Road Races

In 2020, Virtual Racing Becomes a Reality

The digital racing revolution has arrived, and it's featuring massive events from major race organizers, and quirky, imaginative efforts from innovative individuals.

Looking back, it now seems a miracle that the Atlanta Track Club pulled off a successful U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29. Six weeks later, the Boston Marathon didn’t have a chance. By then, COVID-19 had brought the country to a near standstill, and with it all road racing. 

Now we’re in early July, and the situation hasn’t changed. Everyone’s antsy and frustrated. With hours of saved commute time, many runners are training hard and getting very fit. But they can’t find races. On the flip side of the coin, race organizers and associated businesses — t-shirt and medal vendors, timing companies, and race photographers — have seen their revenues hit the wall. Many wonder if they will survive. 

“The effect on events and small running businesses has been devastating,” says Rich Harshberger, CEO of running industry group Running USA. Its members include everyone from World Marathon Majors to neighborhood 5Ks. “Then virtual racing came along and provided a good alternative, although not a complete replacement for traditional races.”

Indeed virtual races (VRs) are now virtually (ha ha) the only game in town. They’ve developed so fast and furiously that it’s tough to predict their ultimate role in the sport. 

We know only this for sure. Big players have entered the fray. The Boston Marathon, Ironman triathlon, Rock ’n’ Roll race series, Falmouth Road Race, and New York City Marathon are for the first time heavily promoting VR editions of their highly-prized events. A Dutch race team that’s little-known in the U.S. drew 103,000 registrants to its four-person relay “Ma ra th on,” thanks to Eliud Kipchoge’s name and Strava’s huge global database of endurance athletes.

At the same time, there are new players everywhere — some aiming for fun, some dreaming of profit. For example, a Philadelphia-based marathon fan pulled off a closely-watched running equivalent to college basketball’s Final Four tournament. Boston race director Dave McGillivray hastily (and virtually) recreated his 1978 solo run across America with a relay named Medford2Medford. And a grizzled, free-thinking ultra organizer cobbled together a virtual four-month, 600-mile Race Across Tennessee and improbably drew 19,000 paying customers. (Note to newbie organizers: Dream up a great acronym like RAT.)

Boston

Detail of the Boston Marathon on empty street the day it would have been run.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Boston Marathon faced arguably the rockiest road of all this year, with its traditional mid-April date falling just a month after the first strong COVID advisories. Those made it impossible to stage the April 20 running of the 124th consecutive Boston Marathon. Organizers rescheduled the Marathon to September 14, then had to cancel outright, announcing that the usual Hopkinton to Boston extravaganza would be replaced by the 124th Boston Marathon Virtual Experience from September 7 to September 14.

Details of the Virtual Experience were released July 2. Unlike most other virtual races, which aspire to attract large numbers of participants, the Boston Experience is limited to only the 31,000 runners who originally entered the April 20 race. These individuals received a special code by email at 10 a.m. today, July 7.

At that point, the first 15,000 to register for the Virtual Experience, which carries a $50 price tag, will receive pre- and post-Marathon packages delivered by Amazon. The packages will include a race bib and training items from Boston sponsors (pre-race), and a participant shirt, medal, and Marathon Program (post-race). To be considered a finisher, participants will have to complete 26.2 miles in one continuous run on any day between September 7-September 14. 

The Virtual Experience will also include an app and web platform for results uploading, leaderboard tracking, and “unique Boston Marathon audio cues.” That’s presumably code for screaming Wellesley coeds. More details can be found here.

Ironman and Rock ’n’ Roll

No endurance business was harder hit by COVID-19 than the Ironman Group (IG), which includes both the famous Ironman Triathlons and the Rock ’n’ Roll road race series. Since the beginning of 2020, IG has had to cancel more than 100 large-scale events around the globe. To complicate matters further, in late March IG agreed to be sold to a new owner, Advance Publications, Inc.

Several weeks later, IG began rolling out virtual triathlon and road race events almost every weekend. By late June, IG had drawn more than 400,000 registrants to these races, with about 65 percent of that figure actually logging results. 

