Sunday, May 15, 2016

Let's Get Real: An Analysis of Virtual Racing & The Leap Year Dare

I never understood why people would run virtual races when there are real races to run. But I also never understood why people would watch 50 Shades of Grey when there are real pornos to watch. It was time to figure it out. 

Virtual races are similar to real races in that you sign up, pay a registration fee and receive some sort of race pack (likely with a bib, t-shirt and medal or some combo of those items) but when it comes time to toe the line at the start...well...there isn't one. You just race yourself when it's convenient. It might be on a certain day or within a certain time frame but you can race your race from wherever you want and pretty much whenever you want to get it done. 

It seemed like...well, like not the real thing. It seemed like "a run." Or racing light. Fake racing? But to be fair, I hadn't ever tried one before. The only way to try to understand the appeal would be to experience one for myself. I focused on the part about not having to wake up early. I'm all about sleeping in so that part sounded pretty good to me. 

I signed up for something called the Leap Year Dare. Instead of one race, it would be 5 races throughout February (2016 being a Leap Year), starting with 2k, then 4k, 6k, 8k and culminating in a 10k race on the 29th. For $27 I would get a bib and a medal and I would run 5 "races." For an additional $20, I could order a t-shirt. Sounded reasonable enough for my experiment.  

The first thing I did when I received my race pack was put the medal away in a safe place without looking at it. I'm not about to even touch a medal that I have yet to earn. That's bad racing juju.  The medal would stay stashed until I completed all 5 "races." 

Next, I asked a bunch of my friends if they'd like to join me. There was a lot of confusion. "Where is the race?" "Um. It's virtual. You run a certain distance each week, leading up to a 10k on Leap Year Day." "Ok, but where do we race?" "Anywhere - that's the thing, it's a virtual race." "This sounds weird." "How do we get an official time?" "Uhhh I think you just time yourself?"

I inquired with the Leap Year Dare Race Director, asking if we were to time ourselves and then report it somewhere, like, on line? Or were we to email our times to the RD? I received a really nice reply. "You can post them in the Facebook group if you want, but really it's just for fun. We don't record the times." 

This is the first time I heard someone say a race would be fun. Haha! There are a lot of things I love about racing, but racing is not fun. Racing is stressful and rewarding and challenging and tough and insanely exhausting. It would be for fun? And there would be no winner? This virtual racing thing was getting more confusing by the moment. But since I had already received the medal before even running a step of the race, I had to see it through.   

I glanced at the Leap Year Dare Facebook page the last week of January and discovered that we were actually supposed to complete the first "race" that week! There were 5 to complete so the first one actually began the last week of January. I rallied the troops. "Reminder that we have our virtual 2k for the Leap Year Dare this week guys!" My friend Isabelle was the first to reply, "If I run 10 miles does that count?" We were all still confused. We were to "race" 2k, or 1.24 miles. "Should we do this on the track?" "Can you "race" on a treadmill?" I didn't really know but we decided you could do whatever you wanted, whenever. That was the beauty of virtual racing, right? 

So racing was now going to be fun and there was no pressure and it was to be convenient? I mean, it sounded kinda good. But what happened in reality was that without any motivation I completely forgot about it, and the week was nearly over when I was like, shit! The 2k "race"! I have to do that! And by then honestly, I didn't really care. I can knock out 2ks in my sleep. I had already done several runs much longer that week, and now, in the basement of my apartment building I cranked up the treadmill and "raced" my official 2k. During the "race" I slowed down to take a phone call. Then I stopped to retie my shoe. I really wasn't in a hurry because there was no one around to race against. And when it was done, it was just...done. I snapped a pic of myself with my bib, cracking up.  I sent my friends a note. 2k race in the books, bring on the next one!" It felt silly and weird.   

Are you supposed to wear the bib? Awkward. But go me!

The next week was 4k, or 2.4 miles. I decided that if I was going to make something of this experiment, I had better revamp my plan of action. Instead of going into the 4k with no pressure, for fun, I would PR the 4k and even though I wasn't racing other humans, I would run the hardest I could for 2.4 miles. That worked a little better. I ran hard for 4ks and then rounded out the run with a couple more miles at a more comfortable pace. Then I hopped on my bike and went on a 12 mile night run around the monuments at The National Mall. "Race" two was complete. 

4k "raced" on a mild February DC day

For the 6k, I was up in Canaan Valley, WV, so I decided to XC ski that week's race. I mean, cross country skiing is as tough a workout as running and this race appeared to have no rules, so why not? I skinned up to the top of Mount Baldy as fast as I could and skied back down for 3.7 miles of virtual racing. 

I skinned up the mountain from all the way down in the Valley. In true virtual race form, I had the course to myself. 

I even took a little break at a warming hut on the way down - it's not like I was trying to beat anyone, right? 6k "race", complete. 

Why not take a little break? I seem to be the only one here "racing" anyway. 

By this time, the enthusiasm amongst my runner friends had dissipated both virtually and in reality. "Are you still doing that pretend racing thing?" "I ran a 10k race over the weekend - do I count that as the 10k even though I didn't count a 4k or 6k? Cause I forgot about those." Some had just stopped logging the distances. "Who cares if I ran 6k? Honestly I have no motivation to "race" when there isn't an actual race!"  

