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With Pandemic Keeping Them Apart, Runners Embrace Virtual Races

On a Friday evening in late June, three women in matching blue-and-white Hoka running shoes leaned over a starting line at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Ariz., each with one hand on their watches.

After a countdown and a yell of “go!” they bolted across the line. It was just like any other cross-country race — except their competition was invisible: A trio of rival runners raced them from a state away as thousands of fans watched on a split-screen live Instagram video feed.

Virtual races weren’t supposed to be the most exciting competition for runners in the summer of 2020. But with the coronavirus pandemic making large-scale gatherings difficult, runners are turning to technology as they search for ways to train, stay connected with teammates and compete.

Some have kept it simple, logging workouts and training plans in shareable Google documents or spreadsheets to stay in touch with their coaches. Other runners are using popular social fitness apps like MapMyRun and Strava, which saw a record 3.4 million downloads in May.

And some coaches and race organizers have innovated after being forced to scrap plans for prestigious track meets, massive marathons and the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed from this summer to 2021. They’re making the best of a time without in-person competition by hosting virtual races and pitting runners in different states — or even continents — against each other.

“Everything’s pretty much been wiped off the table and we’ve had to regroup and reassess and find things to look forward to that aren’t traditional,” said Ben Rosario, the head coach of the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite professional distance running team.

While Arizona was under a stay-at-home order in April and May, Rosario’s small team of pro runners in Flagstaff went more than a month without training together, and he used an online training log called FinalSurge to send workout plans and stay connected with his athletes.

But that didn’t replace the thrill of racing. So when the team’s runners were able to train together again, Rosario hatched a plan.

He partnered with another professional team in Boulder, Colo., to host a time trial. The two teams would both run a two-mile course, starting at the exact same time, and compare results. As an added twist, both squads would livestream the race on Instagram on a split screen so fans could watch from home.

When Stephanie Bruce arrived at Buffalo Park, an expanse of meadow and grassland on top of a mesa, she felt pre-race nerves that she hadn’t experienced in months.

“I kind of got those butterflies, which was really nice to have,” said Bruce, a pro runner for Hoka Northern Arizona. “When we haven’t had the opportunity to race, it’s really hard. You’re in this cage where you just want to let out all the fitness and all the workouts that you’ve been pouring all of your heart into.”

Bruce, the first woman to finish for either team, said it was difficult to imagine racing the Boulder runners while running the course. But fans enjoyed the competition — more than 15,000 people watched the videos after they were posted to Instagram.

Even for athletes who don’t rely on the sport to make a living, running with friends and competing in races was a steady, familiar part of life that was ripped away — and they’re looking for ways to reconnect.

Many of them are using Strava, an app that allows runners to interact with each other by giving “kudos” on a friend’s workout. They can also compare times on specific segments of a running route and join clubs and challenges.

“It’s the Instagram for runners,” said Kalea Chu, a sophomore runner at the University of Kansas. “It’s keeping up with your teammates, so you can get back together and be on the same page.”

“We’ve loved seeing the Strava community become a place of refuge for runners to stay connected digitally either through indoor workout challenges, Strava Art runs mapping out words of encouragement or tons of ad hoc virtual competitions popping up through our clubs and athletes’ own communities around the world,” said Larissa Rivers, Strava’s senior marketing manager.

Caitlin Grant, a former collegiate swimmer who is a relative newcomer to running, planned to enter several races this spring before they were canceled. She tried simulating racing conditions, running a solo time trial 5K at her local park in Warwick, R.I., but said it was “disorienting.”

On her second try, she used an app on her Apple Watch called iSmoothRun, which called out her times and pace and kept her on track. Grant is also active on Strava.

“The fact that there’s all this technology around the sport of running and such a strong virtual community only makes people feel stronger and more connected and gives people something to work toward, even if there’s not races right now,” she said.

Facing the possibility of no in-person races this fall, race organizers are also using technology to motivate runners. In June, the New York Road Runners, the organization that hosts the annual New York City Marathon, canceled this fall’s marathon — and moved a version of it online.

In October, marathon entrants will have a two-week window to run the 26.2 miles on their own and log the result on Strava as tracked by their phone or GPS watch. Times will be compiled on a N.Y.R.R. leaderboard.

ImageThe watch Stephanie Bruce uses during training.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Christine Burke, senior vice president for N.Y.R.R., acknowledged that the virtual races can’t recreate the strategy and tactics that come with an in-person competition. Nor can they adjust for different elevations, weather conditions or even GPS malfunctions around the world.

Still, she said, runners have embraced the concept. Some have even arranged to have family members meet them at the finish line of their personal marathon with a medal.

“The community that’s created through that and the sort of fun competition is really inspiring to watch,” Burke said.

J&A Racing, which hosts marathons in Virginia Beach, is challenging runners to hit 75.7 miles in August — a reference to the area’s 757 telephone area code — and track their progress on an online leaderboard. Other groups are creating music playlists online and digital racing bibs that runners can print and wear during their virtual races, according to Haku, an event management platform that partners with J&A and other race organizers.

“We’re creating a new kind of bucket of runners, because you have this whole group of people who are into wellness and into fitness, but they can’t go to their gyms, they can’t go to their group fitness class,” said Haku’s co-founder, Jackie Levi.

N.Y.R.R. has seen an increase in the number of participants in its virtual races for 2020. The group had about 22,000 finishers in its two virtual race events this year, up from about 15,000 in 2019. The organization also added two new virtual competitions this spring, each of which had more than 10,000 finishers.

And on Thursday, at least 30 athletes at seven different tracks on three continents, including star U.S. sprinters like Allyson Felix and Noah Lyles, will compete in the Inspiration Games, which includes five virtual short-distance running races and three field events. Felix will run alone at a track in California while two competitors race against her simultaneously thousands of miles away, synced up and timed using satellite technology.

But virtual racing can tide the pros over only for so long.

Emma Coburn, the 3,000-meter steeplechase world champion, Olympic bronze medalist and American record-holder, was able to let out some of her pent-up energy with a real race in June, when she ran a 4 minute, 32 second mile, breaking the Colorado state record in a miniature track meet limited to members of her professional track club.

“We can’t replace our competitive needs by just a virtual run,” Coburn said, adding that she does think virtual racing has “opened the world up” as runners from different countries race each other.

Bruce, the Hoka elite runner, is also itching to toe a real starting line again.

“If I’m being honest, the virtual stuff — it’s not the same thing,” Bruce said. “You’re missing the connection. And I think human connection is what keeps a lot of people motivated and inspired in life.”