There are no parking problems. No crowds. No long Porta Potty lines. There is no start gun or nervous, pre-race chitchat with other runners.

There’s not even an official starting line.

That’s the kind of flexibility offered by virtual races, a new trend in the running community. Runners who sign up for a virtual race register online and simply choose their own starting line, whether it’s a treadmill or a neighborhood street. They run the race distance, upload their finishing time and a few days later are mailed a medal.

It may seem strange to traditional runners, but race organizers say the virtual race is a great option for those who want convenience.

How It Began

Years ago, before national championship meets, high school runners mailed in their times to a national postal competition, and a champion was then selected and announced. 

It’s unclear when virtual racing made the leap online to a mass audience. Some race directors say it evolved from runners’ requests to participate in physical races from afar. Regardless, in recent years virtual racing has exploded in popularity, mostly because of its flexibility.

The Benefits

“There are many people who would love to participate in physical races but are unable to for one reason or another,” says Mark Petrillo, founder of Virtual Strides, a small business that organizes virtual races and donates a large percentage of the proceeds to charitable causes. “With virtual races, you don’t need to deal with traffic, parking, poor weather or unexpected schedule conflicts or injuries that might cause you to miss the race.”

“Virtual races can be used to experiment with new training plans and methods to find out what works best for you on nutrition [and] hydration before and during the race, supplements, resting and waking time before the race, apparel and many other very important factors that can make you or break you on your big upcoming race,” he says.

The Cons

Still, as the popularity of virtual races has grown, so have runner’s opinions of it. Many runners say that virtual races simply can’t deliver the same race day atmosphere, the community or the camaraderie of races.

But virtual racing advocates have an answer to that, too. “You are able to keep the community feel because of the online environment,” Jackson says. “Kind of the same way that other running groups share stories and feedback on social media, virtual races create this type of community also.”

How It Works

Most virtual races work the same: participants select a distance, sign up and pay the registration fee. Some races allow runners to complete the distance at any time, but they all allow runners to earn their medal anywhere.

After the virtual race, runners post their times online and are then mailed a finisher’s medal. Some organizers even offer race packets and electronic bibs to their runners as well.

Fees are typically lower for the virtual race alternative, meaning runners can earn their miles and save money. Such is the case with the Walt Disney World Radio Running Team’s Tomorowland Virtual Race, which gives runners an alternative to making the expensive trip to Disney World and Disneyland for their series of half marathons and marathons.

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