On Virtual Races

I just completed my first virtual race and, having done so, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the concept and what I got out of it.

If you're not familiar with virtual races they are, as the name suggests, "race" events you sign up for online, then complete on your own and submit your time. You pay an entry fee and nearly all of them provide a finisher's medal and donate a portion of your fee to charity. Often the races are themed to match the charity they're supporting.

Some have leader boards, most don't. Some send you the medal after you submit your times, some send it right away. Some have to be run on specific days within a window, others can be done year-around. Some are distance challenges, some are time challenges. There's a lot of variety.

If you think this seems weird, you're not alone. While virtual races have become fairly popular, they've also gotten a fair amount of criticism, since everything works on the honor system and you're essentially buying your finisher's medal. I see where the criticism is coming from, but I'm not quite sure I agree with it.

First off, you could make that same argument about any race event you participate in, virtual or not. Anyone who wants to run/walk/jog/whatever can do so without paying an entry fee to attend a race. People participate in races for a handful of reasons:

  1. The challenge of competing against others
  2. The social aspect of competing with others
  3. As a way to motivate themselves to continue improving

A virtual race can do all of these, thanks to social media, though admittedly in limited fashion.

But for me that's not where the real value is.

I don't think of them so much as "races" implying competition with others. I think of them more as achievement badges for my own slow path toward fitness. For me, it's gamification of exercising (and yes, that's silly, and yes, I'm a total sucker for it). It's accountability as well, though, since I'm paying hard earned cash to do it.

If I drop $20 and get a neat looking medal that says I did a 10k run/walk, I'm more likely to actually run/walk 10k and not make excuses about being too hot, too busy, or too tired.

And you know what? After decades of a very sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle, those medals really are achievements for me. It's taken some pretty major lifestyle changes for me to get to this point and there's no reason I shouldn't celebrate the accomplishments I'm now making. I even used the first race as an excuse to start Couch to 5k. - Go me.

So that's my personal take on virtual races. I've just finished my first one - a 20 mile 5 or 10 day challenge that I completed in 8 days. I've signed up for a second one that starts July 15th, and I plan to probably do one a month for a while.

Here are my personal "rules" for doing a virtual race:

  • It's not a race, it's a personal fitness challenge.
  • If the medal is sent to me at the time of registration, I'm not allowed to open it until I've completed the challenge.
  • The distance I'm jogging/walking has to happen in addition to my normal daily activity and the usual evening walk doesn't count.

Maybe my opinion of virtual races will change as time goes on, as I've done more of them, and as my overall fitness improves and I start finding less challenging or start wanting to participate in "real" events We'll see.