When James Sardea of Urban Fitness put the call out for the gym’s Go The Distance Challenge, more than 400 participants signed up, raising more than $10,000 to buy personal protective equipment for the island’s health care workers currently on the frontlines facing COVID-19.

With participants from Guam, Saipan, Korea, Florida and California, the hype was high as they tackled a race that encompasses 430 miles in one month – 30 miles of swimming, 300 miles of biking and 100 miles of pounding the roadways – all for a great cause.

The island is normally a mecca for adventure sports and all kinds of racing, but COVID-19 put a halt to that in mid-March with its first confirmed case. The restrictions shut down a number of mainstays from the island’s Saturday 5Ks, monthly triathlons, annual marathons and cycling series, creating a huge gap for athletes.

Down, but not out, island fitness guru Sardea unveiled his challenge to fellow exercise enthusiasts, pushing a herculean feat that drew in all types of athletes from novices to the more experienced.

“We started this outdoor challenge because there’s no racing, or social gathering competitions that people just got out of shape,” Sardea said. "There wasn’t anything to look forward to train for. Also quarantine at home kept people away from natural Vitamin D from the sun.”

Embracing the fact that a healthy immune system and lots of Vitamin D are needed to combat the virus, Sardea put the challenge out with two purposes – getting people healthy and competitive again and to raise money for PPEs to aid the health care workers on the frontline.

The fundraiser netted more than $10,000, Sardea said. 

“This will go to buying PPE for our COVID 19 frontliners,” he said. He said he's hoping the corporate sponsorship will be enough to cover medals, trophies, towels and T-shirts for all the participants.

While this is a feel-good challenge, the athletes are competitive and there are a slew of prizes. For the swim, there are gift prizes, along with Tour of Guam and Trench Challenge trophies for the bike and run. Inclusive of prizes and medals, Michelob Ultra Athletes are also recognized when they complete all 430 miles.

Last two weeks

“This is the first time a challenge like this has been done on Guam,” he said. “We tried to accommodate everyone in every possible way to enjoy this event. We can’t wait to have the next challenge in October. Virtual – indoor vs. outdoor will be the highlights of the next event.”

It’s been two weeks since the challenge started, and Sardea said the leaderboards have been pretty exciting. 

“What surprised me was how people started and attacked their challenge. Some finished in less than a week,” he said.

While many had no problems with the bike and run, the swim posed new challenges for the athletes. 

 “The Ultra Athlete challenge was a different beast though. Swim is the hardest for most that the swimming community grew quick,” he said. “My point was, we are on an island surrounded by ocean. It was time to get people to enjoy Guam waters.”

The leaderboard

The leaderboard changes every week with athletes logging in their respective mileage. Athletes are tracked via Strava, but Sardea doesn’t want to discourage anyone from coming out.

“Anything can be used that you can download to your phone. GPRS watches are also recommended,” he said. “At the end of the week I have to tally the top leaders of each category and post it to get others motivated.”

Sardea said some people might be surprised at who tops the weekly challenges. The names aren’t the usual names seen in sports headlines with some just hitting their stride during quarantine.

The virtual competition allowed all types of athletes to embrace the competition despite the mileage.

The more experienced athletes are on their respective training regimens, Sardea said, adding most of the GTD participants are beginners and novice athletes.

“This was a big plus with this challenge. It brought out the athlete within them that we all can’t wait for competitions to start again when we can get back to normal,” he said.

In week 1, Lauren Mechelle (59.93 miles) and Terry Miller (43.29) held the top spot in the running competition. Week 2 saw Lauren Mechelle hold her spot, but Raymund Tolentino of Saipan grabbed the male lead with 62.14 miles.

“The athletes from Saipan have definitely started catching up … maybe they have more time to put miles because of quarantine” Sardea said, joking.

In the first week, Belen Sidell of Guam held the top biking and swim spot for females, but relinquished her bike lead in the second race to Vernice Estepa of Saipan. Saipan’s Mark Isip has held the top position in the male category for bike for the past two weeks. In the male swim category, David Burns held the leaderboard with four hours and 46 minutes, but Saipan’s Ronald Villafria made up lost ground in the second week, closing out July 12 with 7 hours and 21 minutes.

What’s next?

“We win when we live longer from any form of exercise,” Sardea said, adding there’s no plans to slow down. “We win against COVID if we are fit.”

Armed with that mentality, Sardea said opened the door to more people joining his next challenge.

“The next challenge will be same but will have the next level up in becoming an endurance athlete,” said Sardea, who has been an endurance athlete since 2012.

Encouraging all athletes to come out, he urges those who are interested “to continue like there’s always a challenge in front of them. Then in October, my coaching skills will get them to push harder if they want to.”

And, as a fitness guru, how is Sardea faring in his own challenge?

“Because I teach two to three fitness and indoor cycling classes everyday in my gym, I’m behind finishing the Ultra Athlete. Terrible, that!,” he said. “My indoor miles are not counted! But I know I can finish by staying with my scheduled routine.”