Virtual Run Events: A DIY Race Day Experience

At the beginning of the fall, my running crew and I were trying to find a date that we could make work for one more race event before the end of the season. We filtered through what was available and slowly realized that there were none that we could all make work. So we decided to try out a virtual race and pick our own date.

“How about Remembrance Day?” we said.

“The weather should still be decent” we said.

Yeah… not so much. The temperature itself at just -8⁰C was not so bad and I know that this smattering of snow was nothing by true Winnipeg winter standards, but to the seasonally-uninitiated our little adventure quickly became quite the workout. But I am getting ahead of myself.

For those of you not familiar, a virtual race event is essentially a race without a race. You find an event online (Where’s the Finish has put together a pretty impressive list of events, but you can find them quite readily using your friend Google), sign up for the event, and then either pick a date or run on the date specified and complete the allotted mileage. They mail you your swag (usually just a medal) and voila, you are a finisher.

So on this sparkly snowy day in November, me and my friends Sonia and Chris embarked on the Hogwarts Running Club Platform 9 ¾ Year Four challenge. The majority of virtual races have a benefitting charity, and this one was no different: proceeds raised went to the Antarctic & Southern Ocean Coalition. It is a really interesting charity that I definitely would otherwise not have been aware of, and the HRC picks a different benefactor for each of their events.

Race day morning arrived and we lined ourselves up in the street, started our Garmins and off we went. No corrals full of nervous energy, no fanfare, no start gun. Just us in what felt mostly like an ordinary Saturday long run. Plus event designed, self-printed bibs taped to our fronts.

There were no cheering throngs with signs willing us to keep going or telling us we were almost there. Though a few errant dogs barked and one woman, out shoveling her walk, did tell us we were crazy to be running in the snow. That helped.

The soft mostly unplowed streets and sidewalks made for a challenging run and we plodded along, chatting as always and enjoying each other’s company. When our ‘finish line’ was in site, we cheered ourselves on and celebrated our finish in the middle of the street. With the Winter Wonderland around us we hadn’t set a time goal for ourselves; our gratitude at being able to stop was reward enough.

We posed for some photos with our new swag, congratulated ourselves, and disbursed to continue on with our day. Much like we do after a normal long run.

So what was the vote? Was it worth the price of admission?

We agreed that it was a fun thing to do on a weekend, but that it is clearly nothing like a real race. It helped us stick to a goal on a day when the weather would have likely derailed us to a shorter distance, but that wouldn’t necessarily apply on any other date. It would probably be more fun if you completed it with a larger group of people to add to the ‘party’ atmosphere you miss out on for a real start and finish line. We didn’t expect the same level of satisfaction you get out of completing an actual organized run and we didn’t get it. Also, you will notice that due to a mix-up with her registration, Sonia didn’t receive her medal in time for our race date. That was a bit of a downer for her, and that would obviously never happen at an actual organized event.

To me there was something about the knowledge that you could just sign up for a virtual race and never complete it but still have a medal to hang with your collection that takes most of the prestige away from it. Some virtual races ask for proof of completion before you receive the medal, but let’s be real, that could be fudged. That being said, the medal we received was pretty cool: there was no disappointment that we didn’t get what we paid for in that department. Our Hogwarts Run Club medals were detailed, and impressive with a really nice sublimated ribbon and a cool light feature.

But…I also really enjoy running events with a pace bunny and meeting new people that you would never meet otherwise. And of course absolutely nothing replaces crossing that finish line with people cheering you on and someone putting a medal around your neck and congratulating you. That can’t be recreated on your friend’s residential street.

All things considered, we agreed that we would consider doing it again. If you are interested in supporting a good charity, running at your own pace on your own date and accessing a fresh race event without any travel costs, then virtual races may be for you as well.  Just find a way to supply your own party.