The Boston Marathon Goes Virtual: Running a Race During COVID-19

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For the first time in its 124-year history, race officials announced the cancellation of endurance running's most acclaimed event: the Boston Marathon. Always scheduled in April on Patriots’ Day, race directors moved the world’s most famous foot race to September due to COVID-19. But because of expected coronavirus surges this fall, officials terminated this year’s race altogether.

With an original date of April 20, 2020, organizers arranged back in March to postpone the marathon to September 14, giving runners adequate notice to switch up their training schedules and back off upcoming peak long runs. But with the severity of the pandemic growing by day, governors disallowing large gatherings of people and further delays with other sports, the decision to cancel the marathon became the inevitable and obvious choice.

The Boston Marathon, well known as the most prestigious marathon throughout history, took place even during wartime, severe inclement weather and the Spanish flu. But this year’s public health crisis proved that the Boston Marathon finally met its match.

The Boston Marathon is an illustrious 26.2-mile foot race in which people must qualify by running another marathon and finishing in a specific time limit to receive entry. Qualifying times are based on age and gender, and earning an entry is considered one of the most major feats in the endurance running industry.

The unprecedented decision to cancel this marathon affects more than 30,000 runners who worked intensely hard to register. This left many of them wondering, what should I do now?

Why This Matters

  • Amidst the stress of the pandemic and the resulting shutdowns, it's important to stay fit.
  • Despite disruptions to most or all of our routines, there are ways we can all adapt.

The "Virtual" Boston Marathon

All isn’t lost for Boston Marathoners. Organizers decided to hold a virtual marathon instead. In a virtual race, participants will run the 26.2-miles remotely, wherever they are located in the world.

This can be a daunting task without the typical race safety nets of closed-off roads, aid stations full of water for hydration needs and trained medical personnel in case of emergencies (or even simple blister repair).

But the Boston Marathon transformation to a virtual race isn't the only race doing so. Running events throughout the world announced similar virtual options because of COVID-19 impacts. In a virtual event, the race is still considered a go, but you’re on your own with timing, nutritional needs, and finding your own course.

With the additional complications of putting on your own individual race, should you go for it or simply wait until next year when in-person races might return?

What Is a Virtual Race?

Most virtual races start the same: You find a race, select your preferred distance and register. You then follow the rules of whatever race you choose, email your results, and even receive a medal through snail mail.

In a virtual race, you race wherever you are located in the world. You can even choose to simply step out of your house and begin running.

Depending on the virtual racing organization, you could also receive additional tchotchkes as remembrances of your achievement. For example, the Ogden Half Marathon Winter Virtual Race Circuit offers participants a long sleeve official race shirt and a virtual bib to download. Some companies will even offer digital race packets with valuable local and national store discounts.

How Do You Find a Virtual Race?

Have a favorite race you like to do that is coming up? You should check to see if event organizers changed the event to a virtual option instead. Races from the most distinguished, such as the Boston Marathon, to the lesser-known Ogden Race Circuit, offer virtual races to let you run wherever you are located.

Even international races are now offering virtual options. For example, the well-attended Prague Marathon (more than 10,000 runners each year participate) introduced the Prague Digital Marathon in 2015, allowing runners across the world an opportunity to run the course both outdoors, using the free GPS app, and indoors, using a free video app. The video app allows you to actually see the Prague Marathon course through each step you take on a treadmill, as if you were right there in the city itself.

Not a marathoner? No problem. You don’t need to run long distances to sign up for a virtual race. Numerous race organizations offering 5Ks and 10Ks also provide virtual options.

For the unfamiliar, you can search for any virtual race by visiting race websites or looking in online communities on social media. According to Nita Sweeney, marathoner and author of Depression Hates a Moving Target, online apps, websites and groups are cropping up to offer a significant variety of virtual race options, including ones raising money for charity.

Why Complete a Virtual Race?

You challenged yourself to train and complete an ambitious goal, should you see this through to the end, even if your event gets canceled? Absolutely.

Feeling a bit iffy on whether or not to register? Reasons why you might want to take part in a virtual race include the following:

  • It serves as an incentive. For those who need to work toward something to keep up their fitness, a virtual race can help keep you on track. “While not as motivating as a real in-person race, a virtual race is still a planned event,” says Cory Smith, a USA Track & Field Level 1 and 2 certified coach. “Having an event in front of you gives you something to aim for, and it offers a test of fitness.”
  • It removes the distractions of large races. Runners who find crowds and loads of people agonizing (such as those who experience social anxiety) or don’t like the bobbing and weaving around slower runners might find that creating your own racing experience can help you maximize your full racing potential. For Andrea Mueller, an avid runner, she finds that virtual races are more empowering because you don’t have the typical racing disturbances. Rather, “it’s you, your mind and your feet carrying you the distance,” she says. “There’s something really powerful in that.”
  • It assists new runners. If you’re new to the competitive sport of endurance running, virtual races can help you establish a baseline run time. According to Nick Karwoski, a former National Team Triathlete, ranked American and CEO of Tagalong, which connects athletes to train together, running a virtual race “can help newer runners obtain their stats so that they can start to better prepare for live races in the future or just become stronger runners in general.”
  • It helps with confidence. According to a study from The Sport Journal, marathoners are often not prepared for the mental and emotional demands of the race itself and can lack the confidence needed to finish. Removing the stress-inducing racing environment and instead, completing the 26.2-mile distance in their own personal race can allow nervous runners an ability to build up their self-esteem for a future traditional race. This could help get them to a future finish line, rather than try an in-person race once, not finish and never return.
  • Allows you to stay within your budget. Although they aren’t the same as traditional races, virtual running virtual events save you a lot of money, according to avid marathoner Kim Brown. “Sure you have to pay for an entry fee, but you don’t have to pay for a hotel, flight, and all the food that you would normally consume when you travel to a different place to race,” she says.
  • Works for non-competitive runners. Any runner who wants to run for the sheer joy of running, rather than try to keep up with people in a race could benefit from the virtual option. Dalia Kinsey, RD, says that they allow you to focus on the pleasure of the sport rather than the pressure of competition.
  • Reduces injury. Kinsey says that you are less likely to injury yourself in a virtual race than at a traditional one, as you have less people to trip on and no water cups scattered all over aid stations that can cause you to slip. 
  • Provides an emotional outlet. Andrew Lee, a certified running coach from Road Runners Club of America, admits that " we are all cooped and pent up right now." He says that pushing yourself to your physical limits in a virtual race allows you to expend energy that has no current outlet. "The feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment will provide a release."
  • Serves to benefit recreational runners. Meredith O'Brien, a certified USA Track and Field Coach and American College of Sports Medicine personal trainer, says that some recreational runners are motivated by earning medals, which doesn't change in the virtual racing environment. Granted, receiving the medal in the mail versus having someone put it around your neck is different, "but you still get something to show off on Medal Monday," she says.

Tips and Strategies for a Virtual Race

Once you decide on a race, you simply register online. After this, you need to read the rules. Some virtual races allow you to finish whatever distance you registered for anytime by a specific deadline. Other races have you start at a certain date and time, as if you were there in person. You must keep your own time and GPS the appropriate distance, which means you might need to spring for a watch that provides these elements.

Once you are done and have your finish time, you most likely will email the race director so that your name and official time can be added to the list of results.

Because this race is a "do-it-yourselfer," you need to have your own nutrition available. For races lasting longer than 60 minutes, have energy gels or bars nearby and water/sports drinks either in a water bottle you carry or somewhere easily available, says the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

For your hydration needs, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) says that athletes should drink the following amounts:

  • 14 to 22 ounces of fluid two hours before exercise
  • Six to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise
  • 16 to 24 ounces of water or sports drink for every pound of body mass lost after exercise.

You should be prepared with this hydration amount ahead of your race start.

Getting in your nutritional needs presents an opportunity to involve family and friends. You can have them on your designated course cheering for you and handing you water. Or, you can also encourage them to join you, says Alexandra Weissner, run coach and co-founder of bRUNch Running.

She recommends making the entire process a family event; you can all get in shape together. Plus, you don’t have the added stress of going to an actual race.

Some other strategies that can help you on race day include the following:

You should know your route ahead of time. You also might want to mirror the elevation as best as possible if a race you wanted to do turned virtual this year. For example, if a 10K in an in-person course includes a mile-long climb, you could find terrain that also includes a one-hill mile. This isn’t necessary, however. Many runners choose to make their virtual course flat for a personal record or make it much harder for a personal challenge.

You can also look for virtual races that offer training plans as part of your registration fee. Some even come with their own online community, which can help you stay motivated. “We might not be able to run together in-person, but we can still give each other virtual high fives on social media,” says Weissner.

According to Von Collins, a triathlon coach, editor of Complete Tri and author of Running Smarter, if your virtual race is “not part of a broader, organized effort, track yourself on an app like Strava, and do the race on a common ‘segment’ that the app recognizes as a particularly popular route.” He says this will allow you to track yourself against others who have run that route and perhaps give you more incentive to work harder and better your time.

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Article Sources
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  1. Boston Athletic Association. 124th Boston Marathon to be held virtually. Updated May 28, 2020

  2. Coumbe-Lilley J, Carter L, Anderson B. Strategies for working with first time marathon runnersSport J. 2016;21.

  3. ACE. How to train for a half-marathon. Updated October 13, 2010.

  4. NASM. Hydration for heath and performance. Updated January 17, 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Hydration for Health and Performance. National Academy of Sports Medicine. Updated January 17, 2014.