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Are virtual races here to stay?

They started because of the pandemic lockdowns, as major marathons went virtual. Lounge speaks to participants and organizers about the future of virtual races

Through the pandemic, people have been running marathons and races virtually, sometimes even on a treadmill. (Photo: istockphoto)
Through the pandemic, people have been running marathons and races virtually, sometimes even on a treadmill. (Photo: istockphoto)

On Sunday, 18 October, 53-year old Chitendra Shetty tied up his running shoes and did what few can only imagine: he ran the prestigious Amsterdam Marathon. Just two weeks before that, he had run another international race, the London Marathon. But, as with everything else in this pandemic-hit year, he had stayed put in his Mumbai home for both races.

Shetty is not the only one. Thousands of runners from across the world are taking part in major international marathons which are largely virtual now (some races, like the London Marathon, had a separate physical race for elite runners). The pandemic had brought all sporting activities to a halt worldwide, and this included marathons. But a few months later, race organizers figured out a way around this by changing the format of the races. Instead of running in a physically defined space with thousands of other people, participants could now run them anywhere, even on a treadmill, as long as they met the distance requirement and submitted GPS data from their watches as proof.

Click here to read how racers stayed fit and match-sharp during the pandemic lockdown.

“I have taken part in a couple of international as well as local marathons in the past few months. They are mostly free, or cost very less—maybe 100. It works great for people who are self motivated, and won’t miss the usual cheer of spectators in a marathon,” says Shetty, adding that unlike normal races, there are no crowds on the route to slow you down either.

Most runners who have signed up for these virtual runs have used it for training and enjoyment. One reason is that these runs are mostly self supported. The participant will have to take care of her own hydration and medical care. This does make it challenging for most runners to achieve their personal bests (PB). But Shetty believes if one plans meticulously and trains well, then even a virtual race can be a good platform to achieve one’s PB.

Runners at the elite men's race at the London Marathon. (Photo: Pool via REUTERS/Adam Davy)
Runners at the elite men's race at the London Marathon. (Photo: Pool via REUTERS/Adam Davy) (Pool via REUTERS)

The pressure to get a PB, however, can push some to resort to unfair means. Since no one is looking at the runner during the “race”, this does happen quite often. Event management company Procam organizes some of India’s biggest races including Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) and Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). Ashish Bhushan, director, Business Development, believes that this is all the reason more why race organizers and promoters “must innovate and find technology and mechanisms to make sure races are run honestly and is enjoyable and accessible to all.”

Bhushan adds that as an organizer, Procam has not used the term “virtual” so far. Their last run—the Sunfeast India Run as One—was held in August-September, and was not limited to runs. The month long competition required participants to walk, jog, run, or do any physical activity and submit the total hours or distance travelled to the organizers for a certificate. “Participants could do any activity and include it. The idea was to encourage them to keep moving,” he explains.

Encouragement is great, agrees Sundreysh Sarup, managing director of freight and supply chain company Logistics Plus Pvt. Ltd. But charging a lot of money for virtual races is something he cannot wrap his head around. “I wouldn’t take part in virtual races. I don’t see why anyone would, unless these are landmark events like ADHM or TMM, and they have participated in each every year and wouldn’t want to keep a gap in between,” explains Sarup.

Click here to read how India's Olympics hopefuls remained fit during the pandemic.

However, he adds that virtual races are a great opportunity for those with limited means. Every year, many talented runners come from rural areas, or semi-urban areas to take part and win the top prizes. “In a virtual run, they get to save the cost of travel and stay, no matter how small it is. That certainly is a huge deal for many of these runners who need all the support they can get,” he says.

It might be easier for those who are economically vulnerable, but wouldn’t a virtual race make it difficult for fund raising and sponsorship? According to Procam’s Bhushan, it might not be that at all. Their last event found a title sponsor (Sunfeast) and managed to raise 3 crore in funding. “Does it matter that an event is happening in the physical space or not? Our sponsors are all in this for the long haul. They know that we are trying to change a habit and that takes time. Just because in one year events aren’t being held in the physical space, does not mean sponsor-partners won’t be with us,” he explains.

But not all organizers want to go this way. Abhishek Mishra, founder-CEO of Tabono Sports (organizers of NCR’s Millennium City Marathon or MCM) believes that a virtual event does not make sense for organizers from a financial point of view. “The ones who do this the best are local groups who might organize it for fun, with no costs involved. Or for bigger organizers it can be done only with the aim of brand engagement,” he explains, adding that for fun runs are a great idea, but as soon as a leaderboard is introduced in a virtual event, the chances of people taking shortcuts increase.

Mishra believes that for new runners, virtual runs can still make sense. It gives them a sense of achievement, keeps them on their training path and, at the end of the day, you can say you have run the distance to your friends. But for this year’s MCM he has decided to go the old fashioned way. “In the new normal when every industry is trying to find new ways of working... so do we. We will make sure there is no gathering at any point, with staggered start times and points. It will be a safe way to go back to running in events once again,” he adds.

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