Everything You Need to Know About Virtual Races
For those who thrive on competition, the absence of racing has caused exercise motivation to plummet. Get your training back on track by entering one of these virtual versions.
Odds are, if you had a running race circled on your calendar at the beginning of this year, your plans have changed. Likely, the race has been canceled. Equally probable: It’s gone virtual. For those who look forward to the grittiness of hot-breath-on-neck, elbow-to-rib-cage racing, the concept of a “virtual race” can feel a little weird. It’s hard to imagine pushing yourself to the limit when you’re running against a phantom competitor.
But while a virtual race might feel like a bit of a letdown, it’s a way to ensure your training effort up to this point isn’t for naught (and an incentive to keep training, even if live races aren’t happening right now). And if you weren’t training for a specific race before, taking part in the growing number of virtual run events is a great way to stay engaged in the running community, give your miles some purpose and celebrate your dedication.
If you’re ready to lace up and get out there (even if “there” is your home treadmill), follow these steps to making the most of your virtual experience.
Pick Your Distance
Like any race, the distance you choose depends on how experienced you are with running. A quick look around the race calendar reveals hundreds of virtual options, ranging from 5k to the half marathon and the marathon. If you’re relatively new to running, start short. Even if you’re more experienced, keep in mind that racing solo is tough—without the crowds and fellow runners to push you along, a half marathon can feel almost as long as the full.
Map It Out
The beauty of a virtual race is that you get to pick the route—and train on it. If this race is a substitute for one that was canceled or postponed, consider mapping out a course that mimics the challenging terrain of the original. Whatever route you choose, make sure to consider traffic and stop lights if a fast run is your goal, since you won’t have the luxury of road closures.
The right route was key for Virginian Amy Shuman, 36, who has run dozens of virtual races including her virtual version of the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler back in April. “I live near a nice, flat trail with few street crossings, so I chose an out-and-back route there,” she says. “It’s also an interesting trail, so I had things to look at.”
If this were a live race, you’d want all the right gear to help you speed toward the finish line. Approach your virtual event the same way, from shoes to sport sunglasses. “To make my virtual races feel meaningful, I lay out my outfit the night before, just as I would an actual race,” says Shuman. If you’re starting your virtual race early in the morning, wear a tank as your base and add layers that you can peel off as you heat up. If your course takes you through populated areas, it’s a good idea to gear up with a breathable running mask.
Some virtual races also offer printable race bibs that you can wear to help things feel more real. “I print my bib from the computer, run my virtual event, then record the time on the back of my number,” says Shuman. “Then I hang the bib up along with all my others from past running events.”
Other accessories to consider include a water bottle and gels or chews for longer distances. Draw on your former racing experience to know what and how much you’ll need or if you’re a first timer, practice in training. If your route takes you by your house a time or two, set up your own “aid station” on your front lawn to better mimic the race-day experience.
Make It Social
Part of what draws many runners to races is the social aspect. In a virtual race, you’ll need to recreate that in some way. Look for Facebook pages affiliated with your virtual event. “This makes it fun and allows you to still have the camaraderie of a race,” says Shuman. “It’s also a way to challenge your fellow runners if that’s helpful to you.”
Also, check out virtual team races (see below) that allow you to compete with others toward a common time or distance goal. When you’ve completed your part of the race, take photos and share them on social media with your teammates and friends so you can celebrate the experience together.
While a virtual race might not have been what you envisioned at the start of the year, for most people, it’s better than no race at all. “It’s not a replacement for the real thing, but it’s something,” says Shuman. “Why not put effort into it and enjoy yourself?”
Find a Virtual Race
Ready for your first virtual race? Peruse some of the many options with these three resources:
*Ragnar Virtual Challenge: From one of the very best team endurance races in the world comes an exciting multi-person virtual version. Form a team, pick your poison (12,000-foot climb in 14 days? 100 miles in a week?), then sign up to get all the bragging rights—at no cost!—for your efforts.
*RunSignUp: This database of races around the country now has a virtual component, too. If there’s a race you usually do, type in the name to see if there is a virtual version. Or just pick one from the extensive list and sign up.
*Virtual Run Challenge: If you’re more in the mood for the full boat (read: race T-shirt, official bib, and finisher’s medal), this site connects you to some of the more imagination virtual races out there, including the Anything is Paw-sible Virtual 5k (run it with your dog, your entry fee goes to an animal rescue charity) and Runner Mania Virtual Running Festival, which includes a 24-hour ultra event (see how many miles you can complete within a 24-hour window).