NEW YORK • On a Friday evening late last month, three women in matching blue-and-white running shoes leaned over a starting line at Buffalo Park in Arizona, each with one hand on their watches.
After a countdown and a yell of “go”, they bolted across the line. It was just like any other cross-country race – except their competition was invisible: A trio of rival runners raced them in a nearby state as thousands of fans watched on a split-screen live Instagram video feed.
Virtual races were not supposed to be the most exciting competition for runners this summer.
But, with the coronavirus pandemic making large-scale gatherings impossible, runners are turning to technology as they search for ways to train, stay connected with teammates and compete.
Some have kept it simple, logging workouts and training plans in shareable Google documents or spreadsheets to stay in touch with their coaches. Others are using social fitness apps like MapMyRun and Strava, which saw a record 3.4 million downloads in May.
And some coaches and race organisers have innovated after being forced to scrap plans for prestigious meets, massive marathons and the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed to 2021.
They are making the best of a time without in-person competition by hosting virtual races and pitting runners in different states against each other.
“Everything’s pretty much been wiped off the table and we’ve had to regroup and reassess and find things to look forward to that aren’t traditional,” said Ben Rosario, the head coach of the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite professional distance running team.
While Arizona was under a stay-at-home order in April and May, his small team went more than a month without training together, and he used an online training log to send workout plans and stay connected with his athletes.
But that did not replace the thrill of racing. So when the team’s runners were able to train together again, Rosario hatched a plan.
He partnered another professional team in Boulder, Colorado, to host a time trial. The teams would run a 3.2km course, starting at the same time, and compare results.
As an added twist, both squads would livestream the race on Instagram on a split screen, so fans could watch from home.
When Stephanie Bruce arrived at Buffalo Park, she felt pre-race nerves that she had not experienced in months.
“I kind of got those butterflies, which was really nice to have,” said Bruce of Hoka Northern Arizona.
“When we haven’t had the opportunity to race, it’s really hard. You’re in this cage where you just want to let out all the fitness and all the workouts that you’ve been pouring all of your heart into.”
Bruce, the first woman to finish for either team, said it was difficult to imagine racing the Boulder runners while running the course.
But fans enjoyed the competition – more than 15,000 people watched the videos after they were posted on Instagram.
Even for ordinary athletes, running with friends and competing in races was a steady, familiar part of life that was ripped away – and they are looking for ways to reconnect.
Many of them are using Strava, an app that allows runners to interact with each other by giving “kudos” on a friend’s workout. They can also compare times and join clubs and challenges.
Facing the possibility of no in-person races, organisers are also using technology to motivate runners. Last month, the New York Road Runners (NYRR), host of the cancelled New York City Marathon, moved a version of it online.
In October, entrants will have a two-week window to run the 42.195km on their own and log the result on Strava as tracked by their phone or GPS watch. Times will be compiled on an NYRR leaderboard.
Christine Burke, senior vice-president for NYRR, acknowledged that the virtual races cannot recreate the strategy and tactics that come with an in-person competition.
Nor can they adjust for different elevations, weather conditions or even GPS malfunctions around the world. Still, she said, runners have embraced the concept.
Other groups are creating music playlists online and digital racing bibs that runners can wear during their virtual races, according to Haku, an event management platform that partners race organisers.
“We’re creating a new kind of bucket of runners, because you have this whole group of people who are into wellness and into fitness… but they can’t go to their group fitness class,” said Haku’s co-founder, Jackie Levi.
NYRR has seen an increase in participants in its virtual races this year. It had about 22,000 finishers in its two virtual events this year, up from about 15,000 last year.
The organisation also recently added two new virtual events, each having more than 10,000 finishers.
But virtual racing can tide the pros over only for so long. Bruce, the Hoka elite runner, is itching to toe a real starting line again.
“You’re missing the connection,” she said. “I think human connection is what keeps a lot of people motivated and inspired in life.”
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