In snow, at parks, on treadmills and finally downtown: #VirtuallyMiamiFamous thrived

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Susan Miller Degnan
·8 min read
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Bernie Car — face hidden beneath a neck gaiter, head covered by a wool cap and body protected by four layers — ran the virtual replacement of the pandemic-canceled Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon on Jan. 14 while snow fell in the 28-degree “relative warmth’’ of Ontario, Canada.

Damodar Pairaikar did the virtual event, named #VirtuallyMiamiFamous, Jan. 17 on “the streets of Berlin” — otherwise known as an app on his treadmill at his Weston home.

And Chris Szynski, who moved to Miami in 2016 after falling in love with the city at the 2011 Miami Marathon, did the virtual Miami event Jan. 23 around “a gorgeous lake” at Hollywood’s Topeekeegee Yugnee Park — the RaceJoy app with the voice of marathon director Frankie Ruiz cheering him on through his earbuds.

But as 5,000 participants around the world spent the past three weeks plotting their own courses through neighborhoods or parks or on treadmills to complete either the 26.2-mile marathon or 13.1-mile half marathon (or in some cases both distances plus an ancillary 5K), another 35 racers got an unexpected thrill from Ruiz.

On Sunday, those 35 invited Miami Marathon “streakers’’ who have run either the full marathon or half every year since the event’s 2003 inception, will gather at Bayfront Park to traverse a 1.63-mile loop until they complete one of the two distances. Sunday would have been the real race date for the event, which traditionally starts outside the AmericanAirlines Arena and ends in front of Bayfront Park. The marathon event already had more than 22,000 registered when it was canceled in October.

“This is a great way for us to keep the flame lit and carry on the spirit of those who would have normally been here,’’ said Ruiz, chief running officer for race owner Life Time, and newly named chief wellness officer for the City of Miami. “We know we can’t have 25,000 people together Sunday, but we’ll have them in our hearts.’’

Ruiz also organized “pop-up” inflatable finish lines at various parks and popular running sites throughout South Florida on recent weekends so that virtual racers could either plan their routes to cross those finishes or just have photos taken in front of them.

Masks and staggered start

On Sunday, eight laps around the Bayfront Park loop will complete the half marathon, 16 times around will complete the full. Runners and their family members or personal spectators will be given masks to wear when they’re around others, and they will proceed in staggered starts. They will arrange their own refreshments and beverages in individually allocated areas. Music will be playing and Ruiz will be the informal master of ceremonies, ensuring that every streaker gets a T-shirt and race medal — just like the virtual racers get after their finishing times are documented and sent in.

To avoid any large crowds, the streakers were not told where the course would be for the mini event until Friday.

“We get to carry the torch for our 19th year doing something we love in the city we love with the people we love,’’ said Davie resident Marcela Todd, 49, program director and head coach for the marathon training group called Friends in Training, sponsored by Baptist Health South Florida.

Marathoner Marcela Todd sits in front of her Friends in Training group in January 2021 after they ran the half marathon distance of the #VirtuallyMiamiFamous race at George English Park in Fort Lauderdale.
Marathoner Marcela Todd sits in front of her Friends in Training group in January 2021 after they ran the half marathon distance of the #VirtuallyMiamiFamous race at George English Park in Fort Lauderdale.

COVID-19 survivor

This will be Todd’s first race after recuperating from COVID-19, so she will limit herself to the half marathon after running 75 fulls that include London, Tokyo, Berlin, Boston, New York and Chicago. “I’m going to take it easy and go at a slower pace,’’ she said. “This will be really special to see all the people who have been doing the same thing with you for so many years, yet you never got to know them because of the huge crowds.’’

Another streaker who is not only thankful for the special event and this year’s virtual marathon edition, but appreciative to be alive, is Tony Jones of Cutler Bay. Jones, 64, is battling prostate cancer but will nonetheless tackle the half marathon Sunday — and make it a full marathon if he has the strength.

“It’s been a sucky year for everyone,’’ said Jones, who also did #VirtuallyMiamiFamous by running a half marathon around a loop that starts at Black Point Park and Marina in Cutler Bay, continues up Old Cutler Road on a bike path and returns to Black Point. “Everybody has had their struggles. I’ve done 18 straight full marathons at Miami, but my body is probably not going to be able to handle the full. The truth is there are a lot of people who aren’t here anymore. We should be grateful to still be waking up in the morning.

“I’m thankful to Frankie and what his team is doing. In-person races around here have been nonexistent. But the virtual option at least allows us to get out on the road and do some sweating.’’

