Last year, races across the U.S. and around the world were either cancelled altogether or shifted to a virtual race format, making 2020 the year without races.
While the running community started 2021 hopeful for a return to in-person events, here in the U.S. it’s beginning to look like it may be a while yet before that happens.
Some races, like the Pittsburgh Marathon, have opted to retain their traditional dates and go virtual again for 2021. Others, like the New York City Marathon and Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon, have set tentative dates for late fall of this year.
Even if in-person races happen in some form, stricter registration limitations and other precautions are likely to be in place. For many of us, 2021 may be another year without the crowd-fueled races we’re used to, and virtual races may continue as the new norm.
If you’re thinking about going in for a virtual race this year, here are a few tips and considerations from someone who ran her first half marathon virtually.
First, some background on my personal process for deciding to run my first half-marathon virtually.
In 2019, I originally planned to run Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Half Marathon as my first 13.1 mile distance. Unfortunately, I ended up dealing with some major health issues and had to defer to 2020.
You can imagine, of course, what happened to race day 2020. What would’ve been a May race got postponed to October, then shifted to a virtual event.
I originally picked the Pig for two reasons: it takes place in my hometown and it’s known for having great, enthusiastic crowds to cheer you on. It made me sad to know I’d be losing out on both of those perks by choosing the virtual version of the race.
If I’m being honest, I think I would probably have deferred in hopes of an in-person event for my first half-marathon, had I not already postponed once before.
But because I’d already tried and failed to make it to the starting line once before, I was determined to run my first half marathon in 2020. I was also determined to have the best solo race day I possibly could given the circumstances.
Race day is rarely perfect, but in all, my virtual half-marathon experience is one I wouldn’t trade for anything. The weather was gorgeous, I finished strong and healthy, and ended up with a better time than I’d hoped for.
Here’s what I did (or wish I’d done, looking back) to make the most of a virtual race, so you can to.
1. Consider your why
I think the biggest piece of deciding whether a virtual race is worth your dollars is getting clear about what you hope to get from the race.
Consider why you want to run a particular race. Is it to conquer that distance? Is it about traveling to a particular location, or being part of a particular race course experience? Thinking about why you want to sign up in the first place can help determine how you’ll feel making the shift to virtual.
The thing is, registering for an official virtual race still includes a registration fee. Whether or not the perks a particular virtual race offers in lieu of the in-person benefits feel worthwhile will be different for everyone.
For me, the combination of a cute pig medal and knowing that my race fee would help support the organization during a difficult time felt like reason enough for me. That might not be enough for everyone, and you might choose to just run your race distance without registering for an official race. In my opinion, that counts, too!
Once you figure out whether and how to participate in a virtual race, the preparation begins.
2. Prep like it’s real — because it is
When I first started training for my virtual half-marathon, one of my fears was that it wouldn’t feel like I’d run a “real” half-marathon when I finished.
A few weeks into training, though, I realized that it didn’t matter for me, a non-elite athlete, if anyone was keeping an “official” time. My goal was to run a certain distance, and when I finished my virtual race, that goal would be achieved.
I started taking my training seriously, getting my body and mind ready for a half-marathon just like I would if race day meant lining up in-person. I think this mentality shift helped me start looking forward to race day, and I know it helped me arrive at my makeshift, personal starting line strong and ready to conquer the new-to-me race length.
The fact of the matter is, 13.1 miles is 13.1 miles whether it’s been measured by you and your GPS or if it’s been measured by an official race course. Your body doesn’t know the difference, and you can and should be proud for what you accomplished, even if it doesn’t happen under the circumstances you originally imagined.
3. Have a support system in place
In-person races have a number of benefits, chief among them being aid stations and medical support. When I planned out my virtual half-marathon, I made sure that I’d have someone who knew where I was and could swap me for a new water bottle halfway through my 13.1 miles.
Having my partner on-call and aware of my location made me feel safe that if any issues popped up during the race, someone would be able to help me.
I’m also a big fan of online running communities. I found a group of women who were also training to run a half-marathon along the same timeline. We trained together, separately, by posting selfies and updates in the community, and it made me feel a little bit more connected to others even though I would run my race alone.
4. Take advantage of planning your own route
One perk of running a virtual race is that, while specific requirements from race organizers differ, you generally have the freedom and flexibility of designing your own route. Some will require GPS or other proof of finishing before awarding your race medal, but where you go the distance is up to you.
The Flying Pig is a notoriously hilly race, and I’d been training hills in preparation for it. That said, I hate hills, so when I sat down to map out my course, I asked my partner to help me find the flattest route possible.
The course we planned took me past some of my favorite places in the city, along the river and towards my beloved Pittsburgh burger chain, Burgatory, where I demanded a post-race takeout meal to celebrate.
One thing to keep in mind when you plan your ideal virtual race route (aside from the best post-race snack location) is that you don’t have the road closure and security of a live, in-person race. Make sure you’re choosing running paths that are safe and away from traffic, rather than trying to closely recreate an official racing event that is no longer taking place.
5. Invite your friends to (safely) spectate
If there’s anything I wish I’d done differently on my race day, it’s this.
I didn’t think to share my route with local friends who could have been there to cheer me on at my personal finish line or along the way. Even though the crowds are my favorite part of in-person events, inviting my own personal crowd didn’t occur to me until one of them expressed regret over not planning a cheer squad.
What I did do was share a personal tracking link with friends through Runkeeper, which let them watch me via GPS in real time and send texts along the way. If you’re comfortable with sharing your location in this way, I definitely recommend it for that added virtual cheering session.
6. This is your alone time — use it how you want
Running in a group is amazing, and the community is a huge part of why so many of us show up to races year after year.
But running can also be a powerful form of alone time.
I went in to race day with a playlist that promised music for the entire estimated race time, if I wanted it. While I definitely enjoyed belting out my favorite songs, I also took time to just notice how it felt to be running this race on this day, in this place.
Being alone gave me the freedom to think about how I wanted to experience my race day, without worrying about anyone else who might be on the course nearby.
I got to truly be present with myself every step of the way and check in not with what I wanted others to see me doing, but what I wanted to do at any given point. I stayed truer to a pace that felt good because I didn’t have anything to prove or anyone to pass (or be passed by).
I worried so much that crossing the imaginary finish line of my GPS informing me I’d hit 13.1 miles would feel less special. That without the little time clock and cheering crowd I’d used to when finishing an in-person race, I wouldn’t fully believe I’d done it.
My finishing point may have been a random stretch of gravel alongside the river, but it still felt like a photo finish. I’d never run 13.1 miles in one run before, and after I hit that point, I had.
I stopped, took a selfie, and even shed a few tears at knowing my body and me had managed this feat. Then, I shared my race day selfie and ate an impossible burger and fries, which is pretty much how I would celebrate any race day.
In all, the experience wasn’t what I thought my first half-marathon would be, but I’m so happy I chose to conquer the goal in spite of the setbacks. If you’ve got big plans to get out there and run, I hope you have a great race, too!
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