How Virtual Races Are Keeping Us Sane

Charles MerrittJul 23 · 6 min read

Charles' bike by an old gas station
No gas needed here.

We're all going a bit stir crazy, right? Maybe you trained up for some spring races, eschewing that second helping of chocolate chess pie over Christmas to keep it tight, and now, your events are all cancelled. Or, perhaps you had a killer summer trip lined up, but now your destination is closed. The story is the same across the country, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt nearly every aspect of our lives. Enter the virtual race. While the idea of virtual races and events is not a new one, 2020 is the year that they are stealing the spotlight.

What is a virtual race?

The idea behind a virtual race is pretty simple. You decide on a distance or time, you record your effort, and you share it to the race organizers. More sophisticated events use integrations with fitness tracking to ingest GPX or other tracking files, but the idea is that you do your thing and see who can put up the best time or the farthest distance. Many events offer similar perks to a live race, like shirts and medals, and the format is evolving rapidly.

If you want to check out examples, take a look at some virtual races below.

Virtual Running Races and Runs

Virtual Cycling Races and Rides

You should also check in with your regularly scheduled events, as many are converting to a virtual format this year.

Jay's bike in front of urban art.
Did you hear the buzz? Jangis is crushing this virtual race!

When did they first appear?

Data on the first virtual races is a bit hard to find (Have a source? Send it!), but we do know that before there were national championship meets, track and cross-country runners used to mail their times in for a nationally-recognized postal tournament.

Certainly as we moved our lives online, message boards and forums allowed for the comparison and posting of all kinds of athletic feats from around the globe. While these claims were occasionally outlandish, the slow erosion of head to head competition to determine a winner was underway.

Now, it's almost impossible to find an athlete at any level, from the pros down to the vacation experimenters who are not tracking their activity in some way. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and smartphones packed with sensors can guide us, motivate us, and track us. These technologies by companies like Garmin, Apple, Strava, MapMyRun, Nike, and a host of others are ubiquitous and provide a wealth of connected data about our active lives.

The standards of GPS mapping and route tracking have made it far easier to compare our efforts to those of others, and even if we are not in an organized virtual event, we are still competing against others for segment KOMs and against our past and future selves for PRs. With this data readily available and easy to aggregate, the primordial soup of a virtual race revolution is simmering, waiting for a catalytic event to motivate its evolution.

Why are virtual races so popular now?

That catalyst, which has fueled the ascent of virtual racing, is unfortunately a global pandemic. COVID-19's aggressive spread has forced event organizers to cancel or postpone races, rides, and runs across the U.S. starting in early spring of 2020. As the in-person events calendar has been wiped clean, many organizers have moved into experimentation with virtual events.

Platforms like RunSignup and Trackleaders provide the needed infrastructure for registrations and measuring progress, and the devices and apps that we already use are able to populate the data, so there's a standard for participants, no matter where they choose to participate.

Are Virtual Races Worth it?

In short, absolutely! Our team has been participating in two virtual events, The Great American 5000 and The Great American Ride. In addition to what we've learned from ourselves, we've also interviewed dozens of runners and riders as part of our recap shows on YouTube.

Here's what we've learned.

Virtual Races Fill the Void

Whether you are a regular rider, runner, or adventurer, racing and organized events are fantastic ways to socialize and to work on achieving your own goals. For many of us, we plan a season or even a year around a few keystone events, and our social circles are full of others who enjoy the same pursuits. While virtual events don't have us shoulder to shoulder with the competition, they do provide much of the structure and shared experiences that make real-life events meaningful.

Rolled out for rolled ice cream

Virtual Races Maintain Team Spirit

One of the best things that has come from our participation in The Great American Ride is that our team, which is now working remotely 100% of the time, has something that we're able to share outside of our daily work of being "at work." We've also involved some friends and family, and the chatter in our Facebook group provides a very much needed support network, full of encouragement and humor that otherwise may not have a home.

In learning from other teams in these events, we've heard similar stories, including regular racing teams who have maintained their efforts through virtual events, veterans from across the country supporting one another, and new friendships forming from overlapping social circles who now share the bond of being teammates.

Virtual Races are Convenient

If you've ever packed up and driven for hours pre-dawn or ducked out of work early on Friday to try to get to an early Saturday start on time, then you know that for those of us who aren't full-time athletes (and even some who are), the logistics of a race can be a hassle. I've certainly spent a few pre-race nights tossing and turning on the floor of my tent, wishing I could get some rest before the big day.

Virtual races come to you. You can log your efforts right out your front door, and many of them even allow for participation on treadmills or trainers with distance tracking. It's way easier to pick up a few miles for your team on a lunch break in a virtual race.

It's Still a Race!

Even if you are not chasing someone down in a sprint finish, virtual events can provide much of the same thrill of competition. For example, The Great American Ride is a 3700-mile team bike race across the US. Each day riders log miles and their team's dot moves across the map. Watching the dots jockey for position is engaging as a cycling fan, and as a participant, it's incredibly motivating to see what your competitors are up to. The team behind you just posted a big ride? Time to get back on the bike!

Whether you are competing for the podium or just working on a PR, these events inspire the same efforts as those that take place in person. Your results will reflect what you put in, and having a day or a distance as a goal will undoubtedly add a level of motivation to your efforts that just another ride, run, or workout won't.

Alex stopped for a quick bike pic on the water
We know it's a race, but how can anyone ignore bike pic opportunities like this?

Are Virtual Races and Events Here to Stay?

Only time will tell whether we will continue to compete this way in the future, however, the cat is most likely out of the bag. Some races have had virtual options in the past, but given that the technology to support them is improving, and the challenges of putting them on are significantly fewer than a live event, it is very likely that we'll continue competing virtually as part of our mix of events, even after we are able to see one another face-to-face again.

Knowing that when you lace up your shoes or swing your leg over the saddle someone, either a teammate or competitor, is doing the same somewhere in the world is a pretty great feeling. It adds a thrill to the sports that we love, and virtual racing gives that thrill a welcome home and breaks us out of the monotony of sheltering at home while we work to stay safe and healthy at least six feet apart.

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