Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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Opinion

05 April 2021, 3pm

AIMS race organisers share their views

Virtual races: here to stay?

For the first few months of covid a virtual replacement ‘event’ often looked like the only way to offer runners a semblance of the races they had entered. It was a way to keep the faith and a means of communication with runners until normal service resumed.

In autumn 2020 it looked like there might be a return to mass races within a few months, especially with vaccines becoming available. But this would only be in some places and subject to unforeseen setbacks. Race organisers now have to consider whether they will be able to stage an on-ground event, how much it may have to be modified or whether they will have to submit to a second successive race cancellation. The virtual event may again become the necessary fallback.

There is no better way of learning than through first-hand experience. Many organisers are finding that virtual races are more than a substitute for a racing reality and bring new possibilities to what they can offer their runners.

Below, in no particular order, AIMS race organisers explain what they have learnt about virtual races and how they might be of benefit to organisers and runners alike.

Renay Onur, Istanbul Marathon, Turkey

Istanbul Marathon was held on 8 November 2020, as scheduled, with a field limited to 4000.

We wanted to keep the Istanbullians active and inspired during that unfortunate period [last year], providing targets to keep people focused. We tried to keep connected through our communication with runners.

We will be doing hybrid events in 2021. Virtual races give us a very powerful alternative: I believe we can increase overall participation. We will try to do both virtual and real but the important thing is to differentiate the value proposition.
The value proposition and communication are very important to avoid hurting the value of the real event

Andreas Maier, Vienna City Marathon, Austria

Vienna City Marathon has been postponed to 12 September 2021 but has been holding socially-distanced events in the expansive Prater park in the centre of Vienna.

I think that ‘real’ races will come back strongly, whenever the pandemic allows it, because it lies within human nature to come together, meet people and do something that exceeds the normal and everyday life.

I expect that we will see real races which incorporate virtual events or have them as an add-on, because travel restrictions might still be in place for some time to come.

Virtual challenges and races will stay with us in some shape or form post-covid as an extension for real races and as a way for motivating and engaging runners in the run-up to the bigger events.

John Addison, Victoria Falls Marathon, Zimbabwe

We started a completely new virtual Victoria Falls event and charged our sponsors for it while moving the 2020 real event and funding to 2021.

Runners needed something to aim at and we encountered a very positive attitude from them. In 2021 we may do a real and a virtual event, combined as a hybrid, so those who cannot travel are still offered a way to participate.

Future plans will likely include a hybrid event to get around travel issues – of any sort – and in this way increase participation. Hybrids seem to be the way to go: we reckon 90% will be in-person and 10% virtual. The virtual edition will have to be good value and as ‘live’ as possible, so likely in real time. Real races are better and more atmospheric but a real-time virtual in parallel to a real race could be the way to go in the future – the technology is there.

Jozef Pulakovic, Bratislava Marathon, Slovakia

CSOB Bratislava Marathon try to organise attractive virtual races: not a “B option” for races which had to be postponed or cancelled but new events to create fresh air for runners in this dark period.

Runners are motivated to complete tasks and many don’t like virtual events in general, but they are balanced by beginners who have started to run during covid because they needed to do something for their health. Many runners are having to adjust and virtual events are the only chance to motivate themselves – people wrote to us saying so.

I’m sure that a lot of runners know that in these very hard times their solidarity and entry fee is important for us how to survive this period. I am sure that, more than ever, good relationships with our runners will help us to get through this time. Around 40% of runners of CSOB Bratislava Marathon 2020 donated their entry fee after we had to postpone last year from April to September. Then in September we had to convert it to a virtual form only two weeks before the event, when everything was already prepared for the second time in one year.

This year we had already decided to postpone the Bratislava marathon to 5 September. Holding a virtual marathon would be Plan B – some partners have already asked us how we could deal with continuing uncertainty. For our flagship races we would like to offer only the classic experience, as long as the situation allows it.

We understand that some older runners or women may be wary of participating in a huge mass of people. As race directors we have to explain to people so that they can themselves choose to follow us in virtual events or classic races or both. For example – we organised a virtual winter Valentines’ run this year and comparing it with the real edition in 2020 we doubled the numbers – so one never knows. I think Virtual runs allow some new concepts to be introduced. We created a virtual 5km run as a challenge between people in 29 different job categories and it was a real success.

Aigars Nords, Rimi Riga Marathon, Latvia

Rimi Riga Marathon 2020 had to be cancelled at the last minute; we stepped into a virtual existence overnight.

