At this point, Patty Spector feels like she’s seen it all. Or at least that’s the hope.
Two years after the Josh Billings RunAground had to make a last-minute course alteration due to an algae bloom at Stockbridge Bowl, 2020 rolled around and the triathlon’s streak looked in jeopardy with the coronavirus causing mass cancellations across the sports world.
But, in the spirit of what has become likely the longest continually-running triathlon on the planet, Spector and the Billings committee rolled with the COVID-19 punch.
“We’ve had a lot of things thrown at us, but somehow we’ve been able to pull it together and pull this off,” said Spector following the 44th Josh Billings, which became a virtual event last month. “As someone said, we took lemons and made lemonade. I think that’s a pretty apt description.”
While the Price Chopper parking lot in Great Barrington, boat ramp on Interlaken Road and the grounds at Tanglewood were comparatively empty, the virtual Josh took this opportunity and turned it into a massive fundraising effort. With no overhead, and Milltown Capital stepping in to sponsor the T-shirts, Spector said the event has raised nearly $21,000. All of which is headed to the Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Humane Society, where T-Shirt pickups are available and will be through Oct. 17.
“I was extremely pleased with the turnout, the feedback, and the amount of money we raised,” she said. “I was totally amazed.”
But, Spector noted, this wasn’t just people donating money. The Josh still featured some incredible athletic achievements.
The difference was, instead of just Berkshire County on one Sunday morning, more than 500 folks from Maine to Colorado and Cape Cod to Japan, got busy logging miles in hiking boots, on mountain bikes, paddleboards and wearing swimsuits. Spector herself logged a quadrathlon; biking, paddling, swimming and hiking.
“The really cool thing about this, is that people didn’t just donate. They went out and did something,” she said. “I’ve been putting up Facebook pictures from families all over the country, and there was even a 3-year-old in Japan, Scott Diaz’ grandson. He had goggles on swimming laps in a kiddie pool and finished with a high-five for his dad. I got a special T-shirt for him.”
One of those families forced to take on the Josh remotely is one not entirely related by blood.
Much of the Green Tape Crew, Billings regulars for close to 30 years, took to a cabin in Winter Park, Colo. for a two-day affair.
“We had an absolute blast,” said one of the group’s founders, Jeff Pratt. “All these people want to come out with us next year now. We’re going to have our biggest crew ever, probably 12-to-16 people getting on planes in Colorado next September.”
Pratt, a West Stockbridge native, first took on the Josh as a kid with his friends Andy Clark and Nate McCarthy, the original GTC.
The Green Tape Crew expanded yet again in 2020, with a serious influx of youth. They went out on the first day and did a paddle and mountain bike, then mountain biked again the next day and finished it with a run.
“It’s all about getting kids hooked and fostering an active lifestyle. They see their parents out there having a blast and want to be a part of it. They want the hat, the headband, the shirt.”
There were blasts from the past as well. Spector heard from Cairn Cross, who served on the Berkshire Hills Conference board 44 years ago, and brought the idea for the Josh back with him from Montana where he was in college and racing various similar events. Now 62 years old and the co-founder of FreshTracks Capital in upstate Vermont, Cross heard of the virtual Josh and memories came rushing back. He submitted a 5K jog in Ferrisburgh, Vt. ,along with some stories from the old days.
“People who hadn’t done the race in 20 years did it. One guy, Svenn Aas, the son of one of our original Josh committee guys, heard about it and participated,” said Spector. “People did all sorts of configurations. I had one person who had 15 family members and several friends from all over the country participating. Debbie, who runs our matchmaker program, climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine for her Josh.”
With the Josh Billings keeping it’s streak alive, as did Steve Dudziak. For the first time in 44 years, though, Dudziak didn’t travel back to the Berkshires in September. Instead, he submitted his 44th Josh Billings RunAground from his home in Florida.
Reigning Iron Man champion Kent Lemme submitted his Josh, but did so as a family event with regular crew chief Shiobbean Lemme trying her hand at the Iron category as well.
Spector also said she heard from members of the record-holding Allen Heights Veterinary team; Tom Keefe, who mountain biked, and Josh Lipka, who was one of her final signups.
Spector’s favorite team name came from a family who made up their own shirts with everyone on a bike, and “Mom, I am not a princess” written below..
According to Spector, next year the Josh will tie Eppie’s Great Race, an event out of Sacramento, Calif. that ended in 2018 after 45 consecutive years.
“It was far more work than I anticipated, but without the stress. Unlike the year we went to Richmond, which was tremendously stressful,” Spector said. “It all put a smile on my face, the amount of people who not only wanted to do it, but at least 530 people donated, and the amount of feedback from people was amazing. They loved it. They loved that they could involve family members. So many people who would never do the Josh because they felt intimidated, who thought ‘you know, I could do this on my own time, my own pace and my own distance.’”
The ages ranged from a 3-year-old in Japan to regulars like Dave Klausmeyer and Josh Burbank, who are both in their 80s.
“It’s really interesting because if you don’t have something to train for like the Josh, I think it just keeps people motivated,” said Spector. “When something like that is taken away from you, it’s really hard to keep that motivation up. This really brought it back.”
She had a lot of call to keep a virtual aspect of the race. Nothing will take the place of the in-person Josh, but there may be a fundraising-focused category going forward that will, according to Spector, be “a low pressure environment, but still a way to contribute to the community.”
Because that is what the Josh Billings RunAground has become, a community.
One that neither Cyanobacteria nor COVID-19 could hinder.