Virtual racing is one of the fastest-growing trends in the running world right now.

By Mirel Zaman
Getty Images/AleksandarNakic

Picture yourself at the start line on race day. The air hums as your fellow runners chat, stretch, and take last-minute pre-run selfies around you. Your nervous energy builds. Adrenaline makes your joints feel loose and your stomach jumpy. You shake out your limbs, mentally reviewing your race goals. You tell yourself in few short minutes or hours, depending on your distance, you'll be on your way to brunch with a brand-new race medal in hand. (Related: How to Deal with Performance Anxiety Before a Race.)

Now picture all that, but without the crowd of runners around you. You might lose some of that "we're-all-in-this-together" camaraderie. But no crowds also means no jostling for position during the first few minutes of the race. No standing in line for a Port-a-Potty. No dodging resting runners at a water station.

Welcome to the world of virtual running. In a virtual race, you sign up for a certain distance, then run it wherever you are, whenever you can (within a certain days- or weeks-long time frame). You log your completed run, and are shipped a race medal and, if you're lucky, some other swag. (Related: 5 Common Mistakes Runners Make On Race Day)

There are plenty of reasons runners have begun to embrace virtual runs. For one, they offer an easy entry point into the world of races for recreational runners who may find the entire idea intimidating. DICK'S Sporting Goods, for example, is hosting the Run Your Run myK Virtual Race this month to celebrate National Runner's Month, and it's about as low-key as a race gets. You can pledge to run a 5K, 10K, or half-marathon. The race works on the honor system. After finishing your run, log your distance and time into the race's website and claim your medal and race t-shirt. (Bonus: $5 of the $35 race fee goes to Girls on the Run, a charity that inspires girls through running, and you get a $10 gift card to DICK'S along with your swag.)

Another perk of virtual races is that they let more people get entry to races that historically fill up fast. Last year the famous TCS New York City Marathon created a virtual option. Five hundred runners signed up to run 26.2 miles on their own, using the Strava app to log their distance and claim their medal—and guaranteed entry into the IRL 2019 race. New York Road Runners, the organization that puts on the NYC Marathon, now has a series of virtual runs, including a virtual NYC Half and the adorably named Dog Jog 5K (your pup gets a bib too). (See: The Ultimate Guide to Running with Your Dog.) Entry is free, but if you complete six from the series this year, you get guaranteed entry into the 2020 uber-poopular Brooklyn Half.

The Biofreeze San Francisco Marathon is also offering virtual options for its upcoming race in July. You can sign up for anything from a 5K ($49) to any of the SF Marathon's "challenges", like the 52 Club, which calls for you to run two half-marathons and one full, back to back ($259). (Related: This Is the Grueling Reality of What It's Like to Run an Ultramarathon.)

Another well-known running group that's helping more people get in on the fun of running is runDisney. This year, to celebrate Marvel's 80th birthday, the company is offering three Marvel-themed virtual 5Ks. Your $40 entry fee gets you a race bib and medal (both superhero-adorned). You'll also have access to a Spotify running playlist put together by Walt Disney Records. There's also an option to go all-in and run all three 5Ks (and get all three finisher medals, plus a bonus medal). Later in the year, runDisney hosts a Star Wars Virtual Half too.

Even fitness apps are getting in on it. Yes.Fit, for instance, is an app that lets you sign up for super-long races you're meant to complete over the course of several days or weeks. The buddy challenge 'Together Like Peanut Butter & Jelly', for instance, is 86.3 miles. You do a little every week until you hit the distance; the fact that you pay (typically under $30 per race) for the privilege gives you extra motivation to finish.

Whether you're using virtual races as a stepping stone to the real thing or you're happy to never wait in a Port-a-Potty line again, for now it seems like the trend is here to stay. After all, running is far from the only fitness activity that's been affected from the evolution of tech. Livestreaming workouts and virtual personal trainers are becoming more and more widespread. Virtual races may be just one more way fitness is becoming more accessible to everyone.


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