The Latvian Government issued a special law to prohibit all running events with more than 300 participants at 20.00 the night before the race. This set what might potentially be the world’s anti-record for making organisers and runners direct victims of a political decision. An event with more than 14 000 participants could no longer take place.

What saved us from a catastrophe was our Virtual Running Club, launched earlier that summer of 2020 with the help of Sports Heroes. Various virtual events and races organised during the summer had got our runners’ audience used to the idea of virtual running. We had held our Summer Championships with Paula Radcliffe and Jelena Prokopcuka “competing”, and various charity runs, walks and challenges involving up to 30 000 runners from the Baltic States.

Switching to the virtual edition of the race overnight was as much a sign of runners’ solidarity with us, as it was the logical and only step to take. Although covid restrictions prevented international runners coming to Latvia many had already registered for the virtual edition – and we saw an immediate overnight increase in the numbers of unique registered users of our Virtual Club.

All runners received the special finisher’s medals (irrespective of whether they finished the virtual edition or not) designed by Junichi Kawanichi, the designer behind Tokyo Olympic medals. Riga was full of runners on the Marathon day, many completed the exact course, many just went out to run for solidarity, thousands took photographs at the start gantry which stood at the Monument of Freedom throughout the weekend.

In these uncertain times our Virtual Running Club is the best way to keep in touch with runners, since we continue to organise a very busy season of virtual Winter Races, sponsors’ challenges, etc. In fact, with the help of Virtual Running Club’s events we have never been busier! Our sponsors have certainly gotten a better return to their investment due to the string of our virtual activities and additional sponsor activation possibilities. I do not think we’d be able to fulfil our sponsors’ expectations if we did not have anything to offer to compensate for the loss of all the in-person events – training programmes, running schools, etc.

Our 2021 event has been postponed to August 28-29, with registration opening at the end of March. But even if we return to “normal” by August, we’ll certainly keep or Virtual Running Club as a perfect platform to keep our audiences busy and sponsors happy in between our “real” races. I am confident runners will want “real” experiences more than ever, however, our virtual races and challenges offer too good a proposition to be left out/forgotten. From now on the virtual marathon will always be part of our deal. Also, we aim to implement several virtual features in the race too.

Vivek Singh, Tata Mumbai Marathon, India

Tata Mumbai Marathon is due to be held on 30 May 2021 with a field of a few thousand.

Virtual, app-assisted races is a growing new paradigm for Procam [Marathon organisers]. We had not yet invested in any of our races before the lockdowns came last year so virtual versions were not adopted to salvage investment already made. But it was vital for us to conduct our events in a virtual format as a way of maintaining relevance and connection with runners. Virtual was the best available option.

The virtual event is now a feature of all our races. We are postponing our early 2021 races so we can bring back the on-ground element. Virtual versions will continue as an additional aspect and if, for any reason, the on-ground does get cancelled the virtual will certainly help buttress the impact.

We think it absolutely worthwhile to continue with the virtual as it allows our races to reach larger audiences. Especially our corporate partners who have offices across the country and around the world. This is an opportunity for them to engage their teams outside of the home city of the race. So our virtual races will be used as an employee-engagement tool far beyond what the on-ground race could offer.

Serious runners will most likely be skeptical of virtual races but, at the same time, corporate challenges will most likely be the most engaged route for virtual races moving forward. We think that first-time runners will most likely embrace Virtual quite a bit. That’s our current view anyway.

Alan Brookes, Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Canada

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon is scheduled for 17 October 2021

Our mission at Canada running Series is “building community through running” so our #1 goal was to try to stay connected, to offer content that would help keep our community together, motivated, engaged and moving forward. To that end we created virtual options for all eight of our CRS races, and we set up “Runner’s Hi” Facebook Live programmes with interviews with a variety of runners and coaches

The event team has been challenged like never before to create meaningful virtual experiences in an effort to keep our community running together while we have to be apart. We’ve been challenged to completely re-think the meaning of “diversity and inclusion” in our sport. We’ve acknowledged that running, a sport that prides itself on democratically including everyone on our start lines regardless of talent or speed, may not be as inclusive as we assumed.

There has definitely been a sense of solidarity among the core running community – but we can’t be sure if it extends much beyond that.

