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Virtual Races: fleeting trend or here to stay?

I won’t deny that I was not originally a fan of virtual races and I may not be completely convinced, but for us running junkies, it’s been something to do this year. 

Fall goes hand-in-hand with distance running for cross country runners and marathoners all over. High school and college cross country teams practice and compete through the hills of various parks. Marathoners tie up their laces for early morning runs and humblebrag to anyone who will listen about the 26.2 miles that they are about to embark on. The crisp air and crunchy leaves after a humid summer leads to the optimal runner’s high.

Well, not this fall. Cross country teams are scarce to come by. All IRL marathons have been canceled. And that crisp air isn’t as fresh when you’re gasping for it through a face mask or gaiter. Virtual races started trending this spring, once we all realized that the pandemic was not a transient affair. Don’t get me wrong, virtual races existed pre-pandemic but not to this extent. Disney started a virtual race series in 2016, based on the honor system. Now, it seems that everyone is doing them, with the help of our smartphones and watches to track us.

To start, what exactly are virtual races? They are races where runners complete a certain distance, i.e. 5k, 10k, half and full marathons, on their own time, and in the location of their choosing. Some are relays. Some are longer distances in a particular time period. They are timed and geotracked for distance, via an app on our personal devices. They tend to not be as competitive as traditional races, due to the lack of visual competition and race support (fluid and gel stations). However, virtual races have encouraged regular exercise, have helped us feel connected to others (even if it’s only on another virtual platform), and have raised a lot of money for worthy causes. 

Virtual races take place on various apps, but Strava is one of the most commonly used. If you go on Strava, you can scroll through thousands of race options. Races are either virtual counterparts to canceled in-person events or group challenges. 

I was supposed to run the rescheduled Boston Marathon in September. Like all other large races, it was canceled and made into a virtual event. I didn’t want to ruin my marathon streak, so I begrudgingly signed up and ran it solo last month. To be frank, it didn’t feel very special at the time. There were no cheering crowds or a huge finish line. It was hot and I definitely did not set up enough fluid stations for myself. I had not trained nearly as much or as hard as I have in the past so I was running a lot slower. However, I got through it.

While I was originally salty (figuratively and literally) about the whole experience, upon reflection, I realized a few things. While external factors may motivate me to be competitive and run faster, it is my love for running that drives me. I love tying up my shoe laces and feeling my feet hit the pavement as my mind wonders. I learn more about myself during that hour than the other 23 hours of a day. I love challenging myself and knowing that my body is capable of working harder and being better. This mindset transfers over into other areas of my life. And while certain things remain outside of our control, trying to be better never hurt anyone.

Over 15,000 people participated in the virtual Boston Marathon last month. Not bad, considering around 30,000 people run it annually. The most incredible part is that this virtual event raised $29.2 million for charities. That is $10 million less than the $38.7 million that was raised for the 2019 Boston Marathon, which occurred in person with twice the amount of participants. 

The NYC Marathon was scheduled to be in three weeks and is also virtual this year. While I originally told myself that my virtual racing days were behind me, I have had a change of heart because my mindset has changed. I am not doing it to accomplish a certain time or for recognition. I am running it for two intrinsic reasons – because I inherently love it and for a worthy cause that I’m passionate about, called Fred’s Team. I work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Fred’s Team, named after Fred Lebow, the founder of NYRR, is the running program that raises money for my hospital for groundbreaking, lifesaving cancer research. 

No one will be cheering me on this Saturday as I take off. There will be no deafening crowds as I run down 1st Avenue. No one will even know that I am running a marathon. I won’t be running for glory. I’ll be running because I love it and because cancer research is important to me. I don’t think I would have realized the aspects of running that really matter if it weren’t for virtual races. While I’m not necessarily recommending an entire marathon, it may be worth your while to try a virtual race. You never know what you’ll figure out about yourself.

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