Even as NC and many other states ease restrictions on small group gatherings, crowded events like races will most likely remain virtual for a while. With Fleet Feet's My Big Run approaching next week, and countless other races going virtual into the fall season, many people are encountering virtual races for the first time.
Though a virtual race lacks the adrenaline-pumping energy of running alongside a crowded field of runners surrounded by cheering spectators, one distinct advantage of running a virtual race is flexibility. You're not nailed down to a specific day and time, so you get to run your race when you feel like it. If you get injured, or you wake up on race day feeling sick, or the weather's terrible -- you can reschedule. You don't have to suffer through a miserable race or defer a whole year due to injury. Most races are scheduled for early weekend mornings, but if you run better in the evening after a work day, go ahead and run your half marathon at 6 PM on a Tuesday. The same goes for training; while training solo might feel daunting for runners who usually participate in group training programs, being able to plan long runs and speed workouts according to your own schedule and preferences could yield better results on race day. (For more on solo training and building your own training plan, read here.)
A virtual race also means you get to choose where you run, and tailor your route to your own preferences and goals. Planning your race course will obviously be more or less complicated depending on your chosen distance. Most of us likely have a few favorite routes for shorter distances, but planning your own marathon or ultramarathon course involves a little more attention to detail, geographical knowledge, and awareness of traffic patterns in the area (if you're on city streets). If you're aiming for a certain time, you'll want to consider whether the terrain is flat or hilly as well as how much navigation is required.
Find more guidance on planning your virtual race course. here.
So, without the spectacle and excitement of an in-person event, how do you make a virtual race feel like a race rather than just another training run? Your approach will make the difference. Prepare for a virual race the same way you would for any race: lay out your gear the night before, eat your favorite pre-race meal, get plenty of rest. Pick out a starting line, start your watch, and GO. If it's safe to do so, invite a small group of friends and family to cheer you on along the course or meet you at the finish line; for that matter, make an actual finish line. Many casual runners have never had the experience of winning a race and breaking the tape, so now's your chance! Your virtual race will only have as much gravity as you give it.
If you were already signed up for a race that has gone virtual, it may seem like a letdown, especially if it's your first time running the distance or your first race in general. And signing up for a virtual event now might feel silly, like it's not a "real" race. It's certainly a different experience from the heady anticipation of a crowded start line, or letting yourself get swept along by a throng of runners. That energy and excitement will have to come from within. But for the majority of runners, who are not elite competitors, racing is primarily a competition against ourselves and our own expectations. It's a test of our limits, physical and mental. In that regard, a virtual race strips out the distractions and allows us to focus on the challenge we've set ourselves, evaluate our progress, and, at the end, achieve a goal. And if your motivation comes from other runners, whether in competition or in shared struggle, we still have plenty of ways to connect through apps like Strava and Garmin (join Fleet Feet's Strava club here!). So, while it's nice to have someone hand us a medal and a banana at the finish line, let's rework our concept of racing and embrace the virtual challenge until it's safe to get sweaty in crowds again.