The Virtues of Virtual Races
Updated: May 20
Like many others, I have bemoaned technology’s takeover of our sport. The gadgets, the insistence on measuring everything that can be measured - distance, pace, heart rate, power, cadence, vert, etc.), unnecessary changes to my favorite footwear, etc. The list goes on and on, but recently I’ve been inspired by technology’s ability to do what it is intended to do - innovate, improve, and inspire.
Purpose & Certainty
With all of the uncertainty in the world right now, it is nice to have something that provides meaning, clarity, purpose and a sense of certainty. Short and long term goals, routines, daily priorities and objectives create order of an otherwise chaotic world. Races have long served as benchmarks to work towards in training or as social and tangible rewards that inspire us to eat better, sleep better, and become better versions of ourselves.
Connection and Community
While running and technology have always had the ability to inspire us, now more than ever, virtual races and challenges connect us in ways that were previously unimaginable. Our lives have been turned upside-down. We miss the group runs and adventures, the workouts that frighten and inspire us. We miss post-long run coffee or brunch with those with whom we have forged strong bonds. We miss the communal atmosphere and group validation that racing provides.
Although races across the globe have been cancelled or postponed, virtual races make it possible to use the training, motivation, fitness and enthusiasm developed going into a goal race to test ourselves while simultaneously pushing, encouraging and inspiring one another.
Similarities and Differences
As virtual races become the new normal, it’s important to note the differences between traditional races done in person and some of the virtual run models to determine which of the many virtual options might be a good fit for you.
Process vs. Outcome
Some virtual races focus less on a single date or distance and more on the day to day grind and the cumulative mileage that one covers over a set period of time. For example, the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee encourages runners to put in the time regularly to eventually cover the total distance required to cross the state of Tennessee: 1000K. While the task is certainly no walk in the park, the four month window from May 1 to August 31 might be just the motivation that a runner needs to stay consistent in training and put in the mileage day after day, week after week, and month after month to achieve the goal of 1000K
Similarly, there are other races, like the Race Across the USA, that encourage runners to push even more and over a longer period of time, but the objective is still very much the same - put in the world on a regular basis.
A similar event, The Great Canadian Crossing, challenges runners to cover a Canadian province or territory either on foot or by bike with the option to cover the entire distance across the country.
Not all process based virtual races require that you cross a state or country, however. For example, some race organizations like Aravaipa Running and 5 Peaks Adventures offer individual races that can be done as stand-alone events or as a series with a total accumulated distance over the 3-5 races.
Go the Distance
Some virtual runs might be a bit more like a traditional race in that you wear a bib number, collect swag, and perhaps a medal or belt buckle for covering a standard distance. But in addition to some of these similarities to traditional races, there are a few virtues of virtual races that set them apart from their in-person counterparts:
Flexible date: Many virtual races offer a range of dates rather than a specific date and start time which allows people with inflexible schedules (including those working in essential services) to complete the distance or duration when it works with their schedule. And even if you have a flexible schedule, another perk of a flexible date or date range is that sometimes you simply don’t feel up to the task on "race day" or life happens and you get detoured with something beyond our control. Say, for example, a work project demanded much more time and energy than expected or a child was sick and up all night and you simply don’t have the energy to push on a given day "race day". No problem. Hit refresh and reschedule the run for a later date - sometimes a week or two later.
Recently, Peak Run Performance athlete, Tom, had his goal race cancelled. As an alternative way to test himself he signed up for the Aravaipa Strong Virtual Race with the goal of running a marathon. He went on the day we had selected and planned to run a marathon, but after a demanding week of work and all of the recent life changes due to COVID 19, he simply wasn’t feeling good and had to cut it short a little over half way through. He took the necessary time to recover and then selected another date within the allotted window and completed the marathon distance. Success!
Flexible cut-offs: Another perk of virtual races is that they aren’t designed to have race organizers, volunteers, and land managers on site to ensure your safety. For better or worse, these limited resources as well as time limitations for land use permits are often what dictate time cut-offs at aid stations and on the race course. By eliminating these essential race services, self-supported runners have more time to complete a given distance.
