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I’m an avid runner who actually hates crowds—so I tried a “virtual race”

virtual run Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Jacob Lund

Talk to anyone who loves running, and race-day adrenaline—boosted in part by the crowds of cheering spectators—inevitably comes up. It seems like all joggers thrive on it.

So am I a freak for preferring to run solo?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all about having a finish-line goal in mind and pushing myself further and faster than ever before. But the pre-race excitement that seems to pump everyone up just gives me anxiety. And running in a crowd? That’s my nightmare.

I felt a little silly paying $25 for something I would exclusively be running on a treadmill at my local Blink Fitness, but hey, that’s what this whole cloud-based competition is all about.

So when I heard about virtual races, I instantly reached for my sneakers. Here’s the deal: Runners all over the world are given visuals of the same course—or number of miles, it varies by organizer—which they can view as they hit the treadmill on their own time, logging their progress online. That idea of runners coming together to accomplish a common goal is still there—it’s just that everyone is doing it…alone.

In the name of research, I signed up for a “Grand Canyon” course: 22.5 miles that I had about a month to run. I felt a little silly paying $25 for something I would exclusively be running on a treadmill at my local Blink Fitness, but hey, that’s what this whole cloud-based competition is all about. And I would be doing it, joyfully, all alone.

Is it possible to have in-the-moment motivation without the group energy that turns me off? Here’s what I learned from running 20-plus miles as part of an online crowd.

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treadmill hacks
Photo: Stocksy/Maa Hoo

How to find your virtual race

Not all online events are created equal. There are ones with a charity tie-in, where you pay a fee (which will be donated to the cause at hand) and manually track your distance. (Races For Awareness and Virtual Run Events are great resources for those.) These courses are typically all about mileage—there isn’t a set path.

Other competitions are all about the course. On Yes.Fit, they range from Amsterdam to Rome to even Route 66. The site pulls in satellite images from Google Street Views to show real camera footage of the course. Okay, that sounded cool.

If you go the charity route, you’ll pay a fee (I found that the standard cost was about $25), which includes a T-shirt or medal when you finish. The distances range from a breezy 10 miles to more than 50—with a deadline.

Photo: Well+Good
Photo: Well+Good

Logging those miles

Usually, I like to completely disconnect from technology while I hit the pavement (or the treadmill)—even opting to use an old-school iPod and leaving my phone at home. But on day one of my virtual race, I brought my phone to the gym because I expected to be able to prop it up and see the Grand Canyon course as I “traversed” it.

After spending 15 minutes trying to work the Yes.Fit site, I couldn’t figure out how to connect my phone to the site to unlock the Google Street Views. Also, the treadmill I was on didn’t have a place to prop my phone. So, I went very low-tech and manually logged my distance afterward: 5 miles—instead of my usual 3-and-I’m-out—to attack my 22.5-mile goal aggressively. And I was faster than ever before (just like in a “real” race).

My reward? An icon that gave me a real 360-degree glimpse of where I was on the Grand Canyon—and an earthy red path next to a huge cliff filled my screen. I wish I could have seen this view during my hard-and-fast five, but it was still pretty sweet.

Running on the treadmill
Photo: Larkin Clark for Well+Good

The “finish line” and beyond

My quest really kept my gym schedule on track—more than usual. Five-mile days became my new normal. And after each session, I was rewarded with a new panoramic view of a place I’d never been before. In the end, it took me only five sessions to get to the magic number: 22.5.

But even though there was a sense of accomplishment, I also felt like an imposter. What exactly would I say if someone commented on my Grand Canyon T-shirt? Yeah the course looked amazing…on my iPhone. Also, because I wanted to reach that finish line as quickly as possible, I kept the treadmill’s incline at zero the whole time—I’m assuming the real Grand Canyon course isn’t exactly flat.

What exactly would I say if someone commented on my Grand Canyon T-shirt? Yeah the course looked amazing…on my iPhone.

The virtual community aspect wasn’t as strong as I thought it would be, either. Yes.Fit has a pretty active Facebook page with users commenting on the various races they’re doing, but there’s no simple way to connect with other people running my specific race. Where my Grand Canyon people at?! And since I was skipping out on boutique fitness classes to log more time on the treadmill, I missed having some sort of community feeling. (Hey, I’m not totally anti-social.)

So is the whole virtual race thing worth it in the end? If it’s free, then absolutely! For me, it was definitely motivating—but I’m not about to drop $25 on the regular for treadmill runs and a tee. I do think virtual races are a great idea for charities and long runs, like a 100 miler, which will take quite a bit of time to complete.

But for now, if I want to super-charge my motivation—without resorting to, you know, being in a crowd (ugh)—I’m just going to rely on a kickass playlist to push myself to the limit.

Training for a race—virtual or otherwise? Here’s the essential running gear you need before you head out on that long run.