In a Forbes magazine interview, Andrew Messick, the CEO of IG, explained a key company decision: It had made all the events free. “We are happy to provide some goal-oriented inspiration for our community at a time when health, wellness, and community are so important,” Messick said.

Of course, “free” is the most powerful word that can be used in any promotional campaign. By employing it, IG guaranteed that it would attract the largest-possible audience, gaining an opportunity to sell them an assortment of branded swag. It’s impossible to say how successful IG has been in this arena, but a conservative estimate would put its haul well north of $1 million. Not content to recycle old warehouse overstock, IG has created entirely new lines of VR gear for its two big brands. (See Rock ’n’ Roll VR store here.

Woman decked out in ironman swag.
Photo: Ray Britt

Falmouth

By entering the 2020 Falmouth Road Race “At Home Edition,” participants in this summer’s event will have two weeks to accumulate the 7-mile distance of the winding, scenic course along the Atlantic Ocean. To encourage registration, organizers point out how easy it will be: “Run or walk, all at once or a mile a day for 7 days — everyone can do this race!”

The hyperlocal, nonprofit Falmouth race makes clear that it will use the $50 fee to benefit the town and its residents. For example, the race offers college scholarships every year to graduating high schoolers, and will also make a donation of $5000 to Cape Kid Meals, which offers “grab and go” meals to students. In addition, this year the Falmouth Road Race will purchase $35,000 in gift cards from local businesses, and award these cards on a random basis to entrants in the virtual race.

New York City Marathon

The TCS NYC Marathon had spent several years planning for a big 50th anniversary party this November, but COVID changed that. (The first NYC Marathon was run in Central Park in 1970.) 

This summer and fall the organizers will see how far they can push a VR alternative. The Marathon offered a VR option the last two years, but didn’t put much marketing behind the effort, attracting 425 VR finishers in 2018 and 2,828 last year. The New York Road Runners’ biggest virtual race to date, the 2020 Virtual Resolution Run 5K, had 16,246 finishers.

Now, with a promotional blitz scheduled to launch in several weeks, the NYC Marathon will no doubt aim for a virtual record among World Marathon Majors, just like the record it already holds for physical entrants — 53,627 finishers. Its partnership with Strava should guarantee worldwide saturation.

Final details haven’t been released yet, but the Virtual 2020 NYCM will include everything from a free option to various paid selections. Some will include a guaranteed entry into the 2021 Marathon — a hot ticket every year. At any rate, the Virtual 2020 NYCM, which can be run any time from October 17 to November 1, seems likely to create a stir. 

“Now more than ever, people are looking to connect with family, friends, and their fellow runners,” says Michael Capiraso, president and CEO of New York Road Runners. “A virtual race allows us to make these community connections in a manner that’s safe, responsible, and following local health guidelines.”

Boston Buddies Tournament

Last April a marathon and basketball fan named Vince Varallo was bemoaning the loss of both the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament and the next month’s Boston Marathon. So Varallo, who has qualified for the last nine Boston Marathons, combined the two… sorta. 

He came up with a double-bracket, single-elimination, no-entry-fee “tournament” for 128 Boston Marathon runners. The racers, who quickly signed up through a Facebook “Boston Buddies” group, faced off against each other in 5K races on seven successive weekends from May 16 through June 28. Since the racers ranged in age from 14 (Dave McGillivray’s son, Luke) to 81 (Roger Robinson, who got whipped by 79-yr-old Helen Sabourin), Varallo scored each race with the age-graded system.

 Entrants included 34-year-old Charles Smogoleski, who pushed his two children in a double running stroller to a 15:22 one weekend; 46-year-old ultra superman Michael Wardian, who continued running ultras while finding time for a fast 5K every weekend; and 72-year old Gene Dykes, the fastest over-70 marathoner of all time. 

Dykes seemed the pre-tourney favorite, based on a 19:18 he ran in March. But he injured himself on first weekend, opening the door to others. (You can see the full double-bracket results in this public Google document.)

 The Championship Race came down to Wardian, from the greater Washington, D.C. area, vs. Carol Sexton, 63, from Seattle Washington. She has a marathon best of 3:19 at the California International Marathon last December, but otherwise lacked the national “name recognition” of many others who competed in the Boston Buddies Tournament.

