Due to the ongoing pandemic, we have experienced unprecedented disruption in nearly every aspect of our lives. Everyday life has changed significantly in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect one another. When it comes to fitness, training methods have shifted to a more independent, home-bound model, and popular competitions including races have been postponed.
However, as the pandemic persists, some race organizers have begun to adopt digital strategies to encourage participation without requiring individuals to directly engage with other runners. This is the age of the virtual race, in which the location does not matter as much as the distance covered.
Virtual races are not new, but this year has certainly increased their popularity. Embracing the socially-distant climate, virtual races help runners avoid dangerous crowds and participate in exciting events at the same time. The races that have emerged or adapted to new standards this year vary widely in scale and duration, ranging from local 5ks to global races spanning multiple years and thousands of miles. While these virtual events cannot completely replace traditional races, the use of technology to connect runners and document their progress has been a welcome transition this year.
The famous Boston Marathon has taken a technological approach to data entry and progress tracking in the wake of the pandemic. While this race, scheduled for April of 2020, had originally been cancelled, the event has now taken a virtual approach, enabling the connection of wearable tech to the marathon’s official app to aid in tracking runners’ progress. Participants may also choose to enter their time manually. Through the official Boston Marathon Virtual Experience app, participants are able to utilize GPS tracking to not only document their progress but also transpose their relative position on the actual Boston Marathon course. The app also features unique audio clips including the official start sound, cheering at specific points of the race, and motivational comments from previous participants. Only individuals who had registered for the original race were eligible to participate in the virtual race, and the virtual marathon period lasted from September 5 through the 14, allowing multiple opportunities for runners to participate in case of scheduling conflicts.
The Circumpolar Race Around the World (CRAW) embraces a nuanced view of the planet and encourages teams of runners to participate in a two-year-long race that has each team ultimately covering at least 30,000 miles across up to 12 regions. The extent of this race makes it so that a traditional format—with one standard course, a common starting position, and an established finish line—would not work. Instead, a virtual race is actually the ideal structure, in which participants can tackle each region at their own pace and independently record their progress using the provided RunSignUp system. Participants may use trackers such as Fitbits or Aura rings to keep a record of the distance they’ve traveled as well as the routes they’ve taken, but these devices are not connected to the CRAW event, making it imperative that participants manually enter their data. This race began on September 1, 2020.
It is uncertain when, or if, traditional races will resume. For the time being, virtual races offer opportunities for runners to participate in competitions wherever they are, on their own time, using the technology most of them already have on hand. Through GPS tracking, virtual races can provide a sense of progress and achievement on any route, offering runners a unique chance to challenge themselves and feel the pride of success upon completion, even without crossing an official finish line.