Friends compete in 101-day running challenge

Andrew Gates (left) and Brian McElhaney Photo: Brian McElhaney

We all know that runners can get intense. But for most runners, there is a finish line at the end where the intensity comes to a stop. That was not the case for us. For 101 straight days in the heat of D.C. summer, my friend Brian McElhaney and I competed in a grueling run streak competition, all for the prize of a $30 dessert.

Brian and I are both Arlington residents and coworkers at Potomac River Running. One day in the early summer, Brian proposed seeing how many days we could run idea of having a run streak competition between the two of us. I thought it sounded fun, so I agreed. At the time, neither of us really understood what we were getting into.

“I thought it would be a fun way to keep running in the summer interesting and to prevent [us] from getting burnt out,” says Brian. “I’ve been running about 35 miles a week since the beginning of the year and after finishing a 50K, I was worried I would either hate running or would stop running because it was hot … I also just wanted to see how long we could go.”

Our competition began on June 3rd. The rules were simple at first: the first person to miss a day of running had to buy the other one a dessert of the winner’s choice. The minimum daily requirement to run was 3 miles. If you didn’t run at least 3 miles, you lost. There was no set end date.

“Honestly I thought the contest was going to last maybe a month or a month and a half,” says Brian.

We sent photos of our Garmin watches to the other person to prove that we met the minimum daily requirements. It quickly became part of our daily routine to send and receive images of Garmin times whenever one of us ran.

The competition went strong for a whole week until June 8th, when the competition was suddenly over. Citing not enough time following a night of celebrating the Capitals Stanley Cup win, Brian had missed a day of running. It was only one week in.

At this point, we were both still so new to streaking that we hadn’t quite cemented running into part of our mandatory list of things to do in our routine just yet. The sudden end to the competition surprised both of us. We both expected more and wanted more.

“[I] felt like the competition ended abruptly without the anticipated competitive climax that both [of us] were hoping for,” says Brian.

And so, we decided to change the rules. It was no longer one long run streak. Instead, we decided to split the competition up into five rounds. The first person to win best of five would win the entire competition.

Now in round 2, the competition began again.

Brian McElhaney at the George Washington Parkway Classic. Photo: Swim Bike Run Photography

Due to my schedule, I would often complete my runs in the mornings, while Brian would complete his runs in the afternoons, meaning he usually saw what I ran that day before he completed his own run. As a way of taunting me, Brian loved to run the exact same distance as I did down to the decimal point, but would do it one second faster per mile. It was one of the many ways we kept things interesting.

Mid-way through round 2, there was still no end in sight. We each wanted the other to lose but knew  we were both taking it too seriously to bow out. That’s when we came up with the biggest and most significant change to the entire competition: we introduced challenges.

Challenges worked like this: if you proposed a challenge, you also had to complete the challenge. When the challenge was proposed, both parties had 36 hours to complete it and supply proof. Each person was granted one challenge a week.

“For the first couple of months, the longer that the competition went on, it was kind of like a game of chicken. For no reason whatsoever, we kept running at a quick pace for 3 miles or over without relenting much with no spoils for the victor for distance or speed,” Brian says. “That changed once we started challenges.”

I was the first to propose a challenge. I didn’t quite understand the extent of how intense these challenges could be at first, so I tested the waters with a fairly straightforward one: run one mile without shoes. We both completed the challenge that day and sent photos or videos of our barefoot runs.

Brian proposed the second challenge a few days later and immediately set the precedent for the next several challenges to come. His challenge was to run for 2 hours straight without stopping. To make matters more interesting, the forecast for the next 36 hours called for intense rain and thunderstorms. If I was to complete this challenge before the deadline, the only time I could do it was to run immediately after work during the height of the storm. So I did. By the time I was done, I was completely soaked head to toe. Somehow, it was easily one of the most fun runs I’ve ever done.

