The Case for and Against Virtual Races
I have this friend. We’ll call her Runs Way Faster Than Me.
We occasionally run together – me for a tempo run, her for a slow recovery – and she’s forced to make conversation to pass the time, because I’m too busy panting. The other day she said something that almost stopped me in my tracks, and not because I was tired. She told me she’d all but given up traditional races in favor of virtual races, or races where you complete the distance on your own at a time of your choosing.
“But … why?” I panted.
She had a long list of reasons. Most of the races in our area take too long to get to – she lives 20 miles outside of the city, so anything is a trek for her. But she also dislikes the process of having to find parking, of waiting in line for the Porta Potty, of having to reserve a weekend morning for running at a predetermined time.
Most of all, she said, she was starting to dislike the competition. Ours is a small running community, and the same people show up to the same races all over the region.
She had friendly rivalries with a few, she said, but others seemed to regard my friend, who regularly places in her age group at 5Ks, as nothing more than competition, a number to be mowed down when the starting gun goes off. Perhaps if they were a little nicer, Way Faster would enjoy the races more, she said. But they aren’t, and so she doesn’t.
I pondered this revelation for long after I’d turned off my GPS watch. Was my friend an anomaly? Or do others feel the same way?
Here’s what I found out.
There’s a war going on for the soul (sole?) of running. While I couldn’t find reliable figures on how many people have run virtual races, there’s general agreement that the number is going up. The question is whether it’s coming at the expense of traditional races and whether that matters. Are you less of a runner when you race against only the clock? Do you need to compete against other people on a preapproved course to show your mettle?
The answer isn’t yet clear. There are a number of pros and cons to the virtual race.
Convenient – You don’t even need to roll out the door to complete a race. You can do it on a treadmill in your basement if you want to.
Choose your time of day – If you’re not a morning person, you’re definitely not a morning runner. Alas, most traditional races start in the morning. With a virtual race, you can head out any time of day you choose, a huge plus to the virtual race.
Great Price – Virtual races are cheap. There’s almost no overhead, besides the medals, and so you can sign up for them for just a few bucks. That’s appealing at a time when race fees are climbing.
Weather – Most virtual races allow you to choose when you want to race within a certain time frame. If it’s raining one day, you can often postpone till the next without any penalty. Not so with regular races.
You don’t get to go anywhere – Many people love going new places to race. You get to go exploring, and you see the city from an entirely new angle when you run through it. A virtual race can’t give you that experience.
You don’t race against anyone – Have you ever been motivated to outkick someone who’s been drafting off of you the entire race as you near the finish line? We’ve all been there. Without the motivation in the form of another racer, that final sprint will be much slower in a virtual race.
You can do it on the treadmill – Having the option of completing a race on the “dreadmill” seems wrong. Bumping up the pace as you approach a faux “finish” line? Depressing.
You miss out on the water stops – Not having a water stop isn’t such a big deal in a shorter race. You can power through a 5K without stopping for water. But when you get to the 10K and above, water stations become a bigger deal. Without them, you could become dehydrated. You can certainly set out your own water along your route or take it with you, but having it provided for you along the course is, for my money, one of the main reasons to race.
You don’t get a sweet race picture – A few years ago during a half marathon, I noticed the race photographer crouching in front of me and my sister as we jogged up a hill. It was mile 11 and I was feeling punchy, so I made bunny ears above her head without saying a word. She didn’t know I’d done it, and when we pulled up the race photos later, she couldn’t stop laughing. It was a small, silly thing, but it also captured the manic emotion of the race. With a virtual competition, unless you have an extremely supportive spouse, no one will be trailing you to record the event for posterity.
You don’t get the sense of community – Seeing people at races, feeding off that energy, knowing you’re all there to accomplish the same goal – that’s what helps drive people to the finish line. I don’t race a lot, so when I do, I want it to feel special. I want the pomp and circumstance. I want the national anthem before the start and the loud, pumping music when I cross the finish line. I want whatever food they want to serve me at the finish line. I want to run alongside people I know from work, my kids’ schools and my neighborhood.
For my money, virtual races don’t hold a candle to traditional ones, but I have a feeling I’m becoming outnumbered on that one. At a time when people can work virtually and buy groceries virtually and play games virtually, virtual racing appears to be the wave of the future.