Virtual Races Keep Runners Going

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In-person events may be postponed for now, but runners are staying motivated and finding community online.

Last fall, Deena Kastor watched the weather as she prepared to tackle one of her most difficult marathons yet. Kastor, a 47-year-old American marathon record holder, sensed that this upcoming race, like everything else in the pandemic, would test her fortitude. 

Wildfire smoke had inundated her home in Mammoth Lakes, California, for the better part of the fall, and over nachos and beers one night, she and her husband Andrew, who is also her coach, checked the weather and air quality for the ideal window to run. They decided: She would run the next morning, circling a 1.1-mile loop around her home until she hit the virtual finish line at 26.2 miles to complete the Virtual TCS New York City Marathon.  

In a year of stay-at-home orders, canceled events and virtual races, little has been normal. But that race was one of the most rewarding for Kastor, who has been working from home and homeschooling her daughter at the same time. Her Mammoth Track Club team practices were canceled in March of last year and staying motivated to run without events on the calendar has been tough. “It has been a year that has challenged me more than any other year,” she says.

Even though 50,000 people did not pack the starting line on Staten Island in New York City this past fall, knowing a worldwide community trained for the same event kept Kastor going even when she was physically and emotionally exhausted from pandemic fatigue. And knowing that her training runs and race data would be on Strava held her accountable to get out the door, she says.

Despite the challenges this past year, runners are finding a way to keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other for mental and physical health, and for the fun of it. Runners may be training and racing alone, but virtual races are one way to be part of the larger running community and participation is on the rise.

Road-racing participation was down in 2019 and that number dropped even further in 2020 when many in-person events were canceled, according to the annual National Running Survey conducted by Running USA, a nonprofit that supports road running and racing. Nearly 80% of survey respondents participated in fewer races in 2020. But virtual races are the fastest growing segment in running events, according to Jeff Matlow, the interim director of Running USA.

In 2020, 73% of runners participated in a virtual race, according to the survey. Respondents joined an average of four virtual events, and though many appreciated the virtual option, 50% said they prefer in-person races, but only 12% of runners said they will travel for a race as soon as an event is offered. Matlow expects virtual race attendance to continue to grow in 2021 even as small in-person races return. 

“No matter what drives you, even if events are canceled, there is a solution,” Matlow says. “Virtual races are an opportunity to keep you going even when it’s really tough to maintain that motivation.”

The most popular virtual events are themed races, Matlow says. He ran the Yankees Virtual United 5K and 10K this year because he is a baseball fan. The Wonder Woman Run Series continues to be among the most beloved events nationwide, in part because it benefits the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Hot Chocolate Run series is a favorite for the lavish goodie bags.

The New York City Marathon, which is normally the largest in the world, had more than 29,000 registrants from all 50 states and 125 countries in its virtual event in 2020. Though the race organizers have not publicly released figures for the race’s charity component, Matlow says fundraising is generally down because of participation numbers. 

With a decline in participation from the live event, Boston Marathon virtual runners still raised $32.1 million in 2020, which is down from $38.7 million the previous year, according to the Boston Athletic Association.

Big city race organizers like the New York Road Runners and Boston Athletic Association will make it through the pandemic despite lower overall participation, Matlow says, but it is the local community races that may be more likely to suffer financially.

Deena Kastor ran the Virtual TCS New York City Marathon this past December, on a 1.1-mile loop around her house in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. She says it was one of her toughest marathons yet. (Photo Credit: Dakota Snider | Mammoth Tourism Board)

While early on in the pandemic race directors simply managed remote events to stay afloat, organizers are now working on new technology to make virtual races more interactive. Using headphones, for example, participants in a handful of 2021 events will be able to tune into audio components to make them feel like they are actually on the course—the sounds of fans cheering and a narrator describing key landmarks on the race course even as they run at home, according to Matlow.

A National Weather Service meteorologist, 44-year-old Chris Smallcomb started running 10 years ago because he was overweight and depressed. He says running changed his outlook on life. Now he runs for the joy of it, relishing noncompetitive trail races for the camaraderie. 

Smallcomb and his wife recognized early on in the pandemic that the small community races they normally run near their home in Sparks, Nevada, might not exist after the pandemic. So they canceled last summer’s racing and travel plans to Europe, stayed close to home and have joined as many local events as possible.

“We really want to support these small races during the pandemic so when this is all done, we can still have races,” he says. “Some of them are really creative with virtual races and I think that might be a silver lining in all of this.”

