MONTEREY — Ryan Commons felt numb, struggling for a solution. Fire was ravaging through what most runners refer to as sacred land in Toro Park last summer.
The pandemic had halted all local sporting events, including all road races, crippling an area that has an enormous amount of running enthusiasts.
“I was watching a race on Youtube, realizing how much I missed it,” said Commons, a 39-year-old running enthusiast living in East Garrison. “And then it hit me. I thought we could do virtual races differently. It can be fun and motivation to run.”
Virtual races are nothing new during the pandemic. But Commons, whose day job is as an attorney, put together a unique approach that is gaining momentum.
Instead of signing up to run a virtual race with no course, just a distance, Commons has put together a series of races, with a different distance and course each month — where times are kept through a tracker and posted.
Where the interest has soared in his idea is that for $10, individuals can run the course as many times as they’d like during that month to either better their mark or perhaps medal in the top three, even challenge a local icon.
“I made a video of the four parts of Fort Ord that we use for courses,” Commons said. “My wife thought it was a good idea. She rarely says that. So I went with it.”
Now into its fourth month, what has made the series popular is the opportunity to challenge yourself and improve your time — or see where you match up against other competitors.
Six-time Big Sur Marathon champion Adam Roach ran the 9.5-mile course in November and briefly held the record until former Hartnell College distance ace Diego Leon bested him on his second attempt.
The pair never ran together. In fact, most of the runners who compete in the series are running alone, as a means of taking proper safety protocols during the pandemic.
“Right now it’s the most appropriate thing we can do in our sport that’s safe,” Hartnell College track and cross country coach Chris Zepeda said. “It helps people maintain motivation.”
Commons, who gives half the proceeds to local charities, hoped to have roughly 50 runners a month take part in the series, which is now in its fourth month.
After three months, that number has increased into the 80s — from athletes as young as 14 to as old as 62.
All times are tracked on Strava, an online social media training tool, which you can link to a GPS device on your watch to ensure that all marks are accurate.
“As adult runners, it’s a great time to get better at training,” said Zepeda, who has run in a pair of races. “Test races are an extension of that.”
Commons has enjoyed the competitive nature of several runners, including himself. Just running a course once doesn’t seem to be enough for those looking for a better mark or potential placement.
“I love when someone runs a good time and texts their buddy,” Commons said. “The next day his friend is out on the course trying to better the mark. It’s great from a mental and physical standpoint.”
Leon, who ran at Montana State, won the November series, while former Alvarez and Hartnell distance ace Jorge Sanchez captured the December series, outlasting former college teammate Eduardo Orozco. Both ran at Alaska-Anchorage last year.
“Most people are running the courses two or three times,” Commons said. “One individual in November ran it nine times. I’m seeing people from out of the area coming in and trying to snap a time.”
While running alone doesn’t replace the camaraderie that often accompanies distance runners or running clubs in races, it has inspired to strive for a goal.
“It works while we’re in a pandemic,” Commons said. “We remind people in all our videos to respect COVID. It’s challenging. It’s given people a goal to shoot for, some sense of normalcy out there.”
Commons has expanded his courses out to Carmel Valley, where he recently had a 2.95-mile run with a nearly 1,900-foot climb to the top, which was the finish.
“If our races say the word ‘climb’ in them, you’re going to climb,” Commons said. “Enjoy the view, because the race is over when you reach the top.”
Marina Hobson, 15, of Carmel won the La Entrada al Gran Norte 1,859-foot climb, covering the 2.95-mile race in 36 minutes, 37 seconds on her second attempt, knocking more than a minute off her first time.
“I’m honored that guys like Adam, Jorge and Diego have come out and run,” Commons said. “But I also love seeing younger kids come out and test themselves. This is a great running community.”
Courses will vary in length and toughness in the coming months as Commons searches for avenues to create more interest and challenges for all ages during a difficult time for a lot of individuals.
“What has made it entertaining is seeing people come back and run it a second or third time to try and improve their mark or beat an opponent,” Commons said. “Most are out there on their own, challenging themselves, holding themselves accountable.”
Zepeda has encouraged his athletes — past and present — to test themselves while in a holding pattern as high school and college sports remain absent. He personally has gained peace of mind by running the races.
“It takes the thinking out of it for me,” Zepeda said. “It’s helped me mentally and physically as a coach during the pandemic. This is one of the most amazing places in the world to be a distance runner.”
Contributed by local news sources