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Virtual races likely here to stay, say organizers


The virtual racing format is gaining popularity

Many big marathons, other running events have opted to move races online amid COVID-19 pandemic

Virtual races can come with challenges, may not be as appealing as in-person runs

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Race organizers have been shifting to a virtual format to adapt to COVID-19, but many now believe the change could have a lasting effect on future running events.

“We’ve talked long-term on this and I don’t think virtual races are going away,” says Ryan Chilibeck, who organizes the Scotiabank Vancouver Half-Marathon.

“When we saw the interest from all these smaller communities scattered around Canada, it really found a way for us to connect with runners across the country rather than just the three cities that we have our races in right now.”

Chilibeck says in past years, Scotiabank participants were almost entirely from around the Vancouver area. This year, only 60 per cent of runners are from B.C. He adds the race is drawing runners from small towns across the country.

This is because the premise of virtual racing is simple.

“Basically, people run anywhere in the world, they record their time using an app, and then submit the time into our results platform,” says Kirill Solovyev, who founded the West Van Run and is organizing its virtual summer race this year.

“Once they complete the run, we send out a letter to them with their medal and everything.”

The concept isn’t new. Lululemon’s wildly popular Vancouver Seawheeze Half-Marathon requires a lottery to get in months ahead of time and easily sells out every year. Organizers introduced a virtual event in 2019 so those left out could still earn the coveted finisher’s medal, running shorts, and entry to the post-race party.

Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has increased the popularity of virtual racing due to the restrictions on public gatherings.

“We had the West Van Run in March, which was kind of like the last race in Vancouver that happened, and after that everything got cancelled,” says Solovyev.

He adds without the pressure of having to arrange West Van Run’s summer event in person, the organization has time to focus on a virtual counterpart.

Chilibeck says when they started planning virtual racing, it was coined as ‘racing without borders.’

“Anyone can compete anywhere, anytime, on any sort of course,” he adds.

Two-thousand people had registered for Scotiabank’s half-marathon when the in-person race was cancelled in March.

“It was really important for us to still provide a platform for them to compete or for our charities to have a platform to raise money.” The Vancouver race supports around 70 charities each year and raises about $1.3 million, according to race organizers.

Since March, people from all across the country who would not normally come to Vancouver have registered.

“We are having to order more medals now,” says Chilibeck.

Run locally or internationally—but run inexpensively

Chilibeck says virtual racing can strip away the competitive nature of running next to someone, while making it accessible to others who wouldn’t normally have the chance to take part.

“It really doesn’t make any sense for us to take virtual racing away at any point,” he says, adding virtual races bring more people into the sport and make it more accessible.

“You can’t always travel or afford hotel rooms in Toronto in the middle of the summer or whatever those barriers are to running competitively.”

Local running groups such as Mile2Marathon have joined the virtual race movement in place of their weekly group workouts. Co-founder Dylan Wykes says this is to help the club’s athletes stay excited about running during COVID-19.

“One of the main reasons to do it was motivation for the athletes, to give them something that was fun, but also to give them something to focus their training towards during this time when there are no real races.”

The club’s virtual races don’t require registration and are free for anyone. Mile2Marathon is offering prizes for top male and female, best age-graded results, and best Strava art drawing.

“We wanted there to be as few barriers as possible to actually participating in this,” adds Wykes.

Strava art in Vancouver. (Courtesy Strava/Katie Gordon)

Meanwhile, other Vancouver athletes are taking on more gruelling virtual challenges. Walter Downey and Nicola Grice both competed in the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, a 1,000-kilometre event that participants run at their own pace over a four-month window.

“I would have never done that during my normal training,” says Downey, after completing the challenge in 28 days.

“It’s given me the opportunity to do some different things and do some different challenges.”

Grice completed the Tennessee challenge at a rate of a half-marathon a day over a month and a half. She also recently ran in the Aravaipa 50-kilometre race dressed as Wonder Woman. The ultra-marathon medal now hangs on the skeleton she uses for work as a registered massage therapist.

