For many runners, 2020 will go down (in infamy) as the year of the “virtual race.” In late May, the Boston Athletic Association announced that the 2020 Boston Marathon would be a virtual-only event. The New York Road Runners had to cancel last month’s Brooklyn Half, but their virtual edition of the race still had over 8,000 finishers. In a novel take on the format, Millennium Running, an event company and brick and mortar running store based in Bedford, New Hampshire, has created a marked 5K course with a fully automated chip timing system. For ten dollars, entrants buy a chipped bib and can then run the course at any time, day or night, from May 16 through August 23. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
But is virtual racing something runners actually need? In the past, I haven’t made a secret of the fact that I find these events pretty uninspiring. In its most primal form, racing is always about vying against your fellow, in-the-flesh competitors. What’s more, a crucial component of a traditional race is that everyone competes on the same course in the same conditions—which naturally doesn’t hold true for virtual events.
To be fair, nobody is claiming that a virtual race is a substitute for the real thing, so much as a kind of glorified time trial in which runners are competing against themselves and the clock. For some, this can be enough of an incentive. I know several people who have made a point of trying to beat their high school PBs in various track events as a kind of pandemic-induced fitness project. Recently, Mario Fraioli, who writes the running newsletter The Morning Shakeout, managed to do just that when he celebrated his 38th birthday by running a solo road mile in 4:35.4, edging out his 17-year-old self by one and a half seconds.
“It was purely a personal challenge: partly to see if I could run faster than I did 20 years ago when I was in high school, but more so to see how hard I could push myself with no one else around,” Fraioli says.
While it’s always gratifying to beat a younger version of yourself, time trials ultimately can’t confer the official validation of formalized race events. Such validation is a practical necessity if you’re trying to qualify for an event like the Boston Marathon or the Olympic Trials, but I think the appeal runs deeper than that. Peak fitness is elusive, always vanishing. A legitimate race result is tangible proof that you once had it on the day. Hence the nerdy, runner’s equivalent of the old tree-falling-in-the-woods conundrum: “If I run a personal best, but I don’t do it in a race, does it really count?”
In his essay “Trading Souls for Soles,” the ultrarunner and kinesiology PhD student Geoff Burns writes that achievements in running “have both internal and external validity.” Burns makes this point in reference to the rise of performance-abetting supershoes (and the way this ostensive leap in technology threatens to make future running performances incomparable to those of the past), but it’s a good reminder that the degree to which our running achievements actually “count” remains largely up to us. (At least when you’re not a professional athlete.) The present moment seems as good a time as any to find the “internal validity” of running hard just for the hell of it.
“Virtual racing has made the competitive side of racing a bit more freeing,” says Jenny Donnelly, an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, who told me that she has found unexpected joy in running solo time trials. For her, the communal aspect of hard group runs was always more enticing than the zero sum world of racing; the benefit of virtual races is that her own success didn’t hinge on trying to beat someone else. (She did “win” the Virtual Brooklyn Half, though.) The format seems to have worked out well for her. Over the past few weeks, Donnelly has run three unofficial personal bests. “Multiple people actually commented to me that it’s too bad these races didn’t ‘count,’” Donnelly says. “And yes, I wish they did. But I also know that if these were in races that ‘counted,’ I'm not sure I would have hit these times.”
David Roche, a Boulder-based trail runner and coach and co-author of the book The Happy Runner, told me that, perhaps counterintuitively, virtual races can also offer a sense of camaraderie in the absence of physical togetherness.
“Virtual runs bring people together in a way that provides structure and purpose, which is cool,” Roche says. “But what I think is most special about them is that they remind athletes that we are in this running grind and existential journey together. And together, we can find joy and love in the striving, rather than despair.”
Donnelly echoed this sentiment, but added that she still misses the real thing. “There are times I feel a mixture of happiness and emptiness after a virtual race in that it brings back the memories of being out there together,” she says. “But I’m seeing it as an opportunity to test paces and distances, and to figure out what works for me and what new thresholds are, so that when racing does return, I’m as physically ready to jump back in as my heart is.”