After the coronavirus cancelled my marathon this month, I made the decision to run the marathon virtually. I wanted to push myself in a way that I hadn’t ever before, and remind myself of how strong I am during this time of stress and anxiety. As I was running, and reflecting on what I wanted to share about this experience, I realized that there are probably a lot of other runners right now who are considering virtual racing. With that in mind, I wanted to create a full guide for running a virtual race. So here it is, everything you need to know to successfully run a virtual 5k, 10k, half, or full marathon.
What Is a Virtual Race
First of all, let’s go over what exactly a virtual race is. Now, virtual racing isn’t something that was created as an alternative to traditional races because of the COVID-19 precautions. There have been plenty of virtual races in the past, like the Ginger Runner Global Run. Every race might have slightly different rules, but here’s general picture.
With a virtual race, you sign up online just like you would for most traditional road or trail races. You pay your entry fee, and you guarantee your slot. Then, you run your designated distance within the prescribed time frame. Sometimes it’s a weekend or a specific day, other times it’s a longer time span like a week. After you complete your run, you upload your time through whatever platform the race is utilizing (Strava, email submission, etc). You generally receive your race swag in the mail either after you complete the race, or just before.
Most virtual races also come with some kind of virtual community component. You may have access to virtual meetups through Zoom or Facebook Live, or there might be a Facebook group where you can connect with other racers all over the world.
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Benefits of Virtual Racing
So why run a virtual race? For a lot of runners out there it might seem somewhat anti-climatic. Honestly, I was one of those runners. I kind of thought most of the fun in racing involved the travel and experience of running with other runners through crowds and across a finish line. And I definitely love that part of racing; especially since most races have beer at the finish these days.
And while I’m certainly not a virtual race-only convert, I have learned that there are some definite benefits. The most obvious is that in the current environment of social distancing, virtual racing is a way for runners to still run and compete with one another without getting each other sick. Which is pretty great. But there are some non-viral benefits to virtual racing as well.
Virtual races tend to ship out some pretty good race swag; above and beyond what you might expect at a local race. The reason for this is that race directors don’t have the same amount of overhead costs, like permits, off-duty officers, and the incredibly important port-a-potties. There’s also a lot of flexibility that virtual racing offers that traditional races can’t. Obviously, you can run anywhere. You can start right outside your door step, or on your favorite trail, or even on a treadmill if you’re a real masochist.
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You can also begin your race at a time that’s convenient and fun for you. I prefer to run early so that I have the rest of the day to be as lazy as possible, but you might decide that you want to sleep in and just start when you’re ready. You might also decide that a night race would be better, or to wait until the sun comes up. The point is that unlike traditional races which have a specified gun time, virtual races start when you start running. For someone who likes to have maximum control (right hand raised high), getting to pick the time and location has a certain appeal.
Training For a Virtual Race
Just like running a virtual race is slightly different than running a traditional race, there might be some changes you want to make when training for a virtual run. So what should you consider adjusting? Well, it depends on if you’ll be adjusting your goals. For me, I knew there was no real reason to try and run a Boston Qualifying time if I wasn’t going to get that BQ entrance. In fact, it probably would have just frustrated me more.
So, if you plan on running slightly slower than you would in a goal race, consider adjusting your training to reflect your anticipated pacing. You might also adjust or shorten your taper if you plan to just run the distance for fun as opposed to a specific time goal. The purpose of a taper is to rest your body before a hard push, and if you’re not planning on pushing all that hard, you might not need a significant taper.
What is the same, though, is that you will be running some prescribed distance. And for most runners, the distance will be somewhat challenging. So it would be wise to make sure you are adequately prepared to run that distance. Can you run a half-marathon with your longest run clocking in at 6 miles? Probably. Will it hurt? Most definitely. So, do yourself a favor and train appropriately for the set distance. Because DNR’ing a virtual race sounds like a really bad time.
Preparing for a Virtual Race
If you’ve trained appropriately, you need to start preparing for the race. Which is a significantly different process than training for a traditional race. How so? Well, there isn’t a designated course, so that part is up to you to map out. Can you leave that until the morning of to figure out? Sure. But just like I don’t recommend taking the GRE hungover, I wouldn’t recommend not planning your race route.
There’s lots of options here, of course. You can map out a road loop using MapMyRun, or an out and back course might be more convenient. If you have a way of getting back to the start, you might decide to do a traditional point to point course. A word of advice here, though, don’t plan on relying on Uber or Lift to get back to the start. You’ll probably stink, and waiting around for a rideshare is not the most exciting way to celebrate your achievement.
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Another point to put some thought into is figuring out your resources for course support. Do you need to carry your own water and fuel? Do you have a significant other, or a really incredible friend, that might be able to meet you once or twice to give you fuel? If you plan on doing multiple loops, do you want to just leave your fuel at your doorstep? All things to consider. Don’t go into a race without a plan for fueling. There is nothing worse than being tired AND hungry.
