Sonya Sorich: Virtual races offer something new for runners

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 8, 2013 

I found a Florida race that ends in downtown Columbus. And believe it or not, it’s only 13.1 miles.

Confused? Welcome to the world of virtual races.

Forget waking up early, gathering around a crowded start line and enjoying a collective chorus of sneakers on pavement. Virtual races often require nothing more than an Internet connection and smartphone.

Take the aforementioned Florida event scheduled for later this month, the Clearwater Halfathon and Marathon. It's designed to promote a healthy lifestyle and raise money for some of Florida's nonprofit organizations.

Sure, people will participate in the event's many races in sunny Florida.

But there's also a virtual option.

Receive a race bib via email, complete either 13.1 or 26.2 miles within a designated time frame and share your results online. You'll get a finisher medal in the mail. No driving necessary.

In some runners' eyes, that might be one of the trend's greatest advantages. Competitive racing can be a costly hobby. By definition, virtual racing lets you complete your mileage anywhere -- erasing gas money, hotel fees and more.

Plus, an absence of in-person conveniences like post-race refreshments might lead to less expensive entry fees.

For example, Clearwater's virtual options cost just $30 for the halfathon and $40 for the marathon. Participate in person and you could pay up to $105, according to registration information available online.

Is virtual racing too good to be true? Some critics might say yes. It's hard to discuss the trend without mentioning a potential for cheating.

Clearwater requires participants to verify their miles via Facebook, though virtual results are not recorded as "official" times. Other virtual races use more complex systems. Nike's upcoming virtual 10K race requires participants to run and log their miles with a Nike+ device.

While there's something unsettling about not abiding by a universal race clock, even standard road races aren't immune to rule-breaking.

Probably a greater drawback to virtual races is a lack of the in-person camaraderie that defines the running community. You probably won't receive an encouraging thumbs-up from a stranger or a grand fanfare upon crossing your virtual finish line.

Then again, competitive races are often bigger than individual finish times. They usually raise money for important causes. Virtual racing could be a great way to increase awareness and financial support for those groups.

With luck, virtual racing will peacefully coexist with traditional road races -- adding to the growing list of options for newbies ready to enter the running world.

Sonya Sorich, reporter, can be reached at ssorich@ledger-enquirer.com or 706-571-8516. Visit ledger-enquirer.com/sonya to read her columns.

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