2020 is the Year of the Virtual Race
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2020 is the Year of the Virtual Race

By Dylan Roche

At the start of 2020, I set a goal of running at least ten races throughout the course of the year, ideally in at least five states. But some time around March…well, things changed. To say the least.

It seemed as if that goal wasn’t going to happen quite the way I expected it would. And while I’m grateful for health and safety, there was still a small part of me that was disappointed to see race after race on my calendar get canceled.

But then I discovered virtual races.

Actually, to be completely honest, I sorta ran an unofficial virtual race before I even registered for an actual one. It started very early in the pandemic when my first race of the year — the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail Marathon — was canceled a mere three days beforehand. I was disappointed, but I told myself I wasn’t going to let it get me down or even distract me from my love of running. I’m out here for my own fitness and to celebrate what my body can do, I told myself. It’s not about doing any events or competitions.

So on the day of what would have been the race, I went out and ran 26.2 miles just for the sake of saying I did it. I measured the distance using the Map My Run app, and although it wasn’t my best time ever (it was actually my worst marathon time ever), the point was that I did what I set out to do.

I even got the bragging rights to go on social media later that day and tell everyone, “Hey, I still ran a marathon today, even though the actual race wasn’t happening.” (That felt really good, to be totally honest.)

What I did, without even knowing it, is pretty much the idea behind a virtual race. You don’t do it with a bunch of other people; you do it by yourself and then can see how you did compared with other runners out there. In short, you still get a sense of motivation and camaraderie, but you’re able to safely stick by yourself the way you need to do during a pandemic. After I ran my personal marathon, I quickly signed up for the Live Give Run half-marathon to benefit the Maryland Food Bank.

I realized that even though I wasn’t able to register for in-person races, there was no shortage of virtual races open for registration throughout 2020. And for the same reasons that going out and running my own personal marathon felt empowering and exciting, virtual races have their appeal.

First of all, they give you something to train for. Yes, we should always be training for ourselves and our own personal development, but having an actual event helps runners stay focused and committed. I will drag myself out of bed every morning to go running just because I love it, and even I feel a little more focused when I know there’s an objective I need to meet in the coming weeks.

Secondly, they let us feel a little more connected with other runners. Sure, you don’t have hundreds of other people on the course with you, but you still feel as if you’re united with fellow runners in a way you wouldn’t be if you were just doing your own thing.

With a virtual race, you know that your distance/time will be on full display online, and you’ll also be able to see the distance/time of your fellow runners. It’s a great way to support one another and know that you both took part in something bigger than your usual routine.

There are even a few ways, admittedly, that virtual races are better than in-person races. First of all, you’re able to run the miles at your convenience. That means you don’t have to be at the start line at some early hour of the morning the way you would with in-person races.

You can let yourself sleep in, have a leisurely morning, and then go out and hit the trail when you’re feeling ready. And if you aren’t feeling up for it on that day, you can always put off racing until tomorrow.

There’s also the added benefit that you don’t have to travel anywhere (unless you really want to). You can just run the race distance along your usual route — no need to take time off work, book a plane ticket, find a hotel room, and plan meals without kitchen access for two or three days. Yes, traveling is cool, and my original goal for 2020 was to run races in at least five different states, but there’s also something to be said for being able to do your race right in town.

If you really want an excuse to travel, however, you can still do that — simply go book a hotel room and spend the weekend jogging around a new city.

Also, you still get some of the same cool swag you would get from doing an in-person race, and a portion of your registration fee goes to a charitable cause in most cases. It’s nice to have a T-shirt and/or medal so that you remember the experience, and it’s even better to know that you were able to use your love of running to do a little bit of good in the world.

So now my racing goals for 2020 have changed. I’m not setting a concrete number on how many virtual races I want to do, but I’m hoping I can do at least one a month just to keep my routine feeling fresh and interesting. I want to research the good causes they support, log my miles, and help spread some awareness of how running makes me feel empowered and helps empower others through charity efforts like these.

Next up on my virtual race agenda? The Florida Keys Fishing Fun Run, going on now through August 31, to benefit the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association Inc. I’m signed up for the Square Grouper Challenge, which means I have to run 50 miles — and strictly speaking, I can break those 50 miles up into several runs, but it might be more challenging if I attempt a 50-miler at some point this summer. I’ll keep you posted!

Stay committed, runners! Even racing has changed in the face of a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop enjoying races completely.

Dylan Roche

Dylan Roche

is an Annapolis-based writer and marathon runner. As a journalist focused on everything from fitness to arts and culture, he has written for a variety of publications, including Livestrong, What’s Up Annapolis, OurHealth Virginia, UpstART and Chesapeake Family Life. His first novel, “The Purple Bird,” came out in 2019. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @DylanIsWriting

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