March 3, 2010

A Virtual Race to Fitness

The Trek to Talloires program has the Tufts community getting in shape—and having fun

By Marjorie Howard

I’m gaining on Professor X, I swear I am. Today I’ll use the treadmill for an hour, even though I’ve already shoveled snow for 30 minutes. And in the meantime, I see that the professor hasn’t posted her time in several days. Pretty soon I’ll pass her on the road to Talloires.

OK, so we’re not really racing to Talloires, the Tufts campus in southern France, and the person I refer to as Professor X has no idea I’m trying to beat her there. This is a virtual race, in which 1,416 members of the Tufts community are logging the time they spend walking, swimming, running, biking, dancing—you name it—in an online fitness contest called Trek to Talloires.

Braving the winds on a Trek to Talloires walk: Laura Duncan, left, Gary Caldwell, Elise Renoni and Gabriella Goldstein. Photo: Alonso Nichols

In January, students, faculty, staff, alumni and their friends and family were invited to sign up for the online challenge, which encourages people to be active and healthy. The goal: finish a virtual route from Medford to Talloires and back by April 12, for a total of 180 hours of activity. (You can also choose lesser goals of 90 and 45 hours of activity.) Participants post the time they spent on activities on their private page on the Trek website, and their status—where they rank in terms of the hours they’ve spent compared to everyone else—is listed on another page that can be viewed by all participants.

George Ellmore (number 18 in the tally as of last week), an associate professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says that beyond getting healthy, one upside of the trek is “people are talking to each other more. People will say, ‘I saw your name on the Trek,’ or ‘I saw you won a baseball hat.’ Some are going nuts trying to be in the top 50, and some are simply noticing more who is around us.”

While much of the activity is solo, trekkers can also meet on the Medford/Somerville campus for a walk on Tuesdays and Fridays at noon at 108 Packard Ave. One of the regulars is Dawn Terkla (number 5), associate provost for institutional research and evaluation. She was walking an hour everyday anyway, but now has picked up the pace to make sure she gets in three hours a day. “The timing was perfect,” she says. “Given the nature of what I do, keeping logs and tracking things, I love the fact it has this component.”

Terkla, who has always been active, is already seeing the results of this extra activity. On a recent cross-country ski trip, she realized her stamina had increased notably. Just as important, she says, “it’s been so much fun. I’m trying to keep up with Gary [Caldwell, the Tufts rowing coach] right now. We both think the gauntlet was thrown down, but we’re not sure who threw it down. I’m just trying to keep him in my view.”

A Little Friendly Competition

The challenge is the brainchild of Caldwell (number 4). “We’ve struck a nerve with a lot of people,” he says of the Trek. Caldwell picked up his own exercise pace last summer in a similar contest, in which he found he was motivated by competition with a former college coach who had logged more hours of exercise.

“I thought, son of a gun, I’m not going to let this old man beat me,” he says. “I figured out how much time I had to do to catch up and started exercising twice a day. Not only did I catch the guy, but I finished ahead of him.”

Caldwell began thinking about holding a similar contest at Tufts. He and his wife, Janet Silva (number 151), a trainer in the athletics department, donate money to the Tufts Marathon Challenge every year, but they wanted to do something for those people who will never run a marathon.

Gabriella Goldstein (number 78), director of the Tufts European Center, which oversees the Talloires campus, is thrilled the French campus is being used as the virtual destination for the Trek. “I thought it would be wonderful to heighten everybody’s awareness of this magical place,” she says.

The endeavor also has the support of President Lawrence S. Bacow (number 87) and Human Resource’s Health@Tufts program. Throughout the program, there are drawings for prizes. One grand prize, for those who have logged at least 180 hours of activity, nets the winner a stay at the Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport, R.I.; the other grand prize, for those with 90 hours of activity, is two sets of outerwear from Boathouse Sports. Caldwell credits Brian Dawe (number 96), the varsity women’s rowing coach, who had 25 years experience as a software engineer and website developer, for making the Trek website interesting and fun to use.

It’s not too late to sign up, either, Caldwell points out. Shorter segments of the trek include walks to the Medford Boathouse, to the Boston campus and back and a bike ride out to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton.

Caldwell sees a change in the mindset of many people. Instead of driving to Johnnie’s Foodmaster in Medford, for example, to pick up something to eat, “they’ll walk over and back and take credit for it.”

So far, he is delighted with the results. “We don’t pretend to be anything other than maybe the kick in the pants that some people needed to hold themselves accountable on a daily basis,” he says. “A lot of people were already doing things, and now they’re logging it in. And there are people who are doing more than they would have.”

OK, if I get up just a little earlier to use the treadmill and later walk to Starbucks instead of driving, I’ll finish up Stage 3 and pass Professor X. Time to get moving.

Marjorie Howard (number 368) can be reached at

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