Running Virtually v Race Reality

Victoria Cusack

Like many runners during lockdown, I entered a few virtual races to ignite some motivation to train beyond my usual 10k distance. It had become my go-to regular run. 10k is a nice distance when you get used to it. Usually done and dusted in an hour or so, leaving you refreshed rather than exhausted. But a longer distance challenge was calling my name, so I needed something to focus my training efforts on.

The first virtual race I entered during lock-down was a very relaxed affair aptly named – “I did it anyway”. Less of a race, and more of a medal really. I could choose the distance, the day, the time, then send off a photo of my Garmin stats. In return, they sent me a rather tasteful wooden medal.

I then went on to enter a few more similar types of virtual event… The Edinburgh Marathon (medal, keyring and T-shirt for this one); the Golden Snitch 9 ¾ (this one with I did with my son, who at the age of 10, definitely deserved that medal as he pedalled along beside me on his bike).

In the absence of any real events to enter, it spurred me on. I kept up the running, but I did quickly wonder what, (besides a medal), was I paying for? So, I started to make up my own races. The Covid 21k, The Dales Way Ultra, The (nearly) Three Peaks. Sometimes managing to cajole mates or bribe my children to join me for some, or all the distance. For a while, this seemed a reasonable solution. In fact, I almost convinced myself that this was the new and only way to race.

Restrictions relaxed and real races returned. On a whim, I decided to enter a half marathon. It was local to me, a City Run, not really my usual thing anymore. The whole race being on tarmac, (never good on the knees for a 40+ runner), and 4 laps of the same route. I was having some serious regrets, and a real longing for my more typical trail and softer terrain. However, I was committed now. I had a race number, so there was no way I was going to back out.

The day of the race came, as did the heavy rain, soaking all participants and the smattering of spectators that had shown up –  poor family members, dragged along to support their loved ones. All of us desperately trying to find shelter, shivering in our ponchos as we did the warm-up, getting increasingly soaked as we waited for the start time. The junior race was first, and they were amazing, and still smiling at the end, they were certainly an inspiration. But I couldn’t help thinking if this had been a virtual race, there was no way I would be choosing to run at this time and in this weather.

But once we did set off, I remembered the thrill of running with a larger group, the camaraderie, the competition, the claps and encouragement from marshals and supporters, which given the weather, were the real heroes of the day. I ended up getting a half marathon PB, and even though I was soaked to my pants and squelching in my Hokas, it served as a reminder that real races can never really be replaced by virtual ones.

That said, the legacy of virtual running is here to stay, and I think there may be room for both to co-exist nicely.

Here is my list of the pros and cons of virtual races:

The Pros of Virtual Races

  • Entry fees are cheaper, although quite often you are simply paying for a medal.
  • You can decide when you set off, no hanging around, getting cold as you have already discarded your makeshift bin bag. Personally, I am a bit of an early bird when it comes to running, and often find real races start too late. My belly already beginning to rumble at the start line, having been nervously awake for hours! When I did the London Virtual Marathon 2021, I was able to set off at the crack of dawn and be done in time for lunch. A friend texted me on my completion of this marathon, telling me that I had… “finished with the elites” in London, whilst kindly forgetting to mention that I had set off two hours in advance of them. There are some definite advantages of choosing your own start time to fit in with your natural running body clock.
  • No long toilet queues! This must be one of the worst aspects of real races. I almost missed the start of my very first Marathon in Dublin City. As a novice, I hadn’t realised just quite how much time is spent queuing for the loo before big races. Also, the smell of the portaloos at these mass events would rival Glastonbury Festival!
  • No crowds of people. No bottle neck situations slowing you down. No one breathing heavily over your right shoulder. No narrowly missing someone else’s spit, snot or sweat flicking you in the face. No having to watch someone vomit or worse by the side of the road. And no having run behind someone who has just passed wind. 
  • No travelling to and from races. Stressing about where to park. That drive home after a race can sometimes be a real killer when it comes to your entire body seizing up. No need with virtual – your start and finish can be your front door!
  • Less chances of injury. Less pressure to go faster than a pace you are either comfortable with or have trained for.


The Cons of Virtual Races

  • No crowds of people means no atmosphere, no one to cheer and urge you on when things get tough. No friendly running banter pre, mid and post-race. The feeling that you are all part of something that makes you feel great (well… mostly).
  • You can’t help feeling a bit like you cheated. Even though I did the distances for all my virtual races and sent the evidence, it just somehow didn’t feel official without crossing a finish line.
  • The app doesn’t always track the right distance. When I used the Virtual London Marathon app, and had reached, what I thought to be 26.2 miles, hearing the cheers from my headphones. I did what any normal person would do at this point – stopped running! Only to notice that according to my sports watch, I still had almost another mile to go. I have never felt so less ready to set off running again and it put a bit of a dampener on the experience.
  • You will never get a PB. Nothing makes you run faster than competing with others. Period.
  • No one puts a medal round your neck at the end. I don’t know why, but I love this aspect at the end of the race, it makes me feel like an Olympic winner.

Overall, although you can’t beat a real race, the virtual run will remain a firm flexible part of my racing calendar in 2022! Joining this will also be my own made up and totally free of cost ‘race’ – bring on 22 km for ’22!


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