 No longer. On Sunday, June 28, Sexton ran a solo track 5000 in a personal best 19:46, which age-graded down to 14:38 — enough to beat Wardian’s speedy 15:51. Sexton, a retired financial executive, says she had expected to advance only until she faced Dykes. “I was excited about racing Michael in the championship, but tried to stay calm,” she adds. “Running alone involves a lot of self-talk for me. I compartmentalized the distance — one straightaway at a time, one lap at a time — and tried to stay smooth and steady.”

The Race Across Tennessee

In late January, Gary Cantrell, sometimes known as Laz Lake, was organizing another year of sadistic, mostly-impossible ultra races when he first heard about a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. Two months later, he realized he might not be putting on any races in 2020. “I had too much time sitting around the house doing nothing,” he recalls. “That’s never a good idea.”

Laz already had a worldwide reputation for creative ultra races like the famed Barkley Marathon and the original Big’s Backyard Ultra. These and his other little adventures go mostly undescribed at the aptly named VacationWithoutACar.com website.

By April, sure enough, too much sitting around had led Laz to a new brainstorm. Why not put on a virtual Race Across Tennessee (RAT) that would give participants four months (May through August) to cover roughly 1000 kilometers. In other words, they’d have to run a bit over 5 miles per day; this ranked the RAT as Laz’s most reasonable race idea ever. He mentioned it in a Facebook post, and also on the ultramarathon listserv.

Laz was well pleased. He believed he had hatched a good concept that might interest 200 runners. By the end of the day, he had 2000. A couple of weeks later, the number had swelled to 19,000. In other words, with no marketing expense, Laz and several of his self-proclaimed “Hillybilly friends” created a first-time virtual event seductive enough that legions of runners would pay $60 for a t-shirt and a medal. They also got a Facebook group for talking about the critters they spotted on the roads and trails, and some well-worn-but-nonetheless-motivational training advice from Laz himself. 

Laz swears the RAT hasn’t turned him into the next Warren Buffett. He figures his little race company — “a private business with a charity bent” — will net about 10 percent of revenues. “The food bank we’re supporting will make more than we do,” he says. “We’re basically just replacing lost revenue from the other races we would have organized in 2020, but can’t due to the pandemic.”

Other than the amazing number of entries, Laz has been most surprised by his changed view of social media. He used to scoff and denigrate. Not now. “I’ll never be disparaging about social media again,” he notes. “The people on our Facebook group have been astonishing — positive and inclusive toward each other. It’s been a genuine education for me.”

What’s Next? 

Creativity always spurs more creativity, and large virtual races will spawn still-more-ambitious virtual races. VR is here to stay. Not to sound too much like a Silicon Valley startup, but it represents a whole new world.

Raymond Britt, an Ironman veteran, business consultant and endurance-industry analyst with RunTriMedia, has been tracking race-participant trends for two decades. And he’s decidedly optimistic that virtual events will lead to a bigger, better, more inclusive sport. “These events have opened the door to a new, incremental segment of runners, namely those who have been reluctant in the past,” Britt observes. 

Why have they been reluctant? Maybe they felt they weren’t “good enough” and would be embarrassed or even ridiculed at a race. Maybe they didn’t know what to wear, or feel that they would fit in. Maybe they worried about finishing last. Maybe they didn’t want the hassle, time, and expense of traveling to a race location. Maybe they didn’t want to run in cold, heat, or rain. Add all of these determents together, sprinkle in a few more, and you have a substantial number of regular runners who never raced.

A Running USA survey released in March verified a number of these possibilities. Among individuals who had entered virtual races the previous fall, the biggest motivators were: good swag (33%), support for a  worthy charity (28%), and to avoid travel hassles (28%). These are strong, and easy-to-understand motivators — ones with staying power. Only seven percent chose competition as an inducement. 

Britt says he’s spotting droves of these runners on social media posts, especially Instagram. They’re posing proudly with their newly-won shirts and medals. “Virtual racing has brought tens of thousands of new runners into the fold,” he observes. “This is a great outcome for the whole running community.”