How I learned to stop hating virtual races

Allison Goldstein
Photo credit: Matt Dutile - Getty Images

From Runner's World

Amidst COVID-19, with big races like the Boston Marathon, the Berlin Marathon and the Royal Parks Half off the schedule for 2020, virtual racing seems like the only option runners will have for the foreseeable future. While everything has gone virtual since March, the idea of running a solo time trial just hasn’t appealed to the racer in me, one who thrives on chasing down runners in the final stretch of the race.

However, when I received an email from the Brooklyn Mile, I decided to give it a shot. The concept for the race was familiar: Instead of running a mile down Kent Avenue in Brooklyn on Father’s Day, you’d instead run a mile anywhere you wanted between June 19-21. This is not what convinced me to sign up. What inspired me was what they were doing with the proceeds.

Every year since its conception, the Brooklyn Mile has set aside specific dollar amounts for its prize purse and donated the remaining proceeds—after paying for expenses like timing and T-shirts—to the charity Girls on the Run NYC. This year, with the race being virtual, they were doing things differently: 80 percent of the proceeds would go to NYC’s Emergency COVID-19 Relief Fund. The other 20 percent went to the prize purse—and here’s where things got interesting.

The Brooklyn Mile decided not to allocate its prize purse based on place—first, second, third for men and women. Instead, to level the playing field, every runner’s time was age-adjusted using Jack Daniels’s VDOT formula and assigned a VDOT level 1–10 (1 indicating the least fitness, and 10 indicating a professional runner’s level of fitness).

The prize money was then divided among all runners who achieved a level 8, 9, or 10 performance.

As a result of this year’s age-levelled playing field, it’s no surprise that 35 percent of the 677 competitors who registered were masters runners over 40. According to Brooklyn Running Company cofounder Matthew Rosetti, this 'masters focus' was by design.

'We want to find hooks to get more people interested. Why isn’t the 50-year-old’s time celebrated more than a 25-year-old’s nominally fast time? We’re democratising the age curve, so to speak, or at least how we’re awarding the prize purse,' he said.

The masters focus obviously wouldn’t help me out (I’m 34), but I liked the intention behind it. After shelling out $15 for the race registration and starting to plan my training for this mile, I decided to see what else race organisers are doing to get people—and possibly me—interested in virtual racing in the future.

Reimagining Racing

'If you run a small race, you have to think outside the box and do things that excite and interest people,' said Cooper Knowlton, founder of the race organisation Trials of Miles. To do that, he created Survival of the Fastest, a single elimination March-Maddness-style running tournament. Each week runners 'face off' (virtually) in a given distance (1 mile to 10K), and the best time advances. That tournament is currently underway—you can 'watch' via @trialsofmilesracing on Instagram—but he just opened registration for his next brainchild: a 4-week virtual track meet called Beat the Heat.

Just like in a normal track meet, runners must outrace their competition in a series of heats in order to compete in the finals. (Roughly half of the competitors will be eliminated each week.) However, at this meet, each round will feature a different race distance, and runners will have one week to submit their time.'I think having another person in mind, even if it’s a complete stranger, helps to light the competitive fire,' Knowlton said. 'I’m trying to give people added incentive to get out there.'

Joe DiNoto, founder of Orchard Street Runners, has always looked to break the traditional racing mould. His in-person races have always been alley-cat style, so for the OSR Global Challenge (now finished), there were virtually no rules or restrictions; runners anywhere in the world were encouraged to run the fastest course—for any distance—they could find, as many times as they wanted.

This resulted in a collegiate runner matching the men’s world record in the mile (on a downhill course), and two professional Canadian runners battling it out to become KOM (King of the Mountain) in the 10K. 'Some people get angered when you flout classic requirements of what races should be,' DiNoto said. 'So I tell them, "Try it and tell me how you feel."'

Similar to the MA-RA-TH-ON in early June, there are also virtual relays. TSP DIY is latest to hit the scene: It’s a September race where teams (or solo runners) will have 31 hours and 15 minutes to run as many miles as they can, relay-style, on any route they want, anywhere in the world. I’m already signed up for this, because the race takes place on a friend’s birthday, and this is how she wants to celebrate—by relay-racing virtually with me and four other women.

