If virtual racing is our future, it’s time to reinvent the rules

One competitive runner’s quest to stop hating virtual runs by finding events doing things differently.

Amidst COVID-19, with big races like the Boston Marathon, the Berlin Marathon and the Royal Parks Half off the schedule for 2020, virtual racing seems like the only option runners will have for the foreseeable future. While everything has gone virtual since March, the idea of running a solo time trial just hasn’t appealed to the racer in me, one who thrives on chasing down runners in the final stretch of the race.

Learning to Love/Hate Virtual Racing

Before trying a relay, however, I had to race this Brooklyn Mile. Given some of the times I’d hit in training, I was hoping to run a 5:30 mile or better. However, that goal would really only be feasible if everything went right. And alas, it did not. Here are some things I learned when doing my first virtual race.

Pick Good Weather: I had three days when I could have run my mile: June 19, 20, or 21. The first two turned out to be relatively mild in terms of both temperature (a high of 26 degrees Celsius, a low of 21) and humidity. However, I had preselected Sunday, June 21, as my ‘race day.’ When I stepped outside on Sunday, it felt like breathing in pea soup. I was sweating before I took a single step.

If a virtual race gives you flexibility on when to run, don’t ignore it just because that’s what you’ve always done for traditional races; use it to your advantage!

Secure Your Location: I originally planned to race my mile on a track. I wanted to have a sense of my progress and, even more importantly, know exactly where the finish line was. However, when I showed up to the track where I intended to run, I found it fenced in and padlocked.

This lesson is simple: Unlike in traditional racing, no one shuts down your virtual race route for you—so scope it out in advance.

Obey the Watch: I wound up on a flat paved trail and jogged a mile down to find some ‘landmarks’: a trail marker at about 400 meters, an orange traffic sign near 1200 meters, and an open fence gate at the ‘finish’ would have to do. Then I did some drills to get loose, lined up behind a crack in the pavement, and ran as hard as I could.

I had hoped that seeing my chosen trail markers would be enough to get me to ‘dig’. Unfortunately, without other runners nearby, my adrenaline refused to surge. When I finally glimpsed my finish-line fence up ahead, I tried to pretend an old man walking nearby was a competitor, but he was already past my finish line, and he was an old man on a walk. Finally I reached that fence… but, thanks to GPS verification for results, I had to keep running until my watch beeped. Those extra seconds may as well have been centuries.

The lesson? In traditional racing the course is measured for you. In virtual racing you must be a slave to your watch. Be prepared and don’t let up until you hear that beep.

Record Only Your Race: Finally, the race was over… or so I thought.

When I got home, I still needed to upload my result. In anticipation of this task, I had restarted my watch for each part of my run—the warmup, the race, and the cooldown. Yet when I synced my Garmin to the results website, all three runs got lumped into a single entry. I tried to separate out my ‘race’ mile, but to no avail. (I wound up having to email the race director to find a solution.)

So save only the race distance on your watch. You should warm up and cool down, of course, but if you record these runs on your watch, delete them before you upload data to any results pages.

Reimagining Racing

‘If you run a small race, you have to think outside the box and do things that excite and interest people,’ said Cooper Knowlton, founder of the race organisation Trials of Miles. To do that, he created Survival of the Fastest, a single-elimination March-Maddness-style running tournament. Each week runners ‘face off’ (virtually) in a given distance (1 mile to 10K), and the best time advances. That tournament is currently underway—you can ‘watch’ via @trialsofmilesracing on Instagram—but he just opened registration for his next brainchild: a 4-week virtual track meet called Beat the Heat.


Just like in a normal track meet, runners must outrace their competition in a series of heats in order to compete in the finals. (Roughly half of the competitors will be eliminated each week.) However, at this meet, each round will feature a different race distance, and runners will have one week to submit their time.’I think having another person in mind, even if it’s a complete stranger, helps to light the competitive fire,’ Knowlton said. ‘I’m trying to give people added incentive to get out there.’

Joe DiNoto, founder of Orchard Street Runners, has always looked to break the traditional racing mould. His in-person races have always been alley-cat style, so for the OSR Global Challenge (now finished), there were virtually no rules or restrictions; runners anywhere in the world were encouraged to run the fastest course—for any distance—they could find, as many times as they wanted.

This resulted in a collegiate runner matching the men’s world record in the mile (on a downhill course), and two professional Canadian runners battling it out to become KOM (King of the Mountain) in the 10K. ‘Some people get angered when you flout classic requirements of what races should be,’ DiNoto said. ‘So I tell them, “Try it and tell me how you feel.”‘

Similar to the MA-RA-TH-ON in early June, there are also virtual relays. TSP DIY is latest to hit the scene: It’s a September race where teams (or solo runners) will have 31 hours and 15 minutes to run as many miles as they can, relay-style, on any route they want, anywhere in the world. I’m already signed up for this, because the race takes place on a friend’s birthday, and this is how she wants to celebrate—by relay-racing virtually with me and four other women.

I can’t say I’m a convert after my virtual race experience, but this also may be in large part because I was disappointed with my time. I ran 5:38, which was only good enough for a VDOT level 5. Had I run faster (specifically 53 seconds faster, which I couldn’t have done even on a good day), I would have been guaranteed a small cut of the nearly $2,500 prize purse.

So maybe, just maybe, this September virtual relay with my friends will get me excited. After all, I can always use something to train for.

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