Virtual events are here to stay. They are a positive result of the pandemic, offering convenience, an expanded reach and a special appeal to our charity runners who like the option of not having to get to our start lines dark, early, and often cold. We are launching our virtual races now (on going), and will make decisions on in-person races for July-December in the summer.

Virtual races are not just necessary but a positive way of growing participation, revenue, charity fundraising, and collectively our community. They offer opportunities for runners and organisers and will be used to complement the real-life races. If ‘virtual’ has been the key word to describe 2020 then ‘hybrid’ will be the word that best characterises 2021. Hybrid races will offer a real-life race option for those willing and able to travel, and to commit to in-person gatherings, plus a virtual option for those more comfortable connecting at a distance.

Virtual races have proved especially popular among charity runners and walkers; among people who’ve moved away but want to still be part of their hometown race; or those who want to travel to a Canada Running Series event but can’t do it this particular year.

When in-person races return, they will look different. They’ll be smaller and stripped down to reduce contact touch points, with lots of extra safety precautions. At first there are likely to be no bag check services, no post-race parties and awards, and packet-pick-up will be outdoors or via mailout. Lots of physical distancing, mandatory mask wearing and hand sanitizing.

Reto Schorno, Swiss City Marathon Lucerne

Swiss City Marathon is scheduled for 31 October 2021.

We felt the solidarity of runners last year but we expect that in 2021 [if there is no in-person event] everyone will expect their money back or a place in the following edition. We would prefer to postpone rather than replace with a virtual race. Virtual alternatives are useful for communication, to stay in touch with the community but not for the money.

A parallel virtual event may be of interest for foreign runners who are not able to travel but we expect to be on for autumn. Virtual races will be an additional side event, but will never replace the real one.

In Lucerne one outcome was that we started a new concept called “run365”. This is a fixed course with timing points installed giving the chance to run 365 days a year and generate daily, weekly or monthly rankings. The goal is to connect with our community and gain new contacts.

Jim Aughney, Dublin Marathon, Ireland

The Dublin Marathon is scheduled for 24 October 2021

A virtual race in 2020 for us was the only means by which the finances of the race could be spared. The virtual edition gave runners a target they could still adhere to.
If a real race can’t be held in 2021, or entries are severely restricted, or if runners are hesitant to take part, we will hold another virtual edition. In the long term I think runners will want the real events but if numbers allowed in the event do not permit all who are interested to take part they may take up the virtual race option

Bohan Witwicki, Silesia Marathon, Poland

The Silesia Marathon is scheduled for 3 October 2021

I’m an “old” runner. I have been competing for 38 years and sometimes cover more than 20km in training – does that mean I have run a half marathon? Am I entitled to a medal? No.

Competition should be in the traditional form known to us – both for the runners and for viewers. Seeing a lone runner in the park will not convince others to run but the sight of several thousand competitors always makes more people want to join in.

Our task is now to convince the decision-makers that running will not infect others, and running itself is the healthiest and simplest form of exercise. The scourge of the world is not Covid but obesity and lack of exercise. The virus does not kill slim, healthy people – such organisms will do well without a vaccine.

I am against virtual racing; man is not a virtual being. We are social. Sport is competition. With their own weaknesses, with distance, with rivals. Conditions also matter. If I do a virtual run in Poland it could be at –8C and in snow while my friend in London may have dry roads and optimal temperature – and another participant can take off in Johannesburg in 30C and bright sunshine.

In Poland, after the first few virtual runs, nobody wants to start “virtually”. On social media runners clearly and critically express their opinions about virtual runs.

As an organiser (and runner), I have never planned to organise a virtual race. Someone who signs up for a run wants to take part in the event, run a specific route, and not cover kilometres on their daily training route.

Honesty obliges me to return the starting fee if I cannot conduct the event. I understand that life forced many organisers to run virtual events – but it cannot become normal practice. The time for virtual runs is over and we should strive to develop standards in order to bring back safe events.

In 2020 I organised the largest marathon run in Poland – and in safe conditions. There was no increase in infections after the event. I think this is the only way. We need a return to normalcy.

Les Wright, Maui Oceanfront Marathon, United States

We did not do a virtual event for either of our races (Lake Tahoe in October 2020 and Maui Oceanfront in January 2021).

I don’t believe in sending a finisher’s medal for a virtual race. Running at my event or another race event is special because of the socialization, the new [landscape], town or city you are running in.

At the Lake Tahoe Marathon in October we will run a modified race without a mass start if Covid is still a big issue, and the same with Maui Oceanfront next January.

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