Is VIRTUAL here to stay?

Virtual running is not new.  

Virtual sport is not new.

But today, as the world is gripped in lockdown, virtual running is taking off like never before. 

Runner’s World, way back in 2015 asked the question, ‘Are Virtual Runs the Future of Racing?’ In an article by Alison Wade.

‘Virtual Racing is not a new concept. Postal races—in which competitors mail in their times to be compared with others—began decades ago. But advances in technology have improved runnersexperience of events from their own treadmills, and as the sport has grown, so has interest in this alternate way of racing.’

The joy of virtual is quite simple, you participate wherever you can, when you can and in many scenarios, in any capacity. It shows us that our need to belong, to be part of something is very strong, even if we are doing the sport alone and virtually.

‘Remote entrants received a downloadable bib, finishers certificate, and the races official swag…’

Some races reach capacity, London Marathon would be a good example. Virtual can allow someone to run a route at the same time as an official race on a virtual course using an app that simulates the course.

To be honest, many of us now have some form of tracking device, be that a watch, phone or additional gadget. Many subscribe to an app on their phone, be that on Android or Mac that allows us daily to update a training session. Strava being an obvious one but so many others exist.

Technology used to be something that was feared, but now it is embraced. 

Regina Jackson of ‘Will Run for Bling’ created in 2013, said to Alison Wade, ‘Many of those who run our races have busy lives and are attracted to the fact that they have nine days to complete each race. Others are drawn in by the fact that they can break up the run into shorter segments and still get credit for completing the race.’

But times are changing…

As races throughout the world are being cancelled or postponed, race directors have been looking for opportunities to retain their market, inspire the audience and still provide engagement. Equally, runners or sports people who desire an event and community have pursued alternatives. Interaction, that sense of belonging and the need to participate a driving force.

So, the transition has been seamless, and, in some scenarios, it has exploded to a level that one would have struggled to comprehend just 4-months ago.

A prime example being the recently started (May 1st) ‘The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1000km’which allows participants to travel across Tennessee (virtually) from may 1st to August 31st. Quite simply, you have 4-months to cover the distance by any means and daily you upload your distance (even if it is a zero) and via an interactive map, your dot is moved along the route.

The above is brought to us by Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake of the famous Barkley Marathons and Bigs Backyard Ultra. Now, Laz is like the Pied Piper, people love him and love his crazy ideas. However, I don’t think even he could have anticipated that a 1000km virtual run would explode like it has. As they say on the sign-up page, ‘To complete, the race will require only a hair over 5 miles per day…  and those who want a little extra on their plate, you can do the out and back version – 2,000 kilometers!

The numbers are phenomenal, $60 entry fee and currently over 17,569 participants. There is a charity element too for ‘Feeding America/ Tennessee’ – the donation page is showing a current revenue of $96,533. And now, there is even a ‘Doggie Run Across TN for Animal Shelters’ with a sign up of $30.

Depending on viewpoint, for now, virtual races and challenges are filling a gap that many of us are missing as we are forced to social distance and lockdown. As restrictions ease, and life starts to return to some normality, I can’t help but think an element of virtual will exist at a greater level than before January 2020.

As one runner has told me, ‘I race for the atmosphere, being around hundreds with a similar passion and then testing myself at the same time and on the same course as everyone else. I like the meet up before and the post-run gathering. It’s more than running, it is community. So, racing is really important for me and many others. However, the virtual world has opened my eyes to a new way of training. I love the fact that maybe I can run across Tennessee in 4-months and the great thing is, should I get an opportunity to race, I can use that mileage too for the virtual challenge.’

One thing is for sure, in the ultra-running world, a challenge is a challenge, be that real or virtual. Recent months and weeks have shown us that imagination is the only limiting factor.

In Spain, friends Kilian Jornet, Pau Capell and Tofol Castanyer created an indoor challenge. Fueled by the lockdown that did not allow them to run outside, with the help of Albert Jorquera, Jordi Saragossa and Maria Fainé, they created ‘YoCorroEnCasa’ translated to IRunAtHome. With just a week of planning, they brought over 7400 people together, all running ‘in the home’ and in the process they raised €82,940 for charity – they did not take a euro. I followed their example and did the same in the UK on April 18th with IRunAtHome raising £20,000 for charity.

Taking inspiration from Lazarus Lake, Dave Proctor (who holds the 100-mile treadmill world record) took the ‘Backyard Ultra’ format and made it into a virtual event using technology such as Zoom and YouTube to bring runners together, from all over the world, to run 4.1667 miles every hour, on the hour. Over 2000 signed up. The challenge was to see who would be, the last man or woman standing in the ‘Quarantine Backyard Ultra.’ After 2+ days, ultra-running legend, Michael Wardian emerged victorious with 262.5-miles beating Radek Brunner. Notably, Michael ran outdoors using a loop of road around his house, whereas Radek ran on a treadmill. 

Listen to a podcast interview with Michael Wardian HERE

 Salomon runner, Ryan Sandes was locked down in South Africa, but that did not stop him. Taking on a personal challenge, he ran 100-miles in and around his house is 26-hours and 27-minutes. Article here.

And on May 16th, 100-mile world record holder, Zach Bitter, will look to set the 100-mile WR on a treadmill with a virtual run that will be streamed live for the full duration of approximately 12-hours. He encourages people to join him on their own treadmills and experience the journey.

 Racing will return. The trails (and even roads), the scenery, the landscape, the mountains and fresh air will bring us back to start lines. The need to share a journey and experience, to test one’s self in real time is something that is primal. The need for physical interaction, before, during and after a race is something, we all need. 

It’s unclear when virtual racing made the leap online to a mass audience. Some race directors say it evolved from runners requests many years ago to participate in physical races from afar. Regardless of the original origin, this year, virtual racing has exploded in popularity.

Virtual is here to stay and no doubt, at a far greater level than when this year began.

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References: Active.com here Runners World here New York Times here The Washington Post here