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How This Old-School Road Runner Learned to Love Virtual Races

Closing in on a personal record, I round the final turn to the half marathon finish line. There is silence, and then shrieks of recognition as the spectators see a runner headed down the chute. I tap into that last store of energy and break the tape at my front door, as my toddler leaps up and down yelling, “Go, Mommy, go!” Bending down for my daughter to place a medal around my neck, I smile at the homemade “FINISH” sign hanging above my head. This is road racing during a pandemic.

Had you told me a year ago that I would be embarking on my sixth virtual race, I would have spit out my Gatorade. Like most runners, I thrive on organized racing: the encouragement of the crowd, the camaraderie of other runners, the anticipation of the post-race celebration, the acrid scent of overcrowded outhouses. Actually, I could do without that last one.

What virtual racing lacks in other humans, it makes up for in flexibility (and no lines for porta-potties). Participants hit the road (or treadmill) on their own to complete a distance set by a race organizer, track their progress on a watch or phone, upload the data to an online platform, and receive a commemorative medal by mail. The starting time and place and race route are anywhere you choose. What this method of racing is missing, however, is precisely what has been absent from all elements of our lives for the last year: company.

Before we started trying to get pregnant in 2016, I spent most weekends lacing up my sneakers for a race, lubing my bike chain for a long group ride, or enlisting a fellow strongman to wrap my arms in duct tape before lifting atlas stones. Which is to say, I almost never trained or competed solo.

Then my husband and I set our sights on starting a family, which became its own challenge, with our fertility doctors as our training crew and other couples our perceived competition. I was encouraged by our doctor to scale back on intense exercise, so racing was off the table as we struggled. When I was finally able to return to the field in March 2020, after successfully conceiving and giving birth to two healthy babies in 2018 and 2019, I had all the wound-up energy of a toy race car pulled to its limit. I was ready.

Then, that month, along with everything else in the world, my first postpartum race was canceled. With a newborn, solo outings felt sacred. So, when race organizers provided the options of a refund or completing the race on our own time (with the medal and T-shirt sent by mail), I didn’t hesitate before recommitting to my goal.

As I would before a normal race day, I laid out my clothes the night before and went to bed early. Race morning looked a little different: I had a slow breakfast with my husband and my daughters, planned and then reconfigured my running route, and laced up my shoes at the start line—which was, conveniently, the end of my driveway. I hit a personal record and was home in time to hug my toddler before she left for preschool. I was hooked.

How to Pick an Event

In the past year, I have completed an 8K, two 10Ks, and a half marathon; I have also run the length of the Toronto subway system and traveled the distance from Atlanta to Washington, DC, all through a virtual race organizer, all done solo. Next up: Mount Everest.

That’s the beauty of pandemic racing: You can hit the classic race distances or take a virtual road less traveled.

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