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In-person versus virtual races

Social distancing no match for rising world of virtual running

Like everything, pros, cons to running alone or with others
By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Apr 01, 2020
Courtesy of: Holly Vanorse Spicer Race bibs, medals and other swag virtual running offers similar to in-person races.

Thanks to the wonders of technology in the modern age, the landscape of running looks considerably different than it did only a decade ago.

Those changes may now, in light of the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, offer runners the opportunity to stay on their competitive edge for future racing events.

Where runners once had to go to extensive planning, dealing with logistics between jobs, travel, and added financial impacts, to attend races that were not local to them, the world of virtual racing has removed many of the hurdles athletes faced.

It also has helped grow the sport by giving running events and the opportunity to increase participant numbers all over the world.

With the arrival of virtual racing on the running, and cycling scenes, it has not only become easier for organizers to gain more entries on their dockets, but it gives participants the chance to do a race they may not have otherwise been able to attend.

There also is the affordability aspect.

Virtual races, like their physical counterparts, have entry fees. However, there is not the cost of booking a hotel room, paying for gas, or air fare. There also is less hassle behind virtual running. No need to worry about getting there early enough to find parking, and there is no need for taking time off from work to tackle those race miles.

Forget that alarm clock too, because there is no such thing as an early race start time in the virtual world, unless that is what the runner wants.

History lesson

Virtual races happen on the participants' time, in the place of their choosing. Even if that means from their living room, on a treadmill.

The history behind virtual racing is not clear. No specific date, or even race assigned to when it all began, but, it is safe to state they have been around for the better part of a decade, and are on the rise.

Founder of Run Sign Up, Bob Bickel, said the first popular virtual run he saw was that of running coach, Jeff Galloway, about five years ago. Galloway is popular for his run-walk-run training method.

Gaining appeal to already established races, and race series, physical races are adding virtual running options to entice more runners to stretch their legs, and get moving.

Mark Petrillo credits the virtual aspect to giving more people the opportunity to partake in a race when, for one reason or another, they may not be able to participate in the physical race. Petrillo is the founder of Virtual Strides, which organizes virtual runs.

Walt Disney’s race series, runDisney, has grown exponentially over the years, with runners turning out in droves donning costume gear as their favorite character to various Walt Disney locations around the world. Seeing the opportunity to expand on that, in 2016, Walt Disney added the virtual aspect of their racing series, whose themes change each year.

In 2018, runDisney’s virtual series themed for the movie "The Incredibles," nearly 18,000 runners participated.

Another race that saw opportunity knock was the Great Pumpkin Run, now Gourdy’s Pumpkin Run. In 2012, the race began as the traditional physical race. In 2016, organizers introduced the virtual option, and in just three years, the Pumpkin Run grew from 300 runners virtually that first year to 18,500 in 2019.

Virtual runs

Organizations like Virtual Pace Series, Virtual Strides, and More Miles Races hold virtual races to benefit charities and causes, raising tens of thousand of dollars from events at times.

Currently, there are some, such as Virtual Run Events, which comes together to raise money to help with coronavirus.

COVID-19 also has played a key role in the sharp uptick of physical races making the move to virtual.

Some races, such as the fabled and historic Boston Marathon, as well as the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon in Tennessee, have rescheduled to what organizers hope to be safer times in late summer, or fall.

Others, such as the Yakima River Canyon Marathon in Washington and the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in Virginia have opted to cancel.

Garmin’s Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz, in Kansas, a Boston Marathon-qualifying race, has shifted from a physical run, to a virtual marathon in an effort to help runners stay on track, and keep active.

Garden Spot Half-Marathon in Pennsylvania has followed suit, shifting to virtual.

Locally on run

The "Tax Day" 5K, held in Thomaston by One Community Many Voices, has shifted gears away from the physical to virtual.

With the rise in virtual running around the world, there still are quite a few runners who look at virtual running as an absolute last resort.

Darren Winchenbach of Saco and a familiar face to local runners said he may now have to consider doing a virtual run.

“I’ve never really had any interest in doing it, and really still don’t, but have had thoughts of it since all these races that I am not able to do over the next couple of months aren’t happening because of COVID-19,” he said.

It is a situation in which a lot of racers find themselves.

Winchenbach said when the time comes, he might do one. His hesitation comes from the difference of the physical aspect of the actual event course versus the virtual, which can be done on a treadmill, outside on the roads or trails or on outdoor or indoor tracks.

Plus, Winchenbach and others miss the social interaction.

“It’s not the same as actually doing the real race, with real people, in a real location,” he said.

And crossing the real course terrain, which is different from race to race and venue to venue.

The race day environment is something that virtual runners do not get to experience.

As all runners understand, all 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon courses are, of course, not created equal. Some are quite a bit more challenging then others, which, ultimately, affects places and, more importantly, times.

Comparing traditional, in-person running, to virtual running, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia runner Melanie Aguiar shared Winchenbach’s sentiments.

“I thrive on running with others, if left to my own devices, I tend to shrug it off,” she said.

Aguiar, who ran in the CoHo 14K Run, held in Vancouver, said the atmosphere of a race day, everyone cheering on runners, cannot be beat. Adding that there is a euphoric feeling crossing the actual finish line of something that you’ve been training for.

The human element and interaction is missing in virtual runs.

However, a perk to virtual running is that a runner does not have to worry about the weather. If the weather is not ideal, the runner can just chose a different day to run, as long as it falls within the time frame of the race for which they have registered.

The 2019 CoHo race, which takes runners from Kitsilano Beach to Ambleside Beach in Vancouver, B.C., left runners drenched from the pouring rain the day of the race.

Despite what she called great training during the summer before the CoHo run, Aguilar said the rain ruined the tone for the day.

Over these next several weeks, more races may postpone, or cancel, given the uncertain times. Others may shift to being completely virtual. Due to social distancing guidelines, running groups for race training have even had to be called off.

Apps like MapMyRun, and Strava are ways those groups, and running friends, are staying connected while running solo.

Running a virtual race not only keeps a runner in strong physical condition for when they are able to participate an in-person race again, but they also prove to be a way for runners to still compete "together" from wherever they may be social distancing.

Visit Run Sign Up, which also hosts the now virtual "Tax Day" 5K. Or visit Virtual Strides, Virtual Pace Series or More Miles Races for more information, and to sign-up for a race.

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