2020 Update: When I first wrote this post in 2017, virtual races were an odd little corner of the running world few runners had heard of. How times have changed.
When you think about a ‘race,’ chances are you think of a mass of humanity running together. A crowd at the start, endless porta-potty lines, and a small army of volunteers making it all happen.
And until recently, if you were going to run a race, that is what it meant.
But in the last few years another option has arisen: the virtual race.
The What Of Virtual Races
A What Race?
Every virtual race is set up slightly differently, but they are generally races that you complete at any time, at any location, at any pace you want.
While some races will have you submit proof of race completion (via Garmin, Strava, Fitbit, or treadmill readouts), most are on the honor system.
You often can print out your own race bib, and you get a race medal to commemorate your success.
Who Puts Them On
While virtual races were once a pretty niche thing, they have gone mainstream.
Two of the largest race event organizers in the US, the Rock n Roll Race Series and Run Disney, have multiple virtual run options.
The virtual races I am most familiar with are put on by the Hogwarts Running Club (HRC). I’m a dork, what can I say? As a Ravenclaw, I couldn’t resist a book themed running club. HRC puts on a virtual race (Potter themed, of course) every month or so. The driving force of HRC is philanthropy, so each race is tied to a related charity that receives the bulk of the race proceeds.
Increasingly, real-life races also offer virtual versions.
My favorite trail running company in San Francisco – Brazen Racing – offers virtual racing options for its races. Their shirts and medals are amazing and a virtual race (or ‘remote racing’ as they call it) is a great way to get in on the fun. Sadly, you need to supply your own ice cream (Brazen is known for having It’s It ice cream sandwiches at the finish).
But what about the community of runners, you may ask. One of the great things about doing a ‘real’ race is sharing the experience with others.
Many virtual races have active Facebook and Instagram communities to post your race photos and to support other runners. So you don’t need to miss out on the community.
Just look for the appropriate links and hashtags on the race site.
Why You Should Add Them Into Your Race Calendar
When I first heard of virtual races, I was skeptical. ‘What is the point of that?’ I thought. You pay money to register and then do everything for yourself? Why don’t you just go for a run like you do every other day?
And then I actually tried one and enjoyed the experience.
Virtual races are a great way to add a new focus and intentionality to your running. It can break up the same ol’ same ol’.
While I know some runners thrive on the energy of race crowds, others (myself included) can struggle a bit with the mass of humanity.
Virtual races can be a great way to ‘race’ without having to elbow anyone out of your way, or without getting elbowed yourself.
Running a race obscenely early on Sunday morning doesn’t work into everyone’s schedule.
Fighting race day street closures and parking can be stressful.
Virtual races are whenever, wherever. Some may have a suggested run day (for example, Mother’s Day themed runs), but if that doesn’t work, change it – run when it works best for you and your calendar.
No race day parking required.
Virtually Endless Themes and Causes
Pretty much any possible theme or charitable cause has a virtual race and medal.
I already mentioned Disney, Rock n Roll, and Hogwarts. The organizers of Hogwarts also organize Dr. Who and other fandom themed running clubs and races.
There are companies that organize virtual races to support pretty much any theme or charitable organization that you support.
Working towards an event (and medal) that you will enjoy, that is involved in your particular fandom, or that benefits a charity that you believe in, can add an extra pep into your step.
Cheaper and Charitable
Virtual races are way cheaper than real life races since they don’t have to pay for permits, insurance, road closures, food, porta-potties and the million other things that make up a ‘real’ race. For example, as of this writing, the Disney virtual 5Ks are $40, compared to the $80+ it costs to register for IRL 5Ks.
Many virtual races also have a large charitable component, with the majority of money raised going to a charity. For example, $21 of the $25 entry fee to the Hogwarts races goes to charity (and is tax-deductible).
If you are doing a ‘real’ 5k and you have a bad race, that’s it. That was your chance.
If you aren’t happy with your virtual race, just do it again.
Keep doing it until you are happy with the results.
You Know You Won’t Be Last
Virtual races can be great for beginning runners who may be intimidated by the idea of registering for a race.
There is no sag wagon, and no course time limit. There is no fear of being last, because there is no last runner.
I guess technically you are last, but that also means you are technically first.
Early congrats on winning your virtual race!
Do A Longer Race
Many virtual races allow you to break up the race into several shorter runs, so running a virtual half marathon or marathon can be a great confidence booster. If you are intimated by doing a ‘real’ half marathon, a virtual half will break you in slowly since you can run it a mile at a time.
Before you know it, a half marathon is in the books!
What about you? Have you ever run a virtual race?