When 18-year-old USC student athlete Ben Tacey lines up at Ipswich this Saturday for the 8km race in the Queensland Athletics Cross Country Championships, he’ll be able to see and hear the competitors he hopes to beat.
That wasn’t the case in his last 5km race, which he ran around the USC Athletics Track with only a training partner for company and an app to upload his result to the UniSport Virtual Distance Running Championships website.
He ended up winning the men’s division against hundreds of university students timing their own speeds on that day across Australia and New Zealand, in an online event introduced in the wake of on-the-ground cancellations due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“The reason I entered the 5km UniSport virtual race was to set a benchmark to see where my fitness was at and how my training was coming along with my new coach Tony Doherty,” said Ben, who is in his first year of a Bachelor of Sport Studies at USC Sunshine Coast.
“It was my first ever virtual event and it felt just like any other afternoon session with my coach and my training partner Caleb Dalton.
“Caleb ran 3km with me sitting in behind and we went in with a plan of ticking off 72-second laps for as long as we could.
“I recorded the race on my watch, uploaded my finishing time (15 minutes 1 second) and waited to hear back.
“When I heard that I had won, I was grateful and appreciative of the opportunity I'd been given to compete for USC, a university that has given me a lot.
“This Saturday will be my first official conventional race in about six months and I’m very eager to be back out there, in the Under 20s, racing 8km. Then I'll be back in track season, and hopeful for opportunities to improve my personal best times.”
The UniSport website listed two rules for the virtual event “to keep the playing field level for all participants”. One related to the pitch of the route, so people couldn’t run down a hill, and the other restricted the length of the route, so they couldn’t run the whole distance in a straight line. Results relied on an honesty system.
The trend has appeared across the world this year, with many major running events becoming virtual races.
Ben, who graduated in 2018 from Immanuel Lutheran College, is a member of USC’s High Performance Student Athlete program, which he said offered a tremendous amount of support from its “friendly vibe” to top-level facilities and flexibility in studying.
He has enjoyed the wide range of subjects in his USC degree and plans to major in Marketing.
“Ultimately, the reason I’m taking on higher education is for my own personal knowledge,” he said. “Getting a degree for work purposes is very much a secondary reason. As long as I’m doing what I love and having a positive impact, it’s a win for me.”