Lessons in follow-through from the backyard marathoners

Say this about the Covid-19 lockdown: it has separated those who keep their promises from those who are happy to take a mulligan in these extraordinary circumstances.

By now you’ve likely heard of a UK man named James Campbell, and not because he is a Scottish record-holder in the javelin. A month ago, grounded in his hometown of Cheltenham, he got an idea. If he received sufficient encouragement – to the tune of 10,000 re-tweets – he would run a marathon for charity. In his back yard.

His back yard is six by six metres.

Campbell got his 10,000 ayes. So now he was committed.

On April 1 he gave it a go.

It was a hell of a way to spend his 32nd birthday.

In what he was now calling the “six-metre garden marathon,” the 32-year-old churned very tiny loops across the grass and pebbles, live-streaming the effort, while neighbours (and his mother) shouted support through the fence. He finished in just under five hours – a respectable time even for a real marathon, where you don’t have to change direction 7,000 times.

(Archived here, it is an oddly rewarding watch. I dare you not to get a little teary as checks his FitBit at 42.27 km and throws his arms in the air in triumph.

And, just like that, “garden marathoning” was a thing.

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If you’ve ever trained for a long race you can appreciate the frustration of banking all those miles only to see the event cancelled; it’s like being denied the glory of acing the test you studied so hard for. That happened to runners all over the world this spring. And it seems to be what inspired the other adopters in the growing lockdown microrunning movement, whose house rules are: You raise money for a Covid-related charity, and treadmill runs don’t count.

Graham Merfield, of Guernsey in the UK, says he was standing in his garden one evening clapping for the health-care workers, bummed that the local marathon he’d hoped to run had been scrubbed, when he decided to throw his shorts into the ring.

His own backyard marathon proved “less boring than I imagined.” Largely because he’d made a “party mix” that he played on an endless loop as his wife Alison plied him with peanut butter sandwiches.

Over in the south of France, Elisha Nochomovitz, a restaurant worker from Balma, near Toulouse, was processing his refund for the Barcelona marathon when he too got the bug. Not having a yard, he ran back and forth on his apartment balcony for almost seven hours. It was by far the hardest of his 36 marathons, he said. Running is basically a controlled continuous forward fall, and the momentum propels you. Nochomitz had no momentum. It was like doing three thousand very short races. In his photo at the “finish line,” he looks like he has been through the wars.

At this point nobody seems likely to surpass the accomplishment of Michael Ortiz, a 36-year-old financier from Brooklyn who was in the middle of a monster commitment to run 100 100-mile runs in 100 weeks when the pandemic shut him down two thirds of the way through. Without dropping a stitch, he switched the venue of his next 100-mile race — number 69 — to his living room. Round and round he went for 60 hours, changing directions every mile so he wouldn’t throw up.

To finish a Big Day of this magnitude, there has to be a pretty big Why. What kept her going, said Anna Harding, livestreaming her backyard run in a suburb of London, was this the thought of all the key frontline workers out there, “just everyone who is still keeping this country together.” Folks, in other words, who didn’t have the luxury of dreaming up a goofball physical test.

It all puts me in mind of a gentleman I interviewed a few years ago for a story for Reader’s Digest International. John McAvoy had set the 24-hour rowing record. He’d done it indoors on a rowing machine while serving time for murder at Lowden Grange penitentiary in the Nottinghamshire. His “coach,” the guy who talked him through the early morning half-way low point was Darren Davis: his prison guard.

Freedom and confinement are all in the head, we are learning.

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