That was my problem too. This whole "convenience" thing really was not a motivator for me. I was conveniently forgetting about the "races" since I didn't have to do them at any specific time. Sure, I was running, but was I "racing"? I still wasn't sure what it all even meant. And I wondered how many people bought the virtual race packs and never actually got around to actually running the "races"? But I had two more weeks of "racing" to complete. The medal was waiting for me. 

I was in California for the 8k and 10k "races." 

The 8k was one of my favorite runs ever in my life, and completely unexpected. My boss and I ran the Greenwich Steps in San Francisco and had a total blast. Was it a race? Most definitely not. Did it really have anything to do with the Leap Year Dare? No. But it happened to be the correct distance and since no one else seemed to care, I counted it. 8k, done. There was one more "race" to go!

Leap Year Day fell on the first day of my conference. We had meetings scheduled from 7AM until 10PM. It was one of those non-stop days when you barely remember to catch your breath. I fell into bed exhausted after finally making it back to the hotel after our business dinner and then remembered today had been the day to "race" my 10k for The Leap Year Dare. I thought about going to the gym and jumping on the treadmill. Then I looked at my mileage tracker for the day and there it was staring back at me: 6.7 miles! I had walked, very quickly in fact, I would even say *racing* from meeting to meeting (in heels by the way) just a bit more than a 10k that day. Leap Year Dare was done! I had crossed the virtual finish line! I fell back into the soft pillows, settling my tired body into the bed, and wondered if I would ever recall where I had hidden my medal.   

The race was over and now I could try on my Leap Year Dare tee!

This is the back of the super cool Leap Year Dare shirt. I still haven't found the medal. 

My experiment was over. I had completed the Leap Year Dare. I earned my medal. But I still didn't understand the allure of virtual racing. So I decided to ask some experts. I put this question out to the Run the Year 2016 Facebook group - Why do you participate in virtual races versus real races? And I received more than 100 insightful comments. Some people didn't understand my question and they told me their reasons were "to support the charity" or "for the bling" or "so I can give my 'I Run 4 Buddy' the medal." I gently responded, "Right, but you can support charities and get medals at real races. What I'm trying to understand is why do you do virtual races instead of real ones?" This has always been the part that I didn't get and even after completing the Leap Year Dare, I still didn't understand. 

What happened next opened my eyes. And if you agree with the few who commented that they, like me, feel that virtual races are kind of a waste of money, or that they seem to be just the act of buying a medal to reward yourself for a run, take a look at 

The Top 12 Reasons Why People Run Virtual Races: 

I paraphrased the comments and analyzed them, and learned a lot!

1. I hate crowds. {Ok, yes, I agree. People are gross. Especially early in the morning. Very good point.}

2. I live in the middle of nowhere {Valid. Getting to races is tough even when you actually have races to be able to get to. If you live in a remote location, real racing might not even be a choice.}

3. My best friend lives across the country and we pick the same day and time. We FaceTime at the start and finish - We virtually race together! {I love this. This so cute and sweet and awesome! I want to do this with one of you or a bunch of you. It sounds really fun. Who will do a Facetime Virtual Race with me? I'll provide prizes from 2Toms!}

4. This particular virtual race has a unicorn medal {Yes, we know that unicorns are a high motivator, of course. Interestingly, more than one person said they race virtually for unicorn medals.} 

5. I use the virtual race medals and themes to organize real races for my kids. {Once you throw kids into the mix I'm not going to debate you. I can barely take care of myself. The idea that you would do this for your kids melts my heart. Love it.}

6. I am a soccer mom and we spend all weekend at soccer during the time real races are run. {Same as above. I would die as a soccer mom. Proud of you for even finding time for any virtual races at all after all that soccer.}

7. I hate port-o-potties. {YAAAS. This person wins.}

8. I live in Alaska. {Anyone who lives in Alaska is a badass to me and therefore I defer to your judgement on what is and is not awesome.}

9. I live on a remote island and cannot leave. {What?}

10. I'm doing 45 races this year for my 45th birthday and didn't want to take up that many weekends. {For real? You should be lying by the pool every weekend with that many races planned for during the week. Wow!}

11. When I was Active Duty I couldn't go to races so I ran virtual races. And I filled my candy jar with my medals. {Anyone who defends our freedom can race however she wants, and thank you for your service so very much.} {Side note: I bet I would be at my goal weight if I replaced candy with medals. Nothing tastes as good as a win, but actual medals taste awful.} 

12. I get annoyed by people who pass me in real races. {Cannot. stop. laughing.}

See? There are a lot of reasons to participate in virtual races after all! 


We race with The Power of the Unicorn!

I'm not only glad I tried one virtual race (or five if you really think about it) but I'm especially glad I took the time to ask why others are drawn to this form of racing (and thankful for everyone who took the time to respond so graciously). 

I learned a lot. I learned that while virtual races are not my preferred kind of racing, that for some people, virtual races can be quite satisfying. I was glad to try it, to branch out, to experiment, to learn. And now if you'll excuse me, I guess I should probably try watching 50 Shades of Grey.  


  1. And here I was worried that I might offend my Mother. Thanks Mom! <3