Virtual racing fatigue

Grice is an avid runner, but admits it is hard to motivate herself to train for a marathon with uncertainty about whether the event will be live or virtual. Her next endeavour is the London Marathon, which postponed its race from April to October but has not made any further announcements.

She admits it would be a disappointment to run it virtually.

“I don’t see why I should pay 300 plus dollars, which is what I’ve had to pay, to run around Vancouver when I can run around it for free,” says Grice.

The New York City Marathon, the world’s largest, was cancelled on Wednesday due to the ongoing global pandemic.

Boston Marathon-qualified athlete Julie Pelly was devastated when that celebrated event was put on hold.

“When my Boston dream fizzled in April with the cancellation of the marathon, my family secretly planned out my very own marathon which they titled the ‘Boscouver Marathon,’” she says.

Pelly’s family marked out a 42.2-kilometre course, surprised her 12 hours beforehand with the challenge, and cheered her along the way.

Julie Pelly says her family surprised her with their own challenge after the Boston Marathon was cancelled. (Courtesy Julie Pelly)

Although Pelly enjoyed the experience, it isn’t a substitute for the years of hard work put into qualifying for Boston.

Downey admits that virtual racing will never compare to the actual feeling of competing in a live event.

“Doing a race is amazing—running up to that finish line and someone putting a medal around your neck and wearing the bib and all that stuff that goes with that,” he says.

Noah Bloom, who co-founded Vancouver-based app RunGo, says many virtual races are doing unique things to make sure people are incentivized.

But he adds others have a long way to go.

“The basic virtual race is you pay some money—like 30 bucks, 50 bucks—and you may or may not do a race, and then you may or may not submit results, and then you’ll probably get something in the mail,” says Bloom.

“I think that’s kind of not a very exciting option.”

Bloom adds RunGo is working with BMO, Scotiabank, the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and the Ottawa Marathon to engage participants during the actual running, rather than relying simply on the ‘bring your own course’ format.

He adds race directors take pride in crafting their course to go through and show off various neighborhoods, which is lost in a virtual race.

“The most memorable part of a real race is running it and being on the race-course.”

However, Bloom says the people behind the BMO Vancouver Marathon have been running demos of more interactive race experiences.

“They created these voice-guided tours of their race-courses that you could do either on the real course or from anywhere else in the world,” says Bloom. He adds BMO brought in quotes from previous winners such as Rob Watson and Natasha Wodak to motivate runners and mention sponsors as they go.

“I think that’s where we’re going to start to see a more engaging virtual race experience.”

Virtual races bolstered by social media

Bloom acknowledges runners may get tired of virtual races if they aren’t innovative or appealing but says the social media aspect of virtual running can create an inclusive atmosphere.

“The social media posts get you get fired up about it,” he says.

“There’s a bit of community around it—there’s a bit of banter around it, too. And then you go do the race on your own, you submit it, and then you see how you stack up. That was all sort of fun.”

Downey says he met a lot of new people online as the Tennessee race had 20,000 people signed up.

“I think the thing about virtual racing is you get to become a part of that virtual community—the Facebook page or Instagram or whatever and take part in that,” says Downey.

“It’s a different world. So just step outside of your box and maybe do something different.”

Related article: Vancouver marathoner inspires community through Strava art

Grice says she has a love-hate relationship with social media, but that Aravaipa had a virtual party online to help motivate runners.

“They got everybody to go live or do a story thing on their Instagram, so I did a couple of those and it was kind of cool because you’ve got all these people responding to you and it felt like you had people cheering you on.”

Mile2Marathon is running four more legs of free virtual races, while the windows to compete in Scotiabank and the West Van Run summer run open next week.

“Having our athletes in Saskatchewan or the Yukon or wherever they are being able to compare themselves to their buddies in Vancouver or Ottawa without actually having to fly to a race to do it is a cool thing,” says Wykes, adding he hopes virtual races stick around.

Chilibeck is excited for the potential of virtual running moving forward.

“If you use it properly as a motivator, I think that virtual races will exist past when we can come back and run physically together.”