Are Virtual Races the New Normal?

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By Shalini Kovach, RD

As I walked away after finishing a Sunday morning group run in the COVID-19 era, the words from a fellow runner rang in my ears – a casual remark which prompted this essay:

“Virtual racing is where it’s at. It’s the future of racing with this pandemic looming over our heads. If you want to make money, then you might want to consider converting your events to virtual instead of simply cancelling them.”

The argument in my brain ensued. I found myself pondering, “Virtual races aren’t really the new normal, are they?”

Virtual races have been around for the better part of a decade. I’m not oblivious to that. In fact, virtual races make for an excellent fundraising platform. Since the pandemic hit and our world turned upside down, the fate of races across the globe was sealed for the foreseeable future.

For the obvious reasons, not only have virtual races filled a void in these unprecedented times, but they have kept the supply chain of swag and buckle manufacturers afloat — along with providing race directors with employment. In some sectors, virtual races have created employment opportunities. For runners among us that have been met with disappointment from event cancelations, virtual races have provided an incredible outlet to fill that void and keep runners engaged and motivated and perhaps, even less anxious at the state of our world today.

Some would say virtual races have created (or transformed) social media communities, where novice and experienced runners alike have found inspiration and validation for their effort — no matter how big or small. Virtual races have also engaged people to perhaps pick up a pair of running shoes for the first time, lace up, and join the global community of runners, even if their motivation to do so has simply been driven by a shirt, medal or online bragging rights.

At the end of the day, whatever it takes to preserve our sanity and keep us moving is a good thing. And maybe, just maybe, when all this is over, our running community will have gained a few members for life from this surge in virtual races.

But the diehards among us would argue that virtual races will never replace the deep-rooted community, electric energy at the start of a race and the exhaustion and exhilaration of the finish line. There’s the sound of cowbells, people cheering and seeing friends and family as you come bounding across the finish line—your face marred with dirt as every ounce of your body screams for you to stop. But you’ve endured 32 hours of unrelenting terrain for 100 miles and willed yourself to complete what you started. The buckle or medal that you receive is only the cherry on your sundae!

The unpredictability of race day includes variables like weather, trail conditions and how your body reacts to the highs and lows that come with running an ultra, such as the unknown terrain. Then there are people you meet along the way, the community of runners and volunteers who make racing all worth it. All of this, plus the stories that we get to tell, and the friendships and bonds we make that shape who we’ve become. With each ultra-distance race, we weave a small piece of fabric that forever becomes a part of the large tapestry that we call the ultrarunning community.

None of this can be replaced by virtual races. Virtual races are a great placeholder, but a placeholder nonetheless — not the new normal. So, run all the virtual events you want until we resume real life racing, but don’t fool yourself into believing that virtual races are the future of running. At least, for my personal sanity, I hope that’s not the case!

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6 Comments

  1. The problem is some RD’s using virtual races as a justification to keep the entry fees instead of offering deferring options. I don’t expect a full refund but they aren’t the only ones who are hurting in these challenging times.To run a virtual race does not cost like a real race and it should not be an excuse to pocket the entire entry fees without an option. I’m personally black listing races who are doing it.

  2. The July 23rd comment by AL connects to what I found Ultrarunning to be when I entered the sport in 2002, an epic experience, not a pure money maker for some RD’s. I might be wrong when fact checked yet my memory tells me all the ultra-races decades ago had race proceeds going to a good cause and/or the park the race was held in. In this world, even with virtual races, there would not be a need to blacklist any races assuming the good cause connected with the runner. Hopefully, that would be one part of the decision to register for a race, it clearly is with me.

    The Ultra race I was RD of for six-years gave 100% of the race proceeds to the building of the National Vietnam War Museum located in Texas. I did not offer refunds for no-shows. The fees went to the cause. The race continued with another RD doing the same for five more years.

    Of course, the race for profits RD’s have added many excellent ultras to pick from. I don’t know what is best for Ultrarunning yet I want to thank Ultarunning Magazine for this comment forum.

  3. Seems like you have had a change of heart. I remember a post

    “Seriously people ENOUGH with this virtual BS….”. You then went on to attack virtual RDs. Why the change in heart?

    • Robert, if you’ve read the article closely it’s simply a perspective piece. I am simply addressing fact. Both sides of the spectrum and not my personal opinion of virtual races. Like I stated at the end of this article for my own personal sanity sake I hope virtual races are not the normal. Like anything there are pros and cons to everything and that’s what this article is about. I personally do not support virtual races and will not be paying to run one.

  4. Not to get too political, but it seems that these days everyone is for or against things. There is no nuance. I personally love virtual events–they keep me motivated and give me new challenges–but I have a running buddy who would never run a virtual event. So be it. I also love in-person trail races. I don’t see why we have to choose one over the other. There are going to be a few bad virtual races, just as there are a few bad in-person events. Right now, if it’s a choice between running by myself or lining up with a bunch of strangers, some of whom may be COVID-19 positive, I’ll run alone. And race directors aren’t obligated to refund money or offer deferrals. A lot of the registration money has already been sunk into their costs. So why would we blacklist any race? I say choose something more worthwhile to boycott if you must. In my experience, RDs have been doing amazing in a terrible, unprecedented situation.

    • Adam Hamblin on

      Just out of curiosity why are directors not obligated to refund or deferral. I always understood with last second weather and unplanned mother nature stuff expenses from fees might already be used. But if you set up a race for say December you have to know thats a risky decision. Of course signing up is also i guess. Just a thought.

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