The floater

They call Alexis Garcia “the floater” because he escaped Cuba on June 20, 1992, by kayaking 55 hours through the Florida Straits before he was rescued. Garcia, now 59, is Miami Lakes K-8 Center physical education teacher who will run the invitation-only streaker full marathon.

Garcia, who lives in Pembroke Pines, once ran 1,000 miles across Cuba for 35 consecutive days. Now an ultramarathoner who runs some of the most grueling courses in the world, he considers the Miami Marathon “the most important race of the year.’’

“I don’t have any empty feelings that there is no regular marathon this year,’’ Garcia said. “In my head I’m feeling that, yes, on Sunday I’ll be running the real thing.’’

The marathoners who signed up for the virtual edition, which allowed participants to complete their distances (run in one session) between Jan. 10 and Sunday, also feel connected to the real thing — whether they ran their races in the South Florida sunshine or like Car, the bundled-up Canadian, in snow.

28-degree virtual

Car, a manager at Lowe’s in Ottawa, is a part-time disc jockey who loves to visit Miami so much that his Instagram handle includes “Miami.” He ran three previous half marathons in Miami, including the last version in 2020. That day, Car said the 72-degree weather was “fantastic,’’ the palm trees swayed rhythmically in the breeze and the early morning South Beach scene was custom made for a ‘90s dance music DJ.

“Right now with the coronavirus thing going on I can’t cross the border,’’ Car, 49, said, “so I’m stuck here.”

He completed his virtual half in 2 hours 48 minutes 42 seconds for an 8:01-per-mile pace.

“I waited until around noon to run by a river near my house,’’ he said. “I ran to a bridge, across the bridge and then to another bridge, crossed that one and went home. It was a warm 28 degrees that day. Now it’s not terrible — about 20 — and the river is frozen.’’

Virtual Berlin

Damodar Pairaikar of Weston is shown Jan. 17, 2021 after finishing the half marathon portion of the #VirtuallyMiamiFamous on his treadmill.
Damodar Pairaikar of Weston is shown Jan. 17, 2021 after finishing the half marathon portion of the #VirtuallyMiamiFamous on his treadmill.

Damodar Pairaikar, a 44-year-old IT specialist at Autonation in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t have to run in the bitter cold. He did his #VirtuallyMiamiFamous half marathon on his treadmill with an app set to simulate 13.1 miles of the famous Berlin Marathon. He said he joined Friends in Training after moving from Dallas to South Florida in 2018, and completed his first Miami half last year.

“The course is very beautiful,’’ Pairaikar said of the real thing. “It was the first time I ever crossed the MacArthur Causeway by foot.’’

Pairaikar’s virtual journey was not nearly as fun as the real Miami event, he said, but he liked discovering Berlin and “running through some German markets and seeing that nice food displayed.’’

“I took some selfies and screen shots at various distances to send as proof to organizers.’’

Miami Heat concierge

Chris Szynski of North Miami stops to take a selfie at Mile 9 of his #VirtuallyMiamiFamous half marathon he did Jan. 23, 2021 in Hollywood. The virtual race was created to replace the 2021 Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, which was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chris Szynski of North Miami stops to take a selfie at Mile 9 of his #VirtuallyMiamiFamous half marathon he did Jan. 23, 2021 in Hollywood. The virtual race was created to replace the 2021 Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, which was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Szynski, the man who fell in love with Miami after competing in the 2011 race, is now a premium concierge for the Miami Heat, and also works with guest experience as a concierge for the Dolphins and Marlins. His virtual Miami experience at TY Park became “really cool’’ when he turned on his RaceJoy App, inserted his ear buds and heard director Ruiz cheering the virtual runners amid crowd noise and music.

“It gave me a little push,’’ Szynski, originally from South Bend, Indiana, said. “At Mile 9 I heard Frankie say, ‘It’s time for a selfie.’ I was like, ‘What the heck, and took a selfie by the lake.’ I told my 94-mom and she said, ‘Don’t forget to tell your friend [Ruiz] that was really cool and creative.’’’

2022 Miami Marathon

Next year, if the Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon is back to normal on Feb. 6, be assured that essentially all the virtual racers and streakers will do their best to return to the starting line. The 22,000 who had registered for the 2021 canceled event, had those entries automatically deferred to 2022.

“We’ll look back at 2021 as a unique moment in the marathon’s history that truly brought out the resilience of the worldwide running community,’’ Ruiz said. “ The marathon may have been canceled, but running continues.’’