Learning to Love/Hate Virtual Racing

Before trying a relay, however, I had to race this Brooklyn Mile. Given some of the times I’d hit in training, I was hoping to run a 5:30 mile or better. However, that goal would really only be feasible if everything went right. And alas, it did not. Here are some things I learned when doing my first virtual race.

Pick Good Weather: I had three days when I could have run my mile: June 19, 20, or 21. The first two turned out to be relatively mild in terms of both temperature (a high of 26 degrees Celsius, a low of 21) and humidity. However, I had preselected Sunday, June 21, as my 'race day.' When I stepped outside on Sunday, it felt like breathing in pea soup. I was sweating before I took a single step.

If a virtual race gives you flexibility on when to run, don’t ignore it just because that’s what you’ve always done for traditional races; use it to your advantage!

Secure Your Location: I originally planned to race my mile on a track. I wanted to have a sense of my progress and, even more importantly, know exactly where the finish line was. However, when I showed up to the track where I intended to run, I found it fenced in and padlocked.

This lesson is simple: Unlike in traditional racing, no one shuts down your virtual race route for you—so scope it out in advance.

Obey the Watch: I wound up on a flat paved trail and jogged a mile down to find some 'landmarks': a trail marker at about 400 meters, an orange traffic sign near 1200 meters, and an open fence gate at the 'finish' would have to do. Then I did some drills to get loose, lined up behind a crack in the pavement, and ran as hard as I could.

I had hoped that seeing my chosen trail markers would be enough to get me to 'dig'. Unfortunately, without other runners nearby, my adrenaline refused to surge. When I finally glimpsed my finish-line fence up ahead, I tried to pretend an old man walking nearby was a competitor, but he was already past my finish line, and he was an old man on a walk. Finally I reached that fence... but, thanks to GPS verification for results, I had to keep running until my watch beeped. Those extra seconds may as well have been centuries.

The lesson? In traditional racing the course is measured for you. In virtual racing you must be a slave to your watch. Be prepared and don’t let up until you hear that beep.

Record Only Your Race: Finally, the race was over... or so I thought.

When I got home, I still needed to upload my result. In anticipation of this task, I had restarted my watch for each part of my run—the warmup, the race, and the cooldown. Yet when I synced my Garmin to the results website, all three runs got lumped into a single entry. I tried to separate out my 'race' mile, but to no avail. (I wound up having to email the race director to find a solution.)

So save only the race distance on your watch. You should warm up and cool down, of course, but if you record these runs on your watch, delete them before you upload data to any results pages.

I can’t say I’m a convert after my virtual race experience, but this also may be in large part because I was disappointed with my time. I ran 5:38, which was only good enough for a VDOT level 5. Had I run faster (specifically 53 seconds faster, which I couldn’t have done even on a good day), I would have been guaranteed a small cut of the nearly $2,500 prize purse.

Two-time 1500-meter Japanese national champion Ryoji Tatezawa, 23, won the race outright, in 4:01. However, with the VDOT adjustment, he only achieved a VDOT level 9, which meant he had to share his allocation of the prize purse (about $750) with 10 other runners who also posted level 9 performances. Lianne Farber, 28, ran the fastest female time—4:39—with a VDOT level of 8.

Only one runner in the entire race recorded a VDOT level-10 effort: 61-year-old Dan King of Boulder, Colorado, who ran an altitude-adjusted 4:52. To put that in perspective, a 25-year-old man would have had to run a sub-3:51 mile—an Olympic-level performance—to post an equivalent level 10 score! King got just over $600 all to himself.

I never really run to win money, I run to compete. But if races and clubs continue to take the virtual race experience off the beaten path, it may just keep me invested in a year when the traditional race calendar continues to be erased.

So maybe, just maybe, this September virtual relay with my friends will get me excited. After all, I can always use something to train for.

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