Vacation Races is a company that gathers large groups of people in beautiful places to run—you guessed it—vacation races. The company’s last in-person event was at Antelope Canyon in Arizona, on March 14 and 15. That was also the week “we started dealing with reality,” says Vacation Races CEO Salem Stanley. Amid canceling races tied to Zion and Yosemite national parks, he and his team scrambled to get something else on the schedule. By the end of the month, they were advertising a different kind of race to their Vacation Races mailing list and in ads on Instagram: the Stay Home Virtual Race.
Virtual races—where runners complete a distance wherever they want to, within a given time frame, and then self-report their results—have been around for a few years as a way for races to draw a (slightly) larger pool of participants or to squeeze in more events. Stanley, who describes himself as an entrepreneur, actually held his first home-based run through Vacation Races in 2013, a turkey trot. And though he’s piloting a “small group half marathon” to take place in Utah in the middle of the night, when there won’t be other tourists around, he’s staring down a future in which people might not be readily vacationing for a long time. And so virtual races, once a small sliver of what businesses and nonprofits that cater to runners could do to scrape up a little more cash, are suddenly almost the only thing these companies can do.
Luckily, people are more willing than ever to participate in virtual races. New York Road Runners saw more than 5,000 runners complete its virtual NYC Half this spring, up from less than a thousand last year (many of these virtual runners, both years, were probably motivated by the fact that participating could help them gain entry the following year to the real version of the race, which sells out).* New virtual races from 5Ks to ultramarathons are popping up all over the place, observes Jen Miller at the New York Times, some from individuals looking to boost community. As the coronavirus crisis ramped up and Vacation Races faced a summer of cancellations, the company went all-in on pivoting its marketing. “Staycation Races,” reads a logo on a new website. The old tagline of “run where you play” is replaced with “run where you stay.”
Isn’t this all just a bid to get you to pay money to run around your own neighborhood? This was certainly my first reaction to seeing those ads! The answer is: Yes, sort of. But also sort of not: There’s a free way to do every Staycation Race, which for the Stay Home series involves simply registering and running a 5K, 10K, or half-marathon. What participants are actually paying for are shirts and medals, which are normally bundled into whatever price you pay for an in-person event. Now participants can choose to spend up to $66 to get a bib, medal, and “premium tech shirt.” (And even if you pick all three, it’s less than half the cost of an in-person race, where money goes to things like road permits and water stations.) Normal race shirts feature a relevant geologic wonder that perhaps runners traversed or saw. The Stay Home race shirts feature a house with a two-car garage. But there’s a lot you can get out of paying a fee and running a virtual race, according to the people who have run them.
Race gear offers a sense of accomplishment, even if the race venue is a little atypical. Jorge Pullin, a physicist at Louisiana State University, ran the Stay Home half on his treadmill while watching Ozark. He chose to pay for a race bib—which arrived after he did the run, though he didn’t care—and a medal. “It’s nice to have a little memento,” he explains. Pullin has run marathons in all 50 states and has a quilt he made out of some of the T-shirts and a wood display case for some of the medals. He is working on running half-marathons on all seven continents, an achievement that he expects will be delayed for a while. Virtual races have offered him something to do in the meantime.
For Christina Torres, an English teacher in Honolulu who did the Stay Home half around her neighborhood, having a race day goal to work toward keeps her on a healthy training schedule. Without something on the calendar, she finds it harder to maintain balance: “I can get really compulsive, or I can be like, forget it, I’m not doing anything,” says Torres. Taking a rest day when her body needs one can be hard, and she found that even having a virtual race (during which she stopped to answer a text from her mom) helps. “When I have a race, I can say in my head, You know you need to recover to run that race well. There’s something bigger that I can pin my rest day to.” That bigger goal can be more than distance, as many virtual races offer a fundraising component, just as in-person ones do. Torres is using her next virtual race, a virtual Backyard Ultra, to raise money for a local literacy organization.
Designing a personal race course, as one is forced to do for a virtual race, is an opportunity to create something uniquely challenging. “I have been sticking to the same routes from my house since the [stay-at-home] order was put in place (rather than driving to more scenic or ‘fun’ locations),” Carlee McDot, a runner in Oceanside, California, wrote to me in an email. When she completed the free version of the Stay Home half, she ran around her condo complex 39 times, keeping count with chalk. Unable to create a course that was exciting, she made one that was extra mind-numbing on purpose, to add a mental challenge. “I was so close to my house and could technically stop at any time,” she explains. “The scenery was the same thing over and over (becoming very boring, very quickly).” It might not have been fun per se, in the moment, but races rarely are. And the bragging rights from running in circles are certainly interesting.
This all, to my surprise, was enough to convince me to order a GPS watch to track my mileage (you don’t need one, you can just map out a route, but it’s nice to get pinged as each mile goes by) and to email a running friend enthusiastically about rallying a group for a virtual relay race. The last thing we did together was run a 120-mile relay race in a park in Virginia that went through the night. It was exhausting, painful, and delightful in strange ways—exactly what I’m expecting from a virtual race in a pandemic.
Correction, May 28, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the virtual NYC Half as the Virtual Brooklyn Half.