What if I told you one of the most amazing and fun sporting events to spectate was a virtual relay race with four people sharing a treadmill? You probably wouldn't believe me. Well the ZWIFT 5-mile relay race truly proved to be the Super Bowl of running.
In order to convince you, let’s get to the backstory and some simple facts you need to know that will help you understand everything better:
What is ZWIFT? It’s an app that lets you run as an avatar in a virtual world by way of a manual treadmill. Sure they do cycling as well, but this ain’t Koreatown Bike Club. Basically, this is a Nintendo Switch/Wii on steroids. You can clock miles with the Zwift community from around the world next to a volcano in the Watopia or train with structured workouts or in our case, race against your friends 6,000 miles away in Korea. YouTube demonstrations don’t do this justice. This is something you must see live.
On August 2nd, the Koreatown Run Club team was matched up against a formidable foursome from Seoul, Korea, in PRRC (Private Road Run Club). The mood was set for an incredible sporting event. Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) in Santa Monica was the venue for the KRC crew. A big monitor and cameras were set up in both places allowing the fans to see the race from both locations.
Beers for the fans? Check. Best hamburgers in LA? Check, Love Hour. Loud fans cheering as if it’s March Madness? You bet. BRS “Stadium,” even has the sounds of Tiger the DJ pumping through the place. The electricity of Staples Center, Dodger Stadium and the Rose Bowl could not equal the wattage of BRS that night.
Teams of four (two men, two women) from KRC and PRRC will race head to head, one runner at a time with the distance being five miles. The relay/exchanges can occur at any point during the race. The exchanges will involve getting off the treadmill, and taking a sensor on your shoe and lacing it to the next runner’s shoe. The best way I can compare this is like a NASCAR race and a pit stop. The time you take to exchange/relay will prove vital to the race, because it’s not just about how fast you are running.
Kevin: Do not let his strained face fool you; as Carol from Track once said when someone remarked that Kevin looks like he’s going to die when running hard, she responded, “Kevin always look like he’s going to die, that’s normal.” The face of death is a true sign of grit and determination.
Jenna: The scouting report says she’s got an incredible motor, and gets stronger as the race goes on. Look for her competing in Tokyo at next year’s Olympics.
Oscar: This man doesn’t know how to give up. Maximum effort and dedication. In fact, he sped up when Duy told him to slow down. In a typical relay race, he’s your anchor. But this isn’t your typical relay; so his running position will be a key strategy for taking down the opposition. Smiles and squints a lot.
Jen: Precision focus, form and execution make her dangerous in this lineup. She might be here for the free Love Hour burger, but she’ll eat it for desert after she’s had PRRC for dinner.
Vegas odds have PRRC as the favorite. This makes no sense, so I make a call to my bookie in Vegas and laid down some bills on Team KRC. I think they’re not only going to win, but easily cover the :30 spread PRRC has been predicted to win. This is free money. GAME ON!
3-2-1, GO! On the screen, the ZWIFT layout shows you the runner’s pace, the distance covered and heart rate in case anyone is close to dying.
The first relay/switch is on! A quick hop off the treadmill, a ZWIFT specialist removes the chip and switches it to the next runner. A big key in the race is the pit stop/changeover technique. Precious seconds can add up. Runners restarting the manual treadmill also factors in.
The race is a constant back and forth with the lead changing hands several times. There is never a time when you think any of the runners are “taking it easy,” or holding anything in. They’re giving it their all, pushing themselves until it’s time to switch. The crowd never lets up for one second, screaming with passion fueling the home team.
The KRC team figures out a steady rotation for themselves, and it’s interesting to see how it corresponds with PRRC’s. It results in some intriguing matchups and strategy on the switch times. The lead is exchanged nearly every switch, the fans are on the metaphorical edge of their seat!
We’re at the final stretch. KRC has maintained a slight lead, and it’s an all out race to the finish!
The fans are all thinking we have one more switch to make before the end of this race. KRC makes a mistimed switch and PRRC takes the advantage!
Kevin makes one last push and to close the gap. The finish line is in sight, and PRRC refuses to switch out! They hold on for dear life as Kevin is right on PRRC’s heels! But the Korean Terminator and PRRC amazingly hold on. The finish is too near for KRC to catch up and PRRC crosses the finish line just :4 ahead of KRC. Official time for PRRC is a blazing 34:52. KRC almost pulled it out, finishing at 34:56.
The BRS crowd gives the KRC runners some love, applauding them for their epic effort. KRC still managed to cover the Vegas spread, so Winner Winner, Love Hour Dinner! The whole room erupts in synchronized BTS choreography!
Post race report: The excitement continues… Fellow runners and fans are discussing this as if they were Armchair Quarterbacks—er Racers. “How can we improve the switch time?” “I thought we weren’t supposed to grab the handlebars on the machine?” “Who cares, I think they did too!” “Why does it feel like everyone was moving so fast, yet going nowhere?” While it is a treadmill, if you’ve never run on a manual one, it takes some getting used to, and now I have a lot of respect for hamsters running on a wheel now. Everyone is in awe of how our team is still standing after such a hard race.
What an incredible Friday night. Gathering with old friends, making new ones, eating great food and beer, and of course, supporting your fellow runners in a virtual relay race. A unique, spirited and most of all, fun event. While losing was a bummer, after the effort these people put in, tonight we all felt like Winners, and of course, Family.
Words by Ed K
Photos by Sean Jefferson & ZWIFT Korea