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Fitness and Workout Secrets From Pandemic Overachievers

You don’t have to be a hard-core exerciser to learn and benefit from these unusual athletic feats

Lauren De Crescenzo, right, and her fiancé, Jim Snitzer, cycled 29,029 vertical feet, the equivalent of Mount Everest during a 2020 ride.
PHOTO: TOM DANIELSON

By Jen Murphy
Jan. 9, 2021 6:00 am ET



A 16-day quarantine didn’t disrupt Cody Marett’s running routine last year. It actually inspired him to run a marathon—in his South Korean hotel room.

Some people like Mr. Marett have gotten creative with their fitness routines during the pandemic, using online tools to set new goals for themselves and motivate them to hit new personal bests. Here’s what you can learn from these ambitious exercisers to help you set and achieve goals of every scope.

Mr. Marett, a 33-year-old staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, moved his bed sideways to create an indoor oval running course and used the activity tracker Strava to determine that 85 laps equaled about a mile.

“It began as a simple 1-mile run, some calisthenics, and 1 more mile,” he says. “But I began looking at running certain distances as a unique challenge. I started with a 5k, completed a 10k, 15k and half marathon in successive days, gave myself three days off and ran a full marathon.”

He completed the 26.2 miles in four hours, 27 minutes and 28 seconds; 2,227 laps around the room. He posted Strava snapshots of his quarantine runs to a virtual run group on Facebook and says the support kept him motivated to reach the marathon distance.

If you have a hard time committing to exercise, little tricks, from making yourself accountable on social media to enlisting a friend, can help you stay on track to reach your goal, says Simon Marshall, a performance psychologist in San Diego.

“The brain is wired to be attracted to big goals,” Dr. Marshall says. To achieve those big goals, most people need more than willpower, or internal drive, he says. Waypower, a term for the actual planning required to realize the goal, is where most goals fail. Dr. Marshall says sharing goals and progress toward them on social media can help people stay motivated. And if people fail to meet their goals, support from an online community can encourage them to try again rather than give up completely, he says.

“Last year was a dopamine desert for most of us,” he says, referring to the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and motivation.

“We couldn’t get little daily dopamine micropulses from things like meeting a friend for a local 5K,” he says. “When you go on social media and see that someone liked your goal or accomplishment, that intermittent reinforcement is potent.”

Jen Golbeck, 44, signed up to run five of the Abbott World Marathon Majors last year. The computer scientist used to travel weekly and loved the adventure of discovering new runs. When the pandemic hit, she found herself running the same street near her home in Sugarloaf Key, Fla.


Jen Golbeck on a run in Marathon, Fla. She ran every street in the Florida Keys last year.
PHOTO: JEN GOLBECK
“When the day-to-day epicness of the stuff I had planned went away in March, I needed to put the adventure and discovery back into running,” she says. In April, she set out to run every street in the Florida Keys. She posted Instagram stories of the runs on @jenrunswithdogs and says she got a boost from responses. “Tons of people messaged me saying they felt like they were getting a tour of a tropical paradise vicariously through me,” she says.

Ms. Golbeck accomplished her goal, which equaled about 910 miles, in early August and realized she was in phenomenal shape. She registered for the Wildcats Ultra in Pensacola, Fla., in September and ticked off another longtime goal, running 100 miles. “I ended up having the best running year of my life,” she says.

Ms. Golbeck wasn’t alone in her running high. According to Strava’s annual Year in Sport report of runners who’ve been on Strava since 2019, 55% of users hit a personal record in their 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon distances this year.

In a year where most in-person races were canceled, activity trackers like Whoop, Fitbit and Strava became a way for people to compete with themselves and others, Dr. Marshall says. “Knowing where you stack up in a hierarchy intensifies the potency of goals,” he says.

Everesting, climbing 29,029 feet on a bike by repeating a single climb during a regular outdoor ride, got more popular last year, according to Andy van Bergen, co-founder of the Everesting concept and purveyor of the website Everesting.cc. The organization finished the year with 14,000 entries logged, up from 9,000 a year earlier.

Epidemiologist and pro cyclist Lauren De Crescenzo, 30, set a women’s Everesting world record last May, ascending Hogpen Gap in Blairsville, Ga., 24 times, covering 111 miles in 9:57:27. (The record has since been broken.)


Ms. De Crescenzo ascended Hogpen Gap in Blairsville, Ga., 24 times, covering 111 miles in 9:57:27.
PHOTO: TOM DANIELSON
Ms. De Crescenzo says the challenge gave her something to train toward, but at points leading up to the climb she asked herself, “Why would anyone do this?” To give the goal more purpose, she raised money for Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where she spent two months in 2016 recovering from a post-traumatic brain injury suffered while racing.

“Altruism makes us feel good,” Dr. Marshall says. “When we attach our goal to a cause, it also holds us accountable.”

Goals can also be malleable. “The epitome of mental toughness is responding in a positive way when stuff hits the fan,” says Gregory Dale, director of sport psychology for Duke University’s athletic department in Durham, N.C. “Sometimes to succeed, you need to redefine what success looks like for you. If you don’t readjust, you set yourself up to fail.”

Many endurance runners, such as Myles Fennon, turned to setting fastest known times, or FKTs, on running or hiking routes.

“If you’re a top-level racer or adventurous person, you were bored last year,” says Buzz Burrell, co-founder of the website Fastest Known Time, which registers FKTs. “Attempting an FKT is an opportunity to learn and engage new skills. Unlike a race, you don’t have anyone handing out water and telling you which way to go.”


Myles Fennon, left, and Jay Johnson set an FKT (fastest known time) running the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail north of New York City.
PHOTO: MYLES FENNON
A managing director at a commercial real-estate firm in Manhattan, Mr. Fennon, 41, is a self-described race junkie, typically competing in two to three marathons and ultramarathons a month. He didn’t have trouble logging his usual 50 to 60 miles a week, but without races to prepare for he says he was losing his edge. He enlisted his running buddy, Jay Johnson, to train to set an FKT along 41 miles of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail north of New York City. They achieved their goal in 6 hours and 53 seconds in November.

“I didn’t get to 2:45-marathon fitness levels this year,” Mr. Fennon says. “But this was the best option under the circumstances. We’re already planning to go after tougher FKTs that will force us to get fitter.”

Tips to Help Reach Your Fitness Goals
Getting started on the road to fitness can be harder than running an ultramarathon, Dr. Marshall says. “If you aren’t in shape, jogging 1 mile can be uncomfortable,” he says. Here are some of his tips for helping you achieve fitness goals big and small:

* Create a road map of smaller goals.
* Share your progress on social media.
* Make a to-do list.
* Reward yourself after your workout with a treat, something as simple as a piece of chocolate.
* Find a workout buddy.
* Anchor your goal to a charity or cause.
* Set a goal focused on discovery and exploration instead of a finish line and time.
* Be flexible with your goals and adjust according to circumstances.
* Embrace the mentality, something is better than nothing.

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Thomas Snitzer
427 S Pine Ave.
Arlington Heights, Il. 60005
Cel (847) 847 8631

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