Chase the Throne
Words by Emma Zimmerman
Photos by Brooks Kelly and David Hashim
Running across the Williamsburg Bridge before sunset, everything began to feel worth it. Erin Jaskot had spent the past month - those cold, dark and days of January - competing in Chase the Throne, a four-week elimination tournament hosted by Trials of Miles.
The Williamsburg Bridge was the last challenge. To win the throne, Jaskot would have to race the length of the bridge, from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back, faster than the other three finalists by the end of the week. She could attempt the feat as many times as she wanted.
That afternoon marked Jaskot’s second attempt at the Williamsburg Bridge segment. On her first try, two days earlier, the unsalted bridge had been covered in ice and was too slick to yield a fast time. Now the ice had cleared, and Jaskot took off at a brisk pace. Until, that is, she reached the Brooklyn side and was met by a section of unplowed snow – one foot deep and 75m long. Runners’ autopilot took over: Jaskot barreled across the snow, dodging walkers who carefully maneuvered beside her. They gasped. Some swore. Who was this young woman, emerging from behind them so suddenly? Sprinting over slick snow? Erin began to laugh; it was the perfect, chaotic ending to her Chase the Throne experience. When she turned around to sprint back to Manhattan, her laughter was interrupted by her own gasp. She looked at the New York City skyline, frozen in time – the glistening sun and the skyscrapers reflecting onto blue water. For Jaskot, a fourth-generation Brooklynite and recent Delaware transplant, this view meant everything. She was home.
“That skyline gave me this extra boost of energy and courage,” she reflects. “It was a reminder that I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing this for my family and people before me. Sure, it’s not the Olympics, but it’s important to me. I just felt something in my heart. It’s hard to describe.”
This year, Chase the Throne took place in four cities across the U.S: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco. Each week, competitors were placed randomly in March Madness-style brackets in their cities. To advance to the next round, they would have to post a faster time than their opponent on that week’s segment. For each runner who made it to the final round, Chase the Throne required four weeks, four segments, and one week to complete each segment. That added up to four virtual races in total.
For everyone, but Jaskot. She ran eight races. She had competed in the NYC tournament in 2021, but this year, she opted to compete in both New York and Philadelphia because she wanted to see “what [her] body was capable of.” So, Jaskot spent January on the road. With her boyfriend at the wheel, she would travel from their home in Wilmington, Delaware to Philadelphia and New York, and back again. She snuck in segments after work calls, before family get-togethers, and between track events while coaching high schoolers. It was a month of testing her limits, of mapping out logistics and ignoring tired legs. But on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, with the New York City skyline reflecting onto the East River, none of that mattered.
Jaskot won the New York City tournament and took third place in Philadelphia. Most importantly, the energy and dedication she gave to Chase the Throne demonstrates the spirit of the tournament, perhaps more than anything.
Trials of Miles was founded in 2020 by Dave Alfano and Cooper Knowlton. It was a pandemic project, a series of virtual running challenges – a chance for runners in the NYC area to add up the many miles they had logged while escaping their apartments or tempering Zoom fatigue. It was an opportunity to compete again. When the first wave of the pandemic receded in NYC, Knowlton and Alfano expanded Trials of Miles, hosting in-person track meets for sub-elite runners. In February 2021, they expanded again, this time targeting professional athletes. Their “Qualifier” meets attracted some of the best track and field athletes in the country and yielded multiple Olympic Trials qualifying performances.
Trials of Miles introduced Chase the Throne amidst the COVID spike of Winter 2021, when athletes grew nervous about in-person racing again. They chose routes in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Austin, and promoted the competition via social media. In 2022, they brought it back, choosing Philadelphia rather than Austin as the fourth city.
“There's always a little bit of an apprehension about whether or not people will be excited by something that is virtual, now that in-person racing is back,” says Knowlton. “We've talked a lot about how [Chase the Throne] isn’t an alternative to in-person racing. It's an addition. Can you do this as a workout during the week, and then still go race a 10k on Sunday?”
Alfano confirms the continued value of the virtual event: “You take a city like New York in January. It’s really cold. There are not a ton of options for racing on the road. This just breaks up the monotony of running,” he says. “It gamifies winter training.” Knowlton and Alfano believe Chase the Throne comes at an ideal time for virtual competition. Many runners have competed in fall races and taken some time off during the holidays. For these athletes, Chase the Throne is a perfect opportunity to kick-start spring training.
In January 2022, on the final week of competition, four athletes remained in each bracket. By Sunday, only one woman and one man would take each city’s throne.
In the Boston tournament, Lianne Farber took the women’s throne and Joshua Coakley took the men’s throne. They had times of 5:24 and 4:49, respectively, on the 1.06-mile Loop of the Boston Common.
In the Philadelphia tournament, Clarisa Whitting took the women’s throne and Chris Mateer took the men’s throne with times of 8:33 and 7:42, respectively, on the 1.63-mile FDR Loop, run counterclockwise.
In the New York City tournament, Erin Jaskot took the women’s throne and Hashem Zikry took the men’s throne. They ran 14:17 and 12:23, respectively, on the 2.4-mile Williamsburg Bridge out-and-back.
In the San Francisco tournament, Teresa McWalters took the women’s throne. Taylor Gilland earned the men’s throne. They clocked times of 16:32 and 14:35, respectively, on the 3-mile Sloat to Cliff House route, along the Great Highway.
Most competitive runners are drawn to start lines. It’s where they establish camaraderie with their competitors before falling in sync with them when the gun goes off. The athletes who competed in Chase the Throne were drawn to something different. They didn’t have any ritualistic start line, nor competitors beside them, or even a gun. Something else empowered them to persevere through a month of head-to-head competition. To push through arbitrary race distances without a previous PR to beat.
To some, the unique brand of strategy and competition made Chase the Throne appealing. “It’s less stress than [formal races],” explains Jason Karbelk, who raced in the San Francisco bracket. “Because you’re against one person, always thinking about strategy and how to run faster than your opponent.”
And being online meant people followed each other in real time. “It actually helped some of us who are not in the same running clubs connect,” says Chris Mateer, who won the Philadelphia Bracket. “Mostly via Strava stalking.”
Teresa McWalters, who won the San Francisco bracket, expresses a similar sentiment: “Because there were only a select number of participants, it felt a lot more niche than a typical road race… more personal.” McWalters became friends with a few of her competitors, whom she continues to meet up with for workouts.
Perhaps there is something to be said for the flexibility and creativity inherent to this event, elements that are necessary throughout training, but too often lost in competition. Typically, there is a strictness to race day: the course is marked, the streets are cleared, and the gun goes off at 9am. Such neat formalities seldom resemble amateur runners’ everyday lives and training practices. After all, the athletes competing in Chase the Throne do not run professionally. They juggle jobs, families – all the various errands and responsibilities of being amateur. And they run. They run before catching the subway, after the kids are in bed, between clients, with headlamps on, and sometimes in snowstorms. Chase the Throne is a celebration of the messy-yet-glorious grind – familiar to most sub-elite runners.
Chase the Throne isn’t just a chance to practice flexibility and creativity though. It’s a competition. The participants want to test their limits. They want to win. For Jaskot, the month spent driving back and forth on the New Jersey Turnpike, the sore hamstrings and near face-plants on ice-covered bridges had to be worth more than just an interesting experience. When Jaskot’s father realized how much time she would need to spend driving to attempt both cities, he jokingly offered to pay her the prize money she was trying to win.
"Dad,” Jaskot replied, laughing, “You can't buy street cred.”