Are virtual races just buying medals for yourself?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed basically everything about…well, about everything. We live our entire lives differently now.
For runners in 2020, that change came in the form of in-person races either being canceled, postponed, or going virtual. Each and every one of these reactions drew people’s ire, but none so much as moving from an in-person course to a virtual race.
For a lot of people, virtual races are half-measures that don't really amount to anything.
Runners tend to use races for community building, fun, visiting with friends, and traveling to new places to sightsee and explore. They also race to hit new PRs (personal records), test themselves and their training, run in different or difficult terrain, or even qualify for elite events like the Boston Marathon.
But virtual races...don't do any of that. At least according to a decently vocal part of the running community. They say that Virtual Runs are cash grabs, that they're just places for runners to buy medals instead of earn them.
As someone who adores races and has participated in two virtual ones, I'm ambivalent on the topic. I can see both sides. So I kind of want to break down the elements that appeal to me, and even with those, why I will generally skip out on a virtual race.
Virtual races do have some things going for them. Whenever I hear that someone has registered for a virtual race of any kind, I am always happy.
I’m excited because they have taken the initiative and done something to further their fitness and to enhance their running experience. And because they are getting some pretty cool swag that almost certainly includes a shiny, custom medal of some kind.
Virtual races also work as fundraisers that are a heck of a lot easier to pull off than in-person races. I don’t know the numbers, but the amount of work to put on a virtual run is fractional to on-the-ground. I’m sure the net cash isn’t nearly as high, but they’re still fantastic ways to support causes and help out.
You can do them whenever, too, and they’re low-pressure. Heck, they’re really no pressure since you get mailed the medal (most of the time, at least) before you do the run. It’s the honor system. A reward-yourself kind of thing. This works because runners are used to that intrinsic motivation. We don’t compete against each other—we compete against ourselves.
And they’re cheap, especially when you’re looking at having to travel for an in-person race. Between mileage, time off, meals, hotels, and so on, you can rack up a hefty bill that doesn’t even include registration. Especially if it’s a runDisney race.
That Said…I Still Don’t Really Like Virtual Races
I’ve done some virtual races before. The first was the Star Wars virtual half-marathon that led up to the amazing Star Wars Dark Side weekend in 2018. I wanted all the medals I could get, and the Virtual 13.1 had its own special, shiny doodad. So of course I ran it.
But not as a race. It was just a training run that I did on my way through the Dark Side Challenge training (which was running the 5k, 10k, and half-marathon on successive days). So while I was able to complete the distance, it didn’t feel like an accomplishment like getting the others did.
Though I wouldn’t have been able to get that Kessel Run challenge medal in that picture above if I hadn’t done it. So it netted me two extra shiny doodads, so it was totally worth it.
But I don’t feel like I earned the virtual 13.1 medal like I do all the others.
The only virtual medal I feel like I earned was this one:
My wife got me that one as a way to make me feel better about not being able to do the 2019 Star Wars races, and she made me do a 5k for Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You) and then a 10k on Revenge fo the (May) Fifth before she would give it to me.
So that one…I totally earned. It holds a special place in my heart, too.
As I move toward the 2023 Dopey, I am really hoping we get to do it in person. The 2022 Dopey Challenge was in person, though the 2020 and 2021 races were not. As much as I want to do it, prove to myself that I can, and have those medals for my 40th birthday…I just don’t think I can bring myself to pay that much money for something that I’ve traditionally used as a training run.
Even if it would be the hardest series of training runs I’d have ever done.
So…what are your feelings on virtual runs? Are they worth it? Do you do them often? Do you think they’re just medal vending machines? Let me know!