Style/Travel Diaries

I run a marathon in Turkey—virtually, that is

How my 70-year-old aunt inspired me to join online races—in ancient destinations at my own pace

Panoramic view of hundreds of hot air balloons above Cappadocia’s famous valleys and volcanic ‘fairy chimney formations.’ The virtual challenge promises a travel escape in the time of pandemic restrictions. (Photo from Pacer App.)

ASIDE from bonding over K-drama marathons during this pandemic, our family bonded over virtual races, walk from the couch to better fitness.

It’s not the same as a real marathon: no “bang” of a starting gun, no crowd cheering, no fanfare, but you are clocking in the same effort and distance in kilometers (or miles). You are also somehow traveling, though virtually.

“Are you game to start walking again?” asked my hip 70-year-old aunt, who started a chat group. She’s been the mastermind behind this. “See you in Cappadocia,” she typed.

With people not being able to travel these days of Covid, virtual race challenges like these promise an escape.

We hooked our phones and fitness watches to Pacer App. Family members, from the boomers to Gen XYZ, joined in. We were headed to Turkey’s otherworldly landscape of blue skies filled with colorful hot air balloons and mysterious historical sites.

The app is pretty straightforward and a decent pedometer. It’s also free. But for the virtual adventures or challenges, we had to pay and register. All participants get a race ranking, and those who complete the challenge earn a special finisher’s badge, a certificate, and a medal for that extra marathon appeal. Finishers receive all these in the mail, a week after race completion.

Pacer tracks steps and activities for the day. It provides the summary of steps, distance, duration, pace, calories burned, and total steps. It works on an Android smart phone, too.

My cousin, a mom of three kids, typed in the chat group: “From fitness buddies to ‘feetness’ buddies… Let’s all have a good time ahead!”

Cappadocia’s starting point, Derinkuyu Underground City. Each checkpoint in the challenge will unlock additional views and facts about the area. (Photo from Pacer App.)

My family in Manila began at the starting point in Derinkuyu Underground City, Cappadocia’s massive subterranean city retreat. I joined in seven hours later, in the dead of winter, since I live in a different part of the globe. Even if I tackled my route separately, I could still virtually view exactly where they were on the race map, their progress (or lack thereof), and who was leading the race.

I’m a complete beginner at this, so it isn’t as intimidating as an actual marathon. I can race at my pace!

Virtual challenges can accommodate your desired fitness level, and gives a larger time frame to complete the race. Here’s the truth: I’m a complete beginner at this, so it isn’t as intimidating as an actual marathon. I can race at my pace!

The Pacer App recommended to complete the 90-km (58 miles) Cappadocia race in 28 days. This means I would need to complete around 4.28 km per day to finish before the challenge expired. That’s an average of 7,200 steps per day. I could complete the challenge with any distance-based exercises, like running, cycling, kayaking, hiking, the treadmill, or guided workout sessions.

I followed the course from the starting point by doing house chores, with the buzzing of the trusty Dyson: 3,000 steps done, although, it wasn’t enough to complete the steps of the day. I did a grocery run. Not enough still, since the store was below our flat. I threw a 30-minute yoga session into the mix; It barely completed the 7,200 steps required. I hardly made it to the first checkpoint, too. There were at least 11 checkpoints until the finish line. Day 1, I was claiming defeat.

On day 2, I decided to try again. I exchanged a car ride for a nice stroll to drop off my daughter in school. It clocked in 4,500 steps, and I did power yoga to complete the set. On day 3, I was more proactive. I walked for an hour and 30 minutes in town and surprisingly clocked over 10,000 steps, 9 km in distance. Checkpoint no.2, unlocked.

I was in a sleepy town, the birthplace of Ottoman history, with a big underground network of secret ancient tunnels

Virtually, I was in a sleepy town, the birthplace of the Tulip Period or Ottoman history, with a big underground network of secret ancient tunnels. I was proud of myself unlocking the next challenge, only to see my boomer aunt, whom I called “Tita Ninja” averaging 13,000 steps a day. How on earth did she achieve it? And here I was panting and puffing like an old dog, cursing my Netflix-binging bum at every step, while she has been gloriously ahead of me.

