Readers Roundtable: What’s the Deal with Virtual Races?

I suppose my confusion makes more sense when yo
Hurry up! Time’s running out to earn your porta-potty medal for running 3.1 miles down your street!

As I scroll through my news feed each morning, it is evident from Facebook’s “suggested posts” that the social media’s fancy algorithms have figured out that I like running. A lot. Lately, Facebook has made it clear that it believes it’s time for me to start virtual racing.

Virtual racing? Have you encountered this too? Have you also found yourself wondering, what the heck is virtual racing and why would anyone do that?

Based on my very scientific research, here’s the deal. You sign up for a virtual race like any other race, filling out a sign-up questionnaire and then paying the entry fee. The difference between virtual racing and regular racing is this:  you run the race distance wherever and whenever you want. That’s right, you enter and pay to go for a regular old run on your regular old route or treadmill or wherever.

When you’ve completed the “race,” you get your race swag, usually a medal. You pay someone else, to run a regular old run on your regular old route and then you get a medal for your efforts. Bravo?

Tell us what you think!

What’s the deal with virtual races? Do they offer any benefit to dedicated runners like us? 

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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  1. I think the medals appeal to those who like bling. (Confession: I did sign up for a Day of the Dead race because I liked the medal. It came in the mail but I forgot when I was supposed to run–presumably 10/31–or how far.) The old style of virtual race used to be where a blogger announced a virtual race, say to celebrate her birthday, and you run and post a comment. The fancy ones would provide a bib you could print out and take a picture of yourself. No money exchanged hands, although sometimes the blogger would send out small prizes to winners or randomly drawn names.

  2. Again, I might not know what I’m talking about, because this very much is not my thing. But to me, there are very few reasons this seems anything other than: 1) an easy way to make money [charge people the same as a real race event without having to pay for anything like security, permits, food, etc and only delivering a medal] and 2) for people who like or collect medals or whatever or 3) need motivation to get out and go for that run, which doesn’t really apply to most of us around here 🙂

    And this world toilet day race? Um, is it me or is it really annoying that a day about raising awareness for the sanitation needs of the world’s poorest communities is being “honored” by giving out medals of a runner’s best friend/porta-pottie?

    “Isn’t it hilarious that all these poor people die of water born illness because of lack of sanitation while we run a 5k down our street and get this hilarious porta-potty/runner’s best friend medal?”

    It’s like this virtual race company went through the calendar of all the “World _____ Days” or National _____ Weeks” and just made virtual races around any it could make money on. And sure a whopping $4 of every $18 race entry goes to, but that hardly means they’re doing this because they’re a noble organization. Just run and donate $18 directly, which I am going to do right now because this annoys me. Maybe I just need more coffee this morning.

    1. And who gets the tax deduction for that donation? Seems like it’s always the virtual race organization, not the runner who actually paid.

  3. Run for the Water, a 10-miler in Austin that raises money for water projects in Burundi, the native country of Gilbert of Gilbert’s Gazelles. a very popular running group (and fantastic coach), has virtual running as part of this run. Their intent is purely philanthropic as all their race proceeds go to the water projects. They have a terrific following so I think the virutal is to continue the connection with the Gazelles and to raise additional funds. I don’t care about the bling but if I’m going to donate funds in any event, then this adds a fun component. Like Salty notes, virtual runs can also make other connections, like with the military.

    1. I forgot to mention that virtual runs in conjunction with something like the Run for Water which is solely a charitable fund-raising event makes plenty of sense to me. But the other thing is just easy money in my opinion, but again that’s most likely because I’m not buying what they’re selling, while plenty of other people are.

  4. Virtual Strides is one I’ve run with and the ‘sole’ reason is because theirs are always to benefit an organization. Children who need heart surgeries and funds to cover costs, for Vietnam vets to receive a canine service dog for PTSD help, etc. I figure if I’m going to be running anyway, I could make it count to towards something besides my health and fitness. A hidden goal. Even if it’s raining, I need to go so that vet somewhere gets his dog. Or that organization is able to help more less fornuate than I who just thinks she wants to be lazy today. ?

