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Why You Should Bite the Bullet and Run a Virtual Race

Experts weigh in on why it’s time, both from a psychological and training standpoint, to accept what we still have and embrace virtual racing.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

It’s an aphorism often attributed to Voltaire, though more likely as old as humanity, and it’s particularly apt, these days, for runners longing for racing as we once knew it.

Yes, virtual races can’t match the bustle and commotion and head-to-head excitement we once took for granted. But the reality is that other than a few small events with staggered starts, virtual races are all we have. Rather than disdain them in favor of traditional races that might still be a year (or more) away, it’s time, both from a psychological and training standpoint, to accept what we still have and embrace it… especially if you live in a part of the country where impending snow will soon make even virtual racing difficult.

Means of Escape

To begin with, running as hard as you can, even no one is actually in sight and all you are trying to do is beat a time that someone posted yesterday, is a good way to forget COVID-19 doldrums and the depression, malaise, and anxiety that all too often come with them.

The main thing, says Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay, is not to just give up on the year and miss the physical and emotional “jolt” of racing. If you do, he says, there are two likely outcomes, neither of them good. (1) You may just “drift off” from racing, and never return; or (2) you may find the return “extra difficult” once the type of racing we once knew comes back. Both are particularly likely to be the case if the COVID-19 pandemic persists late into 2021, or, heaven forbid, 2022.

Virtual racing, Simons says, may not be perfect, but at least it gives you the opportunity to put yourself on the line in pursuit of a goal. “[It] can be more similar in that way to ‘real’ racing than many think,” he adds.

Leah Brown Photo: Terri Smith

Portland, Oregon, runner Leah Brown agrees. A fan of always seeking new challenges, last year she raced everything from the mile (5:41.30) to a 100-mile ultra (21:58:01). Now, with conventional racing on hold, she’s switched to whatever challenges are available. For example, she says, she’s doing a 5-race quasi-virtual cross-country series (self-timed, like normal virtual races, but run on set courses that everyone has seven days to attempt).

“It’s an incentive for me to shove myself out of my comfort zone and do something I normally wouldn’t do,” she says. “I know that if I want to get better as a runner, I have to do things [like that]”—and virtual races give her the opportunity to do them.

“I’m afraid of getting complacent,” she says.

She also does virtual races as a way to support local race promoters. “I want to see them continue to make it and be able to host races in real life, whenever that may be,” she says.

To add spice, she and friends often sign up for the same event, with a small bet on the side, such as “loser buys beer or coffee” or “winner gets to pick anything they want (within reason), like loser has to run the next route in a tutu—silly things to keep it interesting and add friendly competition.”

Return to Normalcy

Biting the bullet and doing a virtual race is also important, says Ben Rosario, head coach of Hoka’s Northern Arizona Elite program, because in these uncertain times, it’s important to add some type of certainty into your life. “That’s what you’re used to as a runner,” he says. “You’re used to picking a race, signing up, and training for it. When you put a virtual race on the calendar, it kind of kicks you into gear and puts you in that mode of training for something important.”

And if you’ve not tried this yet, better sooner than later. “The sooner you put something on the calendar, the sooner you put some normalcy back into your life,” he says.

“For most people, the end of February or early March was their last real race,” says Amy Yoder Begley, head coach of the Atlanta Track Club. “Since then it has been delay after delay. As we head into winter, it is time to see what our current fitness is. If we wait much longer, the weather won’t give us the best indicator of [it].”

In doing so, however, it’s important not to view virtual racing as a weak substitute for the real thing and go at it half-heartedly. Go into it “as [you] would normally do for live races, if we did not have the COVID epidemic upon us,” says Paul Greer, coach of the San Diego Track Club.

Simons concurs. Like Rosario, he encourages training for the race like it’s the real thing, not some pale substitute for what you truly want. Then, on race days, he says, engage in “preparatory routines” similar to those you would normally do going into an important race.

“Create a specialness around the virtual event that takes time and thought in the lead up, and commitment in getting ready and pacing it all out,” he says.

Photo: Ben Rosario

And, he says, “make sure to share the event in as many ways as possible to simulate what you do for actual racing (friends, family, training partners, etc.).” I.e., don’t be afraid to tell your supporters what you are doing and put yourself on the line for it, just as you would for a more normal race.

“Then,” he says, “really go for it. Find out what you can do.”

Exciting Experience

When all is said and done, he asks, “how would one like to look back on their racing experience in this bizarre year? As a complete bust and defeat? Or as a time that we all did some crazy, different things to stay sane and stay connected.”

Brown has come to the same conclusion. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from this strange year is how to adapt, whether willingly or kicking and screaming,” she says. “Instead of feeling defeated about everything getting canceled, I’m trying to reframe my thinking into this being the year I learn how to do things differently, which will probably be to my benefit in ways I haven’t realized yet.” In fact, she says, “getting more okay with things not going as expected is a good skill to have.”

Doing a virtual race can also give you something to get energized about. Sure, it’s not a “real” race. But it’s still a race. It’s something to get excited over. Something to anticipate.

Excitement and anticipation are good things. Normal things. Things we want to seek out and cherish. They are emotional reminders not of what we’ve lost, but of what we can still taste now. Reminders that there will be other things to anticipate, cherish, and become excited about in the future. Reminders that this virus has not stolen our humanity.