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Virtual Races: Finding New Joy in Hard Times

Missing the competitiveness and excitement of races? Virtual running has soared in popularity in the past year. Are you ready to give it a try?

By MMF Ambassador Sarah Kane

Ah 2020, the year that virtual races became acceptable! For those of you who don’t know what a virtual race is, it's where you don’t show up to a certain location, at a certain time, on a certain day. You don’t have a start line or finish line with fanfare, joined by hundred, or thousands, of other runners and cheered on by spectators. Instead, you pick your road (hilly or flat), at your time (so you don’t have to wake up super early!), and you run the distance you registered for.

Virtual race’s aren’t free--you usually earn some swag out of it (medal, shirts, mugs, etc.), and in order to receive this you have to register ahead and then submit your results online. Obviously, this is a completely different experience than a live race. You are running alone vs. surrounded by other runners; you can run around your neighborhood vs. traveling to a new city; you have to create your own water stations vs. having them provided; and the list goes on.

If you were anything like me prior to 2020, virtual races seemed like a waste of money. Why pay just to log designated miles around your neighborhood or trails that you can run daily for free?! Yes, you earn some swag, but it never seemed worth it to me. That is, until all live races were canceled due to a pandemic.

My Virtual Race Experience

We have all pushed through this pandemic for a year now (since March 2020). While every state's guidelines have been different, I live in New York where everything (restaurants, events, hair salons, dog groomers, gyms) was shut down for months. That meant if I still wanted to run and keep my streaks of events alive, I had to switch to that virtual option that I had avoided up to now.

An avid runner, I had a 15K, 5K and 2 half-marathons scheduled in spring 2020 (March-May). At first they were postponed until fall, but then they were changed to virtual events. I was registered for the Marine Corp Marathon as well, originally scheduled for Oct 25th. For months I anxiously awaited the decision of the MCM. All the other major marathons around the world were being shifted to virtual options or cancelled, so I felt it was only a matter of time until the Marine Corp Marathon followed suit.

When my answer inevitably arrived in late July--yes, my 3rd live marathon would have to wait--I faced a decision: stop my training, or pursuing running my first virtual marathon. I chose the latter. I decided to continue to follow my training plan (via the RunCoach app) up until the originally scheduled race day. New York was coming out with new restrictions almost daily on what we could or couldn’t do, and it wasn't long into the pandemic before I realized how much running gave me structure and a positive thing I could focus on.

Training for a marathon is always a challenge, but knowing you have the race day experience to look forward to helps get you through the humid summer runs, the early mornings, the tired body, and the hundreds of miles logged. Training for a virtual marathon really causes you to dig deep and reevaluate your reasons for running; you have to hold yourself even more accountable to follow through!

When virtual race day arrived, I tried to make the most of it. I chose to run at a local park, recruited two friends to assist in my water/aid stations, invited my family to meet me at the finish line, and thought about the spirit of the race.

I ended up finishing in a new personal best time, and my young nieces hung medals around my neck. It was a moment I will treasure forever. I even did a full race recap on my podcast.

While it may not be the same as an in-person experience, running virtually gives you a chance to achieve your fitness goals and still run anywhere in the world. It is also an opportunity for you to be your own event organizer.

Plan Your Run

The Marine Corp Marathon Blog offers 7 great tips to help you plan your next virtual running experience! Here are the first three.

1. Plan Your Route Stick to well-traveled routes and ensure you’re familiar with the turns, hills and intersections. You’ll be running alone or in a small group so don’t put yourself in an unsafe situation. A virtual event means no waiting in line for a port-o-john, but that doesn’t mean nature won’t come calling. Ensure your route offers access to appropriate locations for a bathroom break. Treadmill Runners: Spice up your virtual run by varying your speed and adding inclines along the way.
2. Share Your Plan
Give family and friends your estimated departure and return times, as well as your planned route. This is as much for your safety as it is for motivation. Your loved ones are more likely to surprise you with cheer signs along the way, a phone call during the run or a finish line party if they know your plan.
3. Capture the Moment Carrying your phone is important for your safety, but it also allows you to commemorate your accomplishment with photos and videos. Did you run past a famous local landmark? Did your family set up a water/cheer station or surprise you at your finish line? Share those memories as you would if you complete a live race!

Read the rest of their tips on planning your race here. Or check out some of their tips for running safely during the pandemic.

Remember, running is not cancelled!

Sarah is an avid runner and a MMF Ambassador. Follow her online and on Facebook or Instagram.

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