Thursday, April 29, 2004

Online buddies finally will meet - and then hit the road

Flying Pig Marathon

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Luis Barnes has planned an entire weekend of Flying Pig activities for more than 45 running friends he has "known" for more than a year.

They'll prepare, eat, run and party post-race together. He's even putting up six runners/spectators in his house this weekend.

SPECIAL SECTION Flying Pig Marathon section
And he's never met any of them. Well, not in person.

You've heard of online chatting, shopping and dating. Now welcome to online running.

Barnes is part of a group of runners who met in the Runner's World Web site's forums, basically chat rooms for runners to seek advice and support in their training. There are forums for all different levels and subjects of running, including shoes, nutrition, injuries and marathons. Participants talk about running, and they talk about life, said 29-year-old forum user Christina Pritchett of Independence, Ky.

"It's a sense of community," Pritchett said. "I've learned a lot just browsing through people's questions. You can find just about any discussion about any marathon. There's about anything you want to know about running."

The Flying Pig weekend will be what the runners call a "forum encounter," in which the runners who have been sharing their experiences online actually meet, many for the first time, to race together. Runners from across the country will gather. Some will compete in the 10K and some in the relays and full marathon.

There are at least three "FEs" happening at the Pig, said Barnes, and he's heading up the Beginners' group - showing them around the city and course and hosting a celebration after the events.

That means inviting a bunch of strangers to his house in Northern Kentucky - something he's comfortable with. But his wife has been "going crazy," redoing the floors and repainting the house.

Karen Maas, 45, of Newberg, Ore., joined the forums in August 1997 when she began running, something nobody in her family had any interest in.

"I've been hanging around it ever since," Maas said. "It made the huge, big world even smaller. ... I live out in the country, so the races are a social event for me."

Maas said she has met probably 30 of her forum friends in person, one at almost every race, including an "FE" in Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon. But this will be the biggest group most of the runners have gathered with so far.

Maas, who lived in Ohio until she was 9, ran the first Flying Pig and wanted to come back this year. When she wasn't sure if she could afford the airfare, a forum friend donated his frequent-flyer miles. She will compete in the full marathon, her 18th, with a handful of other forum users.

"We'll all start together," Maas said. "But everyone will do their own race, and then we'll meet at the end."

Barnes, 38, who also got into the forums because he didn't know other runners, had planned to race on a two-person relay but pulled a muscle this week and will instead run the 10K. Still, he said six other forum relays are expected to compete together.

Pritchett decided not to run this weekend but instead is helping head a group of about 17 forum runners, many of whom she knows only by their screen names.

"It's very odd. I'm not one to get involved with chat rooms," Pritchett said. "But it's fun. I feel like I know these people."

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