Leading up to the race, I recommend eating as you normally would before a traditional race. For a 5k or 10k, this likely means just eating what you eat every other day of the year. For a half or full marathon, you probably want to adjust and increase calories and carbs a couple of days before the race. Carb loading is one of my favorite pre-race rituals, and there’s no way I’m turning down the pancakes just because the race is virtual. And speaking of pancakes, I always recommend getting your race-day breakfast prepped the day before. If you need some idea’s for breakfast options, my recommendations can be found here.
Every runner will have a very unique race experience and set up, but I have a few recommendations and points for anyone whose feeling a little lost leading up to a virtual race. During the race itself, I highly recommend finding some way to your carry your phone and a method of payment (credit card, ApplePay, etc). During a traditional race, if you step off a curb and twist your ankle, you probably aren’t all that far from a medic if you need one. Obviously, this is not the case for a virtual race.
And regardless of how strong you feel, you never know what your virtual course is going to throw at you. So be prepared to call for help. Make sure at least one responsible (evaluate your friends honestly) person knows what you are doing and is willing to be close to their phone just in case. Which brings me to my next recommendation.
I’m not someone that easily admits they need help, but when you run a virtual race, it really helps to ask for some support. Whether it’s someone to meet you at the end with muffins and beer, or someone you can send a quick text message to when you get bored. Running a virtual race is tough, and you don’t need to make it more difficult by being stubborn. Which is also hard for me to admit.
One way you can elicit some support is through the virtual world. Pretty crazy for a virtual race, right? But sharing your goal and decision to run a virtual race on social media can be a pretty fun experience, especially if the race has ways for other racers to connect with one another.
My final recommendation is to have some sort of entertainment lined up. A couple of good podcasts, an audiobook, a sermon (because you might really need Jesus), whatever. If you’ve got a longer race, and you’re running solo, you’re probably going to get bored at some point. And you’ll probably need a good distraction from how your feet are feeling towards the end. Without crowds and bands and little kids to give you high-fives, it’s even more crucial to have your own entertainment lined up.
I mentioned earlier that I had never had any interest in a virtual marathon, prior to the coronavirus cancelling my A race. There are plenty of virtual options for races every month of the year, and while I knew they existed, I just wasn’t really interested. Sure, I’ll run long training runs on my own. But honestly, I just wasn’t motivated to pay a registration fee to have a medal shipped to me. After this experience, though virtual races may have a more permanent spot in my race calendar.
I decided to run a virtual marathon because when my race was cancelled, I needed something hard to focus on. With all of the chaos that is outside of my control, I reached for something that I could control. A hard thing that I actively chose, instead of a hard thing that chose me. I also felt like it would be a good way to channel all of the anxious energy I was having a hard time containing. Finally, I wanted to prove to myself that I could take on the distance of a marathon without relying on the energy of the race to get me through.
And I did it. I proved to myself that I can take on challenges that come my way unexpectedly. I reminded myself that I have the ability to decide how I respond to difficult situations, and that I can choose to take the more fulfilling, but challenging, option. And I’m really glad I had the opportunity to recognize this. Even if it does mean that my A race had to be cancelled in order to force my hand.
In fact, running this virtual marathon gave me the unique opportunity to share my story and passion for running as a means of self-care and mental health. After writing about my decision to run a virtual marathon, I was contacted by a local news station who asked to discuss my motivation and plans for running 26.2 miles alone. I had such a fun time. To watch the interview and story, take a look at Marathon Canceled, Runner Decides to Do it Alone.
When I started planning my virtual marathon, I knew I wanted to run on the Leon Creek Greenway, as I’ve done a number of long runs there. It seemed most simple to plan an out and back course that was a mix of pavement and trail. I mapped out my route using the website Plot a Route, as MapMyRun doesn’t always map trails correctly. The trail kept things interesting, while the pavement allowed me to run steady and easily. Running an out and back gave me the ability to meet up with my boys at about mile 9 & 17, without having to do too much coordinating or planning.
I also decided to carry my own water and fuel in my Nathan VapowerHowe vest to avoid using water fountains. If there wasn’t a viral pandemic happening, I probably would have just carried my fuel and not worried about water. Seeing as how I decided to try to rely on mostly liquid calories through Tailwind Nutrition, it worked out well for me. I carried one bottle of water and one bottle with Tailwind mix. When I met up with my boys at mile 17, I refilled both bottles and finished out the remaining 9 miles.
My strategy for this race was to keep my pacing easy and steady. I know my next PR will most likely be a Boston Qualifying time, and honestly I knew I would have been more frustrated than anything if I had finished under the BQ timeline without the BQ achievement. I’ve been fighting for that qualifying time for years, and I didn’t need anything else to feel angry about. I ran mostly negative splits, but that wasn’t really the goal; the goal was just to survive and run without forcing anything.
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I wanted to run solely for the experience, and to keep me focused on that goal, I shared it though social media. I invited others to follow along as I updated my IG stories, and I reached out to friends and family members while I was running. Obviously this is not something I do during a regular race, so it actually added a level of fun for me. It always feels good to open your phone and have an encouraging message waiting for you.
And while all of that was really great, the best part of running this virtual marathon was the reminder that big goals can offset big fears. And in a time where I think we are all a little more on edge than normal, that’s a good thing to be reminded of.
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