Growing virtual race trend gives runners new way to stay motivated, fund-raise, bag swag

Earlier this winter, I ran three races on the same day.

A leg of a 59.5-miler in Hawaii, a 5K in Georgia and a 10K with a field of more than 50,000 from around the world.

Really, I was just trying to make the most of a bad situation. My car was smoking and smelled as if it was about to burst into flames so I dropped it off at the mechanic, leashed up my dog, turned on my smart phone’s run-tracking app and set out on a 6.3-mile walk/jog home.

And while, to passersby, I looked like a guy walking his dog, I was participating in one of running’s growing trends: Virtual racing.

It’s an activity some recreational runners are finding intriguing because it allows them to spice up their workouts, keep motivated, raise money for charity, add to their medal and shirt collections, save money and keep their scheduled flexible.

There are several types of virtual races (all three I signed up for were a little different) but the vast majority have the same basic idea: Register online, pay the entry fee (if there is one), run the prescribed distance, report your time and then wait for your medal to show up in the mail.

In most cases you can do the running (or walking) outside or inside on a treadmill. Some events even accept biking miles. And most events aren’t a competitive race.

Jillian Zabda of Puyallup says when her running group gets together for weekend workouts it’s not uncommon for group members to be wearing a variety of bibs from different virtual races. She and two friends are currently participating in a virtual race in which they aim to combine for 2,015 miles this year. They each paid $35 to enter and when they finish they’ll receive a shirt and a medal.

“It’s all about the swag,” Zabda said with a laugh.

That’s a pretty familiar refrain throughout the sport of running these days. Both in virtual and traditional racing.

“The bling element is a huge buy in factor,” said Jacmel Baptiste of Get Fit for Bling, a virtual race company in Georgia. “If you participate in something that’s worth doing you have a sense of accomplishment.

“And they (virtual races) fit into where we are as a nation right now. We want to give back. We want to be active. We want to be a part of something. But we have busy lifestyles. Virtual races give us the versatility.”

A simple online search for virtual races will turn up numerous opportunities. I decided to sign up for the first two I stumbled across: Get Fit for Bling’s New Year’s Resolution Run (an autism advocacy fundraiser) and Florida-based Make Yes Happen’s Road to Hana (a fundraiser for cancer care and research).

Each race cost $25 to enter.

Additionally, I signed up for a 10K race through Strava, the activity tracker I use on my phone. This is a free feature.

A few days after registering I received an email from Get Fit for Bling with a race bib I could print for my 5K run. This is optional, of course, and there wasn’t much chance I was going to pin on this bib for my little stroll home from the mechanic. I compromised and downloaded the bib to my phone.

Make Yes Happen’s race was different. Instead of completing the race in one outing, I was given about a month to cover 59.5 miles, the length of the section of Hawaii’s scenic Hana Highway that was the setting of the race. Each time I logged a run on the event website, I was sent a Google Maps image from the spot where I would have been.

As for the Strava 10K race, when I finished I received a virtual badge on my account and my time was posted on a worldwide leaderboard. I was nearly last in the field of 50,494 but I blame my easily distracted dog, Largent, for our sluggish 18-minute mile pace.

Nevertheless, when I got home I posted our results and a picture of Largent on the Get Fit for Bling Facebook page. Then I updated my progress on the Road to Hana Race. The Strava race updated automatically thanks to the app.

And, sure enough, over the next few weeks small packages started arriving. First a large medal in the shape of a running New Year’s resolution from Get Fit for Bling. Next, a shirt and colorful medal from Make Yes Happen.

They were just as fancy as medals I’ve received from running traditional races, but I couldn’t help but think virtual racing lacked the one thing I tend to enjoy most about real races: People.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons people race,” said Tony Phillippi, co-founder of the Tacoma City Marathon and the Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics running clubs. “But I don’t have anything against virtual races.”

Phillippi knows of some runners who use virtual races when they travel so they can reach their goal of running races in different states.

Some traditional races — Florida’s Celebration and Key West Half-Marathons, for example – offer a virtual race option for people who can’t attend the scheduled event. Phillippi says the Tacoma City Marathon hasn’t planned on adding this feature, primarily because the staff is already stretched pretty thin.

“But it’s a pretty cool idea to think of people running the Tacoma City Marathon all over the world,” he said.

The Capital City Marathon also hasn’t considered adding this feature, said race director Nona Snell.

Kevin Transue of Make Yes Happen expects the trend of virtual racing to keep growing. He and Baptiste say virtual races are a fun fundraising tool.

“We think it’s very interesting and we are trying to take it to a new level,” Transue said.

Make Yes Happen offers a platform for organizations to stage virtual races. He says about 90 percent of entry fees go to the nonprofit groups. The website is staging 16 races including a 3,552-mile race from Los Angeles to Boston. Competitors have a year to see how far they can get.

Transue has logged 90 miles so far (in the virtual world, that’s got him just shy of crossing the San Gabriel Mountains) and says he’s not likely to make it all the way to Boston. In fact, none of the participants are on pace to finish, but that’s hardly the point.

“It’s motivating just to see your little marker move across the map,” Transue said of the personalized progress page every participant has on the website.

The extra motivation is just one of the elements Zabda likes about virtual racing.

Running has helped her lose 70 pounds since October 2013 and she’s been able to inspire others, including her mom, Sherry Kampe of Graham. Kampe has gone from despising running to participating in local races, Zabda said. “I have so much pride for my mom,” she said.

Zabda believes virtual races can take the intimidation factor out of trying the sport.

“The first time a lot of people wonder ‘Can I even do it?’” Zabda said. In a virtual race, a newbie need not worry about finishing last or having to stop. And they can still collect a medal or shirt to commemorate their accomplishment.

And Zabda loves the flexibility of not having to roll out of bed at 5 a.m. for a weekend race if she’s not so inclined. She can get the run in after work on a weekday if she prefers. “Saturday is my only day to sleep in,” she said.

And virtuals are usually cheaper than a traditionally running event (a half marathon registration can cost $50-100).

“I think they’re a lot of fun and a good way to stay motivated,” Zabda said. “I’ll definitely keep running (traditional races) but I think they (virtual races) will be a part of my running program.”