On a classic zero-degree Vermont winter day, Val Stori laced up her running shoes and drove to a start line one mile from her home in Underhill to set out on a virtual 5K race. In a normal year, she uses running to explore the world and has set out on long-distance trail-running adventures in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy, and has completed several 100K races in the Alps.
In a pandemic year, she turned to virtual running races to keep running, but also to support a meaningful cause. Last week, she chose to participate in the Running on Native Lands 5K, a program of Rising Hearts that is dedicated to bringing visibility, equity and inclusion by acknowledging Indigenous lands at running races.
Her route was about three miles of gravel roads. “There wasn’t a cloud in the sky,” says Stori, as she and a partner ran through farmland, woodlands and rolling hills.
Stori is one of a growing number of people participating in virtual running races and athletic events around the world. It was a trend that had begun even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but then saw rapid growth once the pandemic caused cancellations of in-person races and events.
“I had no idea virtual races were a thing,” says Stori, and she saw little appeal in them until the pandemic hit. “Races, for me, are an opportunity for camaraderie, community, to get to know a place and to challenge myself against others.” A virtual run doesn’t check off many of those boxes.
But in 2020, when in-person races were canceled to reduce the spread of COVID-19, she found the Tatanka Trot, a virtual 5K held Nov. 26 that honored Native American heritage and celebrated the contributions of Indigenous people.
“Finding a cause motivated me (to participate),” she explained.
It turns out, virtual running races and events were around before the pandemic. In fact, in 2018, well before the global pandemic broke out, 500 runners signed up to do the highly-popular New York City Marathon virtually, the first time this option was offered. The aim was to expand access to a race that fills up very quickly, and a fitness columnist for Shape magazine called virtual races a trend that was here to stay. Of course, at that time, she had no idea how accurate her prediction would become.
One measure of the growth in virtual events is data from RunSignUp, an online platform for endurance and fundraising events that, in a typical year, lists more than 17,000 races. At the national level, RunSignUp recently released an annual report showing there was a 48% drop in the number of races offered on the platform between 2019 and 2020, which is attributed to the pandemic. But that downturn was countered by new virtual events that were offered in 2020.
A recent news release about the report says, “Socially distant virtual events and challenges exploded in 2020, with virtual races making up 33.4% of all events, compared to just 2.8% in 2019.” In addition, virtual challenges, which are defined as multi-activity events with longer-term goals, comprised another 6.3% of 2020 events. Of the 32 total Vermont races or events currently listed on the RunSignUp website for 2021, exactly half of them are virtual events.
RunSignup founder and CEO Bob Bickel was quoted as saying, “Nearly 40% of races this year were virtual, a testament to the innovation and determination of race organizers around the country.”
Events range from short-distance, dog-friendly 5Ks to long-distance and multi-day endurance events. In 2019, for example, about 19,000 people signed up to participate in the 1,000K Virtual Race Across Tennessee, an event that gave racers four months to complete the distance. To participate in any of these virtual events, athletes simply sign up online, and then submit their distance and time to be recorded, often using a GPS record of their stats.
Here in Vermont, groups like RunVermont and Central Vermont Runners are offering a variety of virtual and socially-distanced events to keep people moving and healthy during the pandemic. The annual Vermont City Marathon & Relay Race was canceled in 2020, for example, and runners were given the option to defer their admission to 2021 or participate in a virtual race. In 2020 and again this year, RunVermont will host a virtual adventure challenge, in which participants sign up to run around or across Vermont. During last year’s event, more than 300 people signed up to run or walk either 45, 126, 219 or 533 miles, and 233 people completed the challenge. RunVermont will again offer the challenge, which it’s calling 2.0, this summer, with new routes, distances and interactive tools.
The story is similar for Central Vermont Runners, a running group that had to cancel 10 races and their weekly fun runs in 2020, as result of social-distancing restrictions. Instead, the group offered a virtual running series, where runners completed the courses of the canceled races on their own between June and September. Fifty-five runners did a combined 221 running events, with some runners repeating the events multiple times. One runner, John Martin, of Williamstown, completed all 10 race courses twice.
“People still wanted to run,” says Manny Sainz, who serves as president of the running club. “We kept getting requests from people, they wanted to race.”
The virtual series was a way for runners to keep training even though in-person races were being canceled, and Sainz developed an online dashboard to post race results, which he says kept people excited. Although the switch to virtual events was stressful for Sainz at first, he says, “it was exciting to see the runners being excited to participate.”
Virtual running events are on the rise, and there are a few reasons for this growth, aside from the obvious benefits of safety during a pandemic. For example, these virtual events offer flexibility as we all strain to fit athletic endeavors into our busy schedules, and the logistics are much simpler, compared to traveling to an organized event. Plus, they build in accountability and connection to others through technology or social media, so that friends and family members living in different states can participate in the same events together, without traveling. Also, these events can be great for beginners, because they are lacking the intimidation that can come from lining up at a start line with a bunch of other people.
Even Stori, who is a seasoned racer, has experienced this last benefit: “Usually on the night and morning before a race,” she says, “I am almost sick to my stomach from anxiety.” But with virtual races, she says, “there was none of that.”
Stori found she could challenge herself to work on her running pace in virtual events, and it was fun picking her own location to race.
There are, of course, some drawbacks to running in virtual events, including a potential lack of motivation and the loss of excitement because there are no spectators, and there is not an awards ceremony to look forward to. Plus, these events offer no medical or other support. Importantly, courses can be unequal among participants, because while some runners might be on a downhill course, others might be running a hilly route or at altitude; and so even though these runners might all be doing the same distance, they are facing unique individual challenges on their respective courses, and they can’t really compare themselves to other racers.
For Stori, a virtual race is missing the people piece: “For me, the camaraderie aspect is lacking,” she says. “It’s just not there.”
But Stori is glad to use her races for good, and found a meaningful connection to bringing awareness to racism. And that connection to a cause is experienced by many other virtual racers, too: RunsignUp’s recent data release showed an increase in fundraising through virtual races and events.
Stori will again lace up her shoes for another virtual race soon, this time for an event that will mark the anniversary of the death of Ahmaud Arbery and it will again be a chance for her to support anti-racism work.
“It turns out there is a race for any cause,” says Stori. “If you’re jazzed about animal welfare or a cure for cancer, you can sign up for a race to support that cause.” Fortunately, there is a growing number of opportunities for runners of all abilities to do just that.