Sherri Donohue (featured in the documentary above) and I have been working together for a number of years with the goal of completing a 100 mile race and earning a 100 mile buckle. She has been close in the past, and we had plans of her racing a flat, fast 100 miler with a generous cut off later this year. Unfortunately, as has been the case with most races, her goal race was cancelled. Rather than shut down her training and call it a season, Sherri signed up for the Aravaipa Strong Virtual Race and set the goal of covering 100 miles within the designated timeframe. Without the pressure of a strict cut off, Sherri set out to cover the 100 mile distance over a certain number of days, but perhaps due to the flexibility of the race format she was actually able to complete the distance in less time than we had anticipated. She got in a groove and just kept rolling. Not only was this a positive, affirming race experience for her - it also served as a really solid week of race specific training that we can build upon for future challenges later in the year. Additionally, Sherri's finish inspired others to believe that they, too, can do hard things. (See Sherri's finish in the highlight video below).
Less pressure: In addition to the aforementioned Peak Run Performance athletes who tackled different distances of the Aravaipa Strong Virtual Run, I’ve had many more runners who were training for a goal race and really feeling good going into race day. Unfortunately, those races like the Boston Marathon and Vancouver Marathon were canceled. But that didn’t deter them. In fact, it motivated them and gave them the opportunity to test themselves in a low-stakes environment. Some, like Arnold, ran an entire marathon time trial to get a sense of what they might have run on race day.
Others ran a half marathon instead. To the person, each athlete that opted to test themselves in a race against themselves covered the distance faster than they had ever before. This not only affirmed that the training they've been doing has been worth it, it inspired others to follow suite. The PRs keep rolling in!
Reduced travel: While many of us sign up for races as an excuse to see a new place and perhaps explore new terrain, the cost of travel, food, accommodation, and the toll that it takes on our bodies and the environment can be great. Given that most virtual races don’t require that you travel to a particular destination to run a specific route, you can save the time, money, and energy that you would have spent on travel and invest it in your effort on the virtual race day and perhaps on new running equipment or an additional virtual race entry.
Expand Community: One thing that has surprised me about virtual races is that rather than reduce the sense of community, they have actually built and expanded community. What started as a virtual effort in Arizona became a crucible for camaraderie for runners all over the world. I was surprised by the number of athletes I coach from as far away as the Philippines or Puerto Rico who signed up for the Aravaipa Strong Virtual Race. These athletes who have completed some of the most demanding races on the planet - TDS and Badwater, respectively - accepted a challenge while under isolation with strict requirements to stay within one’s neighborhood. They were a part of the same collective challenge that teammates from Arizona and Alberta tackled. And these athletes were inspired and have inspired their teammates from Mexico to Maine.
Support small business: In addition to the aforementioned opportunities to connect, inspire, challenge and support one another through these uncertain times, virtual races provide us with opportunities to support race organizations. Most race organizations are small businesses with a hand full of people who work together to organize, promote, and put on events. Without races there is no revenue, but that doesn't mean the work is over. In fact, cancelling or postponing a race often requires more time and energy than putting the race on itself. Unfortunately, when races have to be cancelled or postponed many of the expenses to put on an event have already been covered. Refunds are next to impossible (because the money has already been spent) and moving the race to another date simply means more work with less money to put on a the same event. For more on this, please read: Here’s What Race Directors Want You to Know About Canceled Races: Many races wouldn't survive if they offered refunds for races canceled due to COVID-19.Virtual races give runners the opportunity to continue to support race directors and their teams who want more than anything to provide a high quality event for their runners. This doesn't just help the race directors, though. This helps all runners and our community by ensuring that these events and organizations will be around when this is all over.
Despite the challenges of uncertainty and race cancellations, virtual races and solo time trials have proven to be an effective way to test fitness, train with purpose while connecting (virtually) with and motivating others. If you are looking for something certain to put on the calendar and work towards, consider one of the many virtual options mentioned above.
Please reach out with your goal and let's work together to help you prepare to achieve it!