The most controversial challenge came next week, when Brian proposed to run to two breweries in one run and drink a beer at each one. When I saw that challenge, I was not happy. The only time I could fit that into my schedule and complete it in the next 36 would be to do it that night after I got off work. I really did not want to go out and did not have time to drastically change my plans. So my goal was to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I knew that Heritage had a small Arlington location near where I live, so I thought that would be a good starting point. I didn’t want to deal with finding a ride home, so I wanted to run somewhere metro accessible so that I could get back easily. Looking at a map, the next closest metro-accessible brewery seemed to be Capitol City Brewing in DC. So I ran to Heritage, had a drink, snapped a photo for proof, then ran to Capitol City, had a drink and snapped a photo for proof. That’s when I got a call from Brian. He told me Heritage didn’t count because their main brewery was in Manassas and that the Arlington location was a “brew-pub”. Brian was adamant that I only ran to one acceptable brewery. Not willing to lose, I then ran to Bluejacket in Navy Yard, got a drink and snapped a picture there.

While I did not enjoy that challenge, Brian had a very different opinion.

“My favorite challenge was the brewery run even though there was a lot of controversy,” he says. “I enjoyed it a lot because it raised my physical finesse to a different level mainly because it was the summertime and it was so damn hot and running 3.5 miles to the first brewery at 1:00 pm and drinking for a couple of minutes and running to the second brewery 6.5 miles later and getting there, that’s kind of cool … I feel like we actually went places, which is what running is all about.”

The next week, Brian proposed a challenge that we had to chug 4 beers within the first 4 miles of an hour-long run. It was blazing outside that day and after beer 3, I puked my guts out. I took a 10-minute break after I had thrown up, then continued my run and eventually chugged the final beer. But with my 10-minute break, that meant I was not able to chug the 4 beers within the first 40 minutes of the run. Despite completing all other aspects of that challenge, I had lost. I give Brian props for completing that one. It was hot that day and running after drinking that much is not easy in any weather.

After 57 days, that meant round 2 was over. The score was now tied. Brian lost a round and so did I.

At this point the challenges were getting intense and the competition was getting to the point where it was no longer fun for either of us. On top of that, the vicious nature of the challenges was starting to hurt our friendship. Recognizing these facts, we decided to change the rules again.

From August 6th onward, challenges were no longer aloud. But to make the game more interesting, we increased the minimum daily requirement to 45 minutes. At the pace we run, that basically meant 6 miles a day.

Brian had one more loss a few weeks after that, citing another busy day where he was unable to run. The score was now Brian two losses, Andrew one.

“[The hardest part was] finding the time to run. At first it was not that difficult since we were just doing three miles a day, but trying to strike a balance between work, fitness and a healthy lifestyle, eventually on certain days the competition was more challenging than others,” says Brian.

On the 101th day of the competition, Brian was to receive a treatment called a platelet-rich plasma injection. After the injection, he would not be able to exercise for a week. We decided to make that our end day.

“The reason for ending [the competition] was the injection that I got,” Brian says. “Round 4 wouldn’t have necessarily ended the way it did [if I didn’t get the injection]. We could have kept going.”

The night before the 101st day, Brian called me and proposed one last challenge to determine the winner of round 4: the fastest 10K wins.

It was on.

Brian ran his 10K in 40:29, while I ran 39:27. That was it. In the end, I won the competition with three rounds won, one round lost. Both of us had put up an intense effort.

My prize, as promised, was cake. We enjoyed the cake together that night, then it took me another week to finish the rest.

“Stacks and stacks of calories is what I saw, delicious calories,” recalls Brian. “I have never eaten cake that big.”

Looking back on the competition, Brian has a few takeaways.

“I think what we learned was that when we faulted, we weren’t physically unable to do a challenge. Our fitness was never what was going to break. We would have just had to continue to increase the minimum that was expected of each of us in order to reach a threshold point where physical fitness did become the questionable aspect of victory,” says Brian.

“[The competition] evolved as it did and it was the only way it could have happened. We didn’t set out with a grand blueprint or outline of what we wanted to do. I think in a sense the competition got tougher maybe mentally more than physically.”

Brian and I are both incredibly glad to have competed in this competition, but when asked if either of us would do this again, we both agreed, only if our schedules were different next time.

Andrew Gates at the Leesburg 20k. Photo: Dustin Whitlow

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