Some of Smallcomb’s favorite events include a scavenger hunt format where runners collect points by visiting and supporting local businesses. In December, he participated in the Aravaipa Running vertical challenge where runners compete by racking up elevation gain in a given time period.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Smallcomb has taken on during the pandemic, or ever, was running the Global Virtual Last Man Standing race. Competitors were tasked with designating a 4.17-mile loop and seeing how many times they could run it. Each hour, on the hour, participants were expected to start another loop. As the name of the race suggests, the last person standing wins.

“This is stuff that I never would have done before,” Smallcomb says. “These virtual races are getting me outside of my comfort zone, doing random stuff that is fun and is challenging.”

At the finish of each lap of the Global Virtual Last Man Standing race, participants uploaded their data to an online platform. Smallcomb called it quits after running 100 kilometers in 15 hours, but he was not the last runner standing.

For his efforts, he received a Did Not Finish medal. “It’s the first medal I’ve ever received that said I did not finish,” Smallcomb says. The race rule is the person who is last standing wins and everyone else did not finish. “It is the first time in any race that I DNF’d—and it’s all good!”

Though Kastor was an official finisher of the virtual marathon she ran around her home, it was also a race of firsts and lasts for her. At 8,000 feet elevation and with a 3:18 finish time, it was her highest race and her slowest. Still, Kastor says, just finishing was an accomplishment.

“Someone bring me a sandwich,” she said in the final few steps as she reached her driveway crossing her virtual finish line. There were no grandstands or fans lining the street, just a few neighbors working in their yards, getting their homes ready for the winter.

Kastor’s 9-year-old daughter, Piper, took a break from homeschooling and tiptoed barefoot outside to put a finisher’s medal around her mom’s neck. Kastor leaned up against her SUV parked in the driveway. Her husband handed her a water bottle. “It’s going to take a while to forget the pain of that one,” she said taking a sip.

Virtual Race Training Tips

How to find a virtual race

Deena Kastor recommends asking a local running or sporting goods store for virtual race recommendations. Keep the event close to home to support your community, she says. For a comprehensive listing of events nationally, check out the Running in the USA online race database. To join the global running community, look at the Abbott World Marathon Majors for virtual events at all distances.

Reset running intentions

Even with virtual events expanding options, for some, training amid the pandemic might be a challenge. Run SMART Coach Leah Rosenfeld says she was struggling to train without races and events on the calendar, so she had a talk with herself and did some reflecting on her purpose. “Everyone runs for a different reason,” Rosenfeld says.

Virtual events offer a chance to sample different kinds of races. If you are a marathon runner, try running a 5K on the track. Consider a distance you have never raced before or an off-distance like an 8K or 12K. If you are a trail runner, sample a one-mile time trial. If you normally run on the roads, sign up for a virtual trail race or see how much elevation you can climb in a week.

Read more: Training Exercises for Running

Find a training group online

Training alone can be a challenge. While many in-person clubs have postponed runs and practices, some teams have taken their training online. Strava is one of the most popular apps for joining a run club, and for the social aspect, as you can follow teammates training virtually. Runkeeper is another app that allows athletes to track fitness goals, train for virtual races and even syncs with music playlists. The Nike Run Club offers all the same GPS and tracking features that other apps have, as well as guided audio runs. The Abbott Global Run Club hosts online community forums for training tips and virtual events.

Set a schedule and stick to it

Even if you are not a morning runner, Rosenfeld suggests setting aside 5 or 10 minutes to meditate or do gratitude exercises to get the day started in a positive way. Setting a schedule is essential, especially when normal routines have been interrupted. Find a routine and stick with it—whether you are a morning, lunch or evening runner—the daily repetition will help you meet your training goals.

For more inspiration, read our guide to meditation for runners.

Be kind to yourself

If running feels like a drag, and it is right now for many people for many reasons, Rosenfeld says to focus on things that complement running, like sleep, hydration and nutrition and body weight exercises. She suggests trying an online yoga class or fitness class, like professional runner Colleen Quigley’s short five-minute ab and glute workouts, which can be done in small spaces.

Read more: Yoga for Trail Runners

Mix it up while keeping close to home

To keep training interesting, Rosenfeld suggests looking for new locations and varying terrain while staying close to home. She likes to literally run errands and sometimes ends her runs at a local restaurant and then walks home with takeout. Deena Kastor says she’s running more in her neighborhood. She’s made it a goal to run on every street within running distance of her home. To keep the loop fun, she will spontaneously sprint hills or take a detour to run a flight of stairs. She intentionally tries to notice something different or new each time she heads out the door.

Learn more: How to Recreate Responsibly in the Outdoors

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