Since putting on its first race in 2014, Orca Running has grown to organize 25 road and trail races per year in Washington State. But coronavirus decimated this thriving business — known for its green practices and dedication to partnering with nonprofits — in mere weeks. Owner Porter Bratten had to think fast to keep paying his employees and his own mortgage as well as to motivate the thousands of runners who participate in Orca Running events. So he dreamed up the Social Distance Run.

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“It came out of an ‘oh shit’ moment where everybody stopped signing up for all the races until there was no money coming in at all,” Bratten told Inhabitat. “Furthermore, everybody was very sad about all the races getting canceled and everything else going on.” He landed on the idea of a training program culminating in a virtual race, with a few fun twists to make it more interesting than your average virtual race. “I knew that I did not want to come across as trying to take advantage of the situation, but being upfront that this is a thing that you can participate in to keep you healthy and you can also keep the business going.”

Billed as an eight-week running and fitness challenge, participants sign up to train for one of six distances, ranging from 5K to 50K. They can communicate through a lively Facebook group and enter their training runs on Strava. Bratten and his crew email training plans to people based on their chosen distance, sponsor weekly challenges with raffle prizes and keep up a steady stream of “Dad jokes.” As it says on the race registration page, “Like a pack of introverted hyenas, we keep our distance but still look out for one another.” Orca Running offers different packages, ranging from a $6 “Hermit in the Wild” membership that includes a training plan, access to the Facebook group and Strava run club and emailed jokes, to the $100 Benefactor level, which comes with a T-shirt, medal, race bib, discount for a future Orca Running race and a box of Pop-Tarts.

two people running beside waterfront with boats

Emotional support for runners in the Social Distance Run

While people post their run times and cheer each other on, runners of all ages and abilities also find emotional support through the Social Distance Run Facebook group.

Facebook group members talk about everything from what shoes to buy to which trails are open during the pandemic as well as their emotional struggles, physical injuries and their frustrations with people who fail to social distance when sharing trails. People frequently mention their gratitude for the group.

“A lot of people are cooped up with their family, their spouse,” Bratten said. “This is an opportunity to have some alone time. Everybody feels better after they run, even if it’s a crappy run. And they can share about it, if their family doesn’t care, they can share it on the Facebook group and can celebrate the little things.”

person standing in front of inflated orca

Orca Running’s fundraising efforts

Fundraising has always been a part of Orca Running’s mission. “We’re hoping to donate at least $10,000 to GlobalGiving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund,” Bratten said, through a combination of Orca Running’s donation plus additional runner donations through the company website.

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Each of Orca Running’s races has at least one nonprofit partner. Its trail races, held under Orca’s Evergreen Trail Runs brand, all benefit the Washington Trails Association. The road races each have different partners, including Habitat for Humanity, Canine Companions for Independence and the Mt. Si Food Bank. Two races are whale-themed. The San Juan Half benefits the local Whale Museum, and the Orca Half supports the Whale Trail, a West Seattle-based nonprofit that posts interpretive signage about whales along the west coast from Canada to Mexico.

Bratten, who lives in coastal Anacortes, Washington, has long felt an affinity for orcas. As a child, he remembers seeing orcas from his aunt and uncle’s sailboat. His elementary school had an orca mascot. When he was naming his race organization, orcas seemed like a good fit. “Even though they’re an international animal, they live all around the world, they feel like they’re a symbol of the Pacific Northwest because some of them live here year-round. It seemed like something that I have a lot of connection with, and that the region has a connection with, and it’s a good tie-in with the environment.”

person running on a hiking trail in a forest

Eco-friendly racing practices and challenges

Bratten and his crew are always working on ways to make Orca Running’s races more sustainable. “The trail races are generally a lot less waste per runner because so many more things get reused. There’s no shirt or medal that’s getting shipped from China,” he said.

Trail racers can’t go as fast because of the hazards of roots, rocks, mud and lots of uphill and downhill, so they tend to focus less on speed. But road racers are often after a personal best time or are using a race to qualify for a more prestigious marathon. Road racers expect to keep running through an aid station, where volunteers typically hand them disposable cups of water. Stopping to fool around with refilling a water pouch consumes precious seconds. Orca Running has started using refillable hydropouches for some of its races, which work pretty well, Bratten said. But he’s still hoping the technology improves so that water stops take less time.

Orca Running is also looking at more sustainable shirt production. “A tech shirt is made from oil, and a cotton shirt can use a lot of water.” He hopes to switch to recycled tech shirts next year.

Trail runners love trees, so Evergreen Trail Runs sponsored a volunteer day to plant trees with King County Parks, in accordance with the county’s goal to plant a million trees by the end of this year. Bratten hopes to institute a sapling program, where runners can click a box at registration to take home a sapling to plant after the race.

With races on hold, Orca can only dream of and plan for future greener practices. In the meantime, Bratten encourages people to get outside — at a safe social distance — and get some exercise. “Everybody should go out and go for a run. You’ll feel better.”

+ Orca Running

Images via Orca Running