Since she is limited indoors, she subscribes to Walk at Home by Leslie Sansone, an American fitness instructor known for her low-impact walking exercises. Sansone has beginner’s sessions, like a 1-mile walk for 12 minutes, that’s about 2,000 steps on Pacer. Or you can double that with the 2-mile walk. It’s a healthy alternative to stay safe and fit indoors, especially during these COVID times. Tita Ninja, still ahead of me in steps, cheered me on.

I wouldn’t normally venture out on my own, on foot, to unfamiliar places outside the comforts of my home. But I was genuinely motivated to complete my steps sans YouTube, so I tried to literally explore my surroundings. It would be a pity not to, since I had the liberty to be outside.

I discovered lovely walking trails that were easy to follow, which passed through the town, up the hill, and through the pine forest. One trail took me to an excellent vineyard. One even brought me to a riverbank, another to an 18th-century farmhouse. And the time walking just seemed to pass by. I was becoming more aware of my breathing and what was around me.

Rose valley, one of the most popular valleys you’ll encounter with the virtual challenge. It says that the overall color and shade of the valley tend to change as the sun moves across the sky. (Photo from Pacer App.)

Virtually in Cappadocia, I was hurling myself to more steps, crossing one checkpoint after another, from “fairy chimneys” and open-air museums to inhabited valleys.

I’ve walked alone, but not entirely alone. I have my family cheering me on, somehow, even from a distance. I see them pass the checkpoints, too. It shows on the app’s board feed, which you can like with a heart button.

As days went by, I was clocking an average of 10,000 steps a day. I now manage to brisk-walk without catching my breath. It’s a slow and steady (fat) burn, but it is progress. I’ve begun to appreciate the “journaling” of every day’s steps through the app.

If you heard of National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone communities, they are the healthiest and longest-living people in the world. One of the secrets to Blue Zone centenarians’ healthy way of living was that they moved and walked naturally every day of their lives. For instance, an Amish community clocks in at least 15,000 steps a day on average. They have the lowest obesity rates and incidence of cardiovascular disease in the country.

The last stop of the race was a centuries-old citadel that sits atop the highest point in Cappadocia

The final stop of the journey, Uchisar Castle, a centuries-old citadel, provides a magnificent panorama of the surrounding area with Mount Erciyes in the distance. (Photo from Pacer App.)

The last stop of the race was a centuries-old citadel that sits atop the highest point in Cappadocia and provides a magnificent panorama view. I paced myself towards the virtual finish line. It was a breeze. I crossed it unknowingly while I was having a pleasant walk to pick up my daughter from school. I completed the challenge in 10 days, just being active and consciously walking.  It felt good, to say the least. I took a screenshot of my victory and shared it witj the group.

My Tita Ninja, however, had been collecting medals from Asia to Europe and other parts of the globe. She’s done more than 50 virtual challenges with impressive locations like Mount Fuji, Everest Camp, Laugavegur Trail, The Grand Canyon, The Inca Trail, Rio de Janeiro, and even Mount Kilimanjaro, with shiny medals to boot—all mailed to her doorstep.  She is my inspiration, as I continue to walk every day.

I continue to build my endurance and make a solid decision to get healthy, as I put one foot after the other. It’s better than nothing, I tell myself. If my 70-year-old aunt can do it, I can do it, too.

Cappadocia’s 90km finisher medal, snail-mailed a week after one has completed Pacer’s virtual adventure challenge.

My Pacer App has been sending me Adventure Lifetime Stats, since I started using it. I’ve covered 130 km in the world of virtual adventures. That travelled distance is enough to finish 3.1 full marathons in reality. I’ve been averaging 11,463 steps a day, still short of the Blue Zone centenarians, but no matter how small, and how virtual, it is still a win in my book.

About author


Stefanie C. Rostoll is a former magazine editor, lifestyle newspaper writer, and co-author of a series of style books; turned entrepreneur. She lives with her husband and daughter, savoring life in the sunny side of Spain.

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