful Awful.”

In all, seven teams with a total of 39 runners took part in Saturday’s “Wicked Rhode Race” — an ill-advised Rhode Island-themed virtual road race that mixed social distancing and long-distance running, zoom and Zoom.

I joined one of the teams, helping to raise money for the Rhode Island Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, which provides grants to nonprofits supporting Rhode Islanders with food, housing, and health care during the coronavirus outbreak.

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But the relay also represented a desperate, sweaty attempt to reclaim the camaraderie and competition lost to the pandemic’s isolation and tedium. The race’s motto: “Not like we had other plans!”

It was, admittedly, a “terrible idea” — the brainchild of Sarah Chapin, a Providence resident and Fall River science teacher.

But Type 2 fun — an idea that only seems good in hindsight — is nothing new for Chapin, an almost-5-foot-1-inch-tall dynamo who has run 10 ultramarathons, including a 90-miler. For a decade now, she has been part of a motley crew that traces (and races) a seven-mile route each Wednesday night, beginning and ending at the Wild Colonial Tavern in Providence.

And for more times than she cares to admit, she has “enjoyed” time spent in a van with smelly runners during relays such as the Vermont 100 on 100 — honking and heckling, dashing through lightning storms and running up mountains at midnight, winning sprints and losing teammates.

So, after four months growing restless amid the pandemic, Chapin had a wicked idea.

What if she could use the organizational skills she had honed while running science fairs at Kuss Middle School to organize a virtual relay race?

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What if six-member teams raced more than 100 miles, as in traditional relays, but rather than being jammed into vans together, runners could pick their own routes, using texts, Strava beacons, and Zoom conferences to communicate between legs?

What if each runner followed routes loosely based on local themes by, for example, “taking a nostalgic trip through Rhode Island’s past” by running to “where the Almacs used to be” or “where the Benny’s used to be”?

What if some runners paid tribute “to Rhode Island’s shady past (at least, I hope it is its past!)” by completing the “Crimetown legs” — running past the Coin-O-Matic on Federal Hill (“Say hi to Patriarca”) or Hudson Furs (”If you don’t know the reference, go read ‘The Last Good Heist’ “)?

What if one team did the whole 100 miles with just three runners?

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, the heat could peak at 86 degrees and the humidity could reach 97 percent. One runner could trip while running in Roger Williams Park (“trail carnage”). And one runner on my team could find himself running at his new home in Norfolk, Va., where the heat index shot up to 101 degrees.

That would be Ben Keefe. For years, we ran relays with Ben in Vermont, New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks. And each year, without fail, we managed to lose him.

One year, during a 200-mile relay, Ben jumped out of the van to run a mountain leg in the dark. We drove to what we thought was the next transition area, pulling into a deserted ski resort where a drunken volunteer greeted us, saying, “Welcome to Awesomeville — population, you guys!”

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After waiting for far too long for Ben to arrive, we realized we might be in the wrong place. We drove back down the mountain and found Ben shivering, alone in the cold and dark at an unmanned transition area.

So this year, we named our team, “Has Anyone Seen Ben Keefe?”

On Saturday, we were pretty far from Awesomeville.

Each runner ran three times, totaling anywhere from 12 to 20 miles over the course of the day. The midday heat and humidity proved especially brutal.

At the end of a six-mile leg at 2 p.m., I found myself lurching onto the Brown University campus, heading for a surreal destination: The huge lamp/sculpture of a giant baby-blue teddy bear.

I collapsed in the shade of a nearby tree, dripping sweat. And then, as if in answer to a prayer (or a swear), the sprinklers on the quad came on, dousing me, bringing me back from the brink.

For our team, the day began at 7 a.m. when Clay Howland took off down beach roads in Westerly, staying true to the “Rhode Island beaches” theme of his legs. And the day ended at 7:54 p.m. when our final runner, CJ Morin, sprinted beneath the spray-painted “Finish” line sign that he had nailed between two maple trees in his backyard in Cumberland.

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Was it worth it?

Absolutely!

Chapin lives in Providence’s 02909 zip code, which has seen more COVID-19 cases than any other zip code in Rhode Island, so she was happy to raise money to respond to a virus that has taken such a toll on the cities where she lives and works.

“More than that, though, I found people with a crazy energy for life,” she said.

Each runner walked (or limped) away with a T-shirt and a plush toy model of the coronavirus from the Giant Microbes collection.

And the winning team, “Has Anyone Seen Ben Keefe?,” received Wild Colonial gift certificates.

“COVID-19 hit small businesses wicked hard, and so I’ve been doing what I can to support them,” Chapin said. “Without the Wild Colonial, we might not have found each other as runners. It provided fertile ground for us to get together and have stupid ideas, and I want to be able to go back there and continue having stupid ideas.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com