They were a bit of a novelty last year, and a nice option to help runners deal with the cancellation of events they had already trained for (and paid for). But this year, virtual races feel a lot more like just an attempt to maintain revenue streams for event organizers.

A caveat before I launch into this: I didn’t personally participate in any single-day virtual events last year. I hadn’t yet signed up for the Ottawa Half Marathon when events started being cancelled so I had no money invested in any races. I did run the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT) which is about the furthest thing from a single-day virtual race.

Not Even Close to the Same Experience

My experience with virtual racing was through pacing a friend of mine who ran a virtual version of the Ottawa Marathon and earned a medal for his efforts. I created the course, organized a rolling aid station staffed by my wife and kids, and paced him over the last 23km of his “race” along with a few other friends from our Sunday run crew.

You’ll notice I didn’t say that “he ran the Ottawa Marathon” because he didn’t. In fact, the route was basically the Toronto Waterfront Marathon with a few adjustments to work around areas that are off-limits to runners except for when the race is happening.

What makes running an actual marathon so special? It’s the fact that it’s me and thousands of other runners all on the same course on the same day, running together. It’s the people lining the streets cheering and offering encouragement as I run through their neighbourhoods. It’s the opportunity to run down the middle of the street and through intersections and across bridges with no fear of traffic or other dangers.

For his virtual race, it was just a small group of about ten of us, running together. We dodged cyclists on streets and people strolling along congested sidewalks who could care less that someone was running a marathon. We were honked at by cars as we tried to stop traffic to enable him to run through red lights and maintain his pace and stride. There were no cops there to stop traffic. No kilometre markers. No tables fille with cups and with volunteers yelling “water first, Gatorade second”.

My friend earned a medal by running 42.2km in one run but I don’t think anyone would suggest that he had anything close to the experience that an in-person event offers. The only similarity between his run and the real Ottawa Marathon was that it was 42.2km of running.

Races Did What Was Required to Survive

To be clear, I don’t begrudge the organizers of these races for switching to virtual events. It’s really all they could do to save their races and at least have some way to generate some revenue. These races are a business first and bringing in money to keep the lights on until we can all gather up and race again in person is supremely important.

It was quite impressive to see the pivots to virtual events happen fairly quickly and solid organizations like Run Ottawa and the Vancouver International Marathon Society did a great job communicating with runners and getting things like shirts and medals mailed out to recreate at least some of the experience of the races they usually run.

For scores of runners, these virtual events were indeed a good way to provide motivation and gratification at a time when everyone needed something to aim for and celebrate. Kudos to everyone for that.

The Thrill is Gone

As the pandemic continues, I think the excitement around virtual runs has started to fade. I’d be willing to bet that registrations for these events will be significantly lower with far fewer runners willing to shell out money towards what is effectively the purchase of a medal and a t-shirt celebrating a run in a city they won’t actually even visit.

Obviously I have no plans to run any virtual events this year other than the GVRAT which I don’t consider to be in the same category as single-day events. I don’t see much value in spending a fairly significant amount of money to get a medal for running just another long Sunday run in my own city, on sidewalks with traffic lights and all the other things that a “real” race takes such great pains to eliminate.