  5. I think for me personally the only way I would pay to run a virtual race is if the proceeds were ALL going to support a cause. Basically, I make a charitable donation and then go run- cool I can handle that. But virtual races for the sake of swag or racing isn’t my thing- I love many of my medals but one of the things I love most about them are the memories that were made earning those medals. You know, chatting with friends at the start line, the memories (good and bad) along the course, and of course the post race celebratory libations. So shipping me a medal doesn’t give me the memories and therefore defeats the purpose (for me).

  6. I’ve done 1 virtual race – for a local cause, set up by a friend. Run what you like, donate what you like.
    I wound up making an additional separate donation to the organization, pledging a certain amount per mile run that month, just because the cause appealed to me.
    But, I can’t imagine doing another “organized” virtual race. I’d rather just make a donation and cut out the middle man.

  7. The overseas military makes sense to me. Of course running for charity makes sense to me too. However, if you look at the virtual stride faq page they basically say only $5 per entry goes to chairity and that if you want to make a more significant donation, to donate directly to the charity. Kudos for them for being upfront about it. I guess it’s like anything that raises money for a charity but only part of the money goes to the cause. (Yes I understand that there are costs associated with an event and not all $ can go to the charity) I always think well at least the charity is getting something it wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, but I always wonder if there couldn’t be a better way. I think virtual races put on by just regular people to donate what you want like Liz mentioned seem like the best type of virtual race to me!

  8. A former student of mine commented that his mom did a Dr. Seuss-themed “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” virtual race where she had to run in a list of different types of places/weather and track her progress with an app/pictures. Seems to me virtual racing might be fun for people who want some motivation to start running without the pressure of a real starting line, like a virtual “Couch to 5k” race or something. .

  9. The only virtual race I’ve ever been tempted by is Zombies Run (running from zombies makes the treadmill bearable). It was not because of the swag, but rather for the extra race mission. I didn’t enter because it was all or nothing, and I can’t have the mission without the swag.

  10. Strata is filled with virtual races and also the monthly training series (who can run/bike the most miles). I was going to say this stuff was goofy, but then realized that I occasionally take those Strava virtual races seriously. It is also fun to see where I rank in the monthly training series when I’m in a peak training month.

  11. I did the virtual Beat the Blerch race last year, because I really really wanted to do the real version but it sold out in 0.003 seconds. It was… kinda lame, really. I mean, I got some fun swag and a T-shirt that people still ask about whenever I wear it, so that was nice, but I was left feeling like I could have just bought most of that stuff and not pretended it was a race.

    I guess there are people who need a medal for every training run, and if they’re willing to keep paying for them I guess that’s their business. But for me I think it’s real races only from here on.

  12. Also, I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to see pictures of that toilet medal before I stop being disappointed in its failure to be a TARDIS! 🙁

  13. So, the question is two-fold, and has three very different answers in my opinion.

    The first question, “What’s the deal with virtual races?” I agree it’s just a way for races to make more money. I agree because I’m currently putting together a race for the non-profit that I operate (in addition to my full time job, marathon training and parenting), but I don’t have time to actually organize the race. So I’ve hired it done, and I am hoping to make a little more than I spend at the end of the day. For me, I have a lot of family in Michigan who would support the venture through a virtual race option, even though the actual race is going to be held in Texas. I can envision folks paying to ‘participate’ in the virtual race even though I can’t necessarily envision those same people directly sending a donation.

    For the next question, “Do they offer any benefit to dedicated runners like us?” I can think of two sets of answers.

    As far as the most obvious answer, and I think this one answers the intent of the question, the PHYSICAL benefits or training benefits of a virtual race are whatever you make them. You may never run it. You may run as hard as you can. You may go out and jog, or do fartleks the whole distance, or walk it, or do it backwards or sideways. I think whether or not you get the same kind of physical effort and training from a virtual race as you would from running a “real live” race depends on how much effort you expend. I don’t know that it’s impossible to run all out when it’s just you against your head, but I personally don’t think I would put in a true race effort if I wasn’t in a real live race.

    My next answer is a little more corny and relies on your definition of benefit. If you feel you get an emotional benefit by making a deposit into the karma-bank and supporting a cause that you believe it, then I think the answer is obvious that YES they can offer a benefit. I recognize that wasn’t the intent of the question, but just thought I’d throw that out there for consideration. I’m more likely to donate to a cause by participating in a virtual race than by sending them a check, for whatever reason.