I enjoy running and in the last couple of years I’ve started to enter a few races. More than anything else the driver for me is to stay fit and at the same time challenge myself. One of the best ways for me to do this is to enter events, as this gives me something to train for and thus prevents me wallowing on the sofa watching re-runs of Grey’s Anatomy.
Recently I entered my first virtual run. This isn’t some way of pretending you are running when you are actually sat on the sofa enjoying McDreamy and McSteamy. No, it is the growing phenomenon of running races that instead of having a fixed venue simply have a time period and in order to compete you record and post your entry during a given time period.
In this case I entered the Tweethearts 5k. This is a new one setup by my wife and some of her friends to raise money for the very worthy Moonwalk later this year. It was an interesting experience. Barely two weeks earlier I ran in the Richmond 5k, a race in Richmond park that attracts in the region of 150 runners and is a great occasion. The two experiences couldn’t be more different.
On the day of the Richmond race you arrive early and watch on, stretching in the park and trying to stay warm, queuing for one last go at the toilets, before congregating by the start line, watching the minutes tick by before the 10am start time arrives. The klaxon sounds and off you go, a runner amongst others, maneuvering for position, finding your pace and picking out the next runner in front that you want to catch and pass.
On the day of the virtual run I had breakfast, watched the morning news and even an episode of Games of Thrones before deciding that late morning would be the start time for my run. I got my running things together, took my time to select my playlist and stretch my legs out. I even waited a few minutes more for the rain to abate before heading out on to my usual route, devoid of any running marshals cheering you on, only cars passing by.
The two experiences couldn’t be more different. Richmond is a proper race, where you are competing alongside others, seeing them and sharing an experience with them. There are people around you, cheering you on and at the end you get handed your medal. It is a group experience that is entirely tangible from the moment it starts to the moment it finishes. The virtual run became something more personal. It is you and the road, you are there in that moment because you chose to be and no one else is there with you.
For me the virtual run experience was an interesting one. As someone competitive the Richmond run is great. The irresistible urge to try and catch the person in front of me, to try and get higher up the finishing list, is part of the thrill. All of this is stripped away in the virtual run and instead I am simply racing against myself. The pride comes in presenting my time to the rest of the community at the end of the day.
Virtual runs are very popular in the USA but I can’t help but think that they currently lack something that makes a running race what it is. In a world where our relationships, our entertainment, even our jobs are moving to a virtual model, the challenge for virtual runs is to try and capture the same excitement of the real races. The technology is there to allow us, as communities online, to have that excitement. Apps and websites can be created to allow real time competition between entrants. For me that is the key. I want to compete with my fellow runners, to see how they’re doing and to see if I can better them…or even just better myself.
Would I do another virtual run? Yes I would. The experience was interesting, it opened up new groups of people online to talk to and interact with. Do I think the virtual run is the future of running races? Not yet. The experience needs to be refined. I like running and a virtual run, as much as any other, gives me something to train for. But it doesn’t yet provide the experience, the excitement, the challenge and the occasion that a real run does. The online experience needs to be evolved to fill this void, to fill us with the urgency and excitement that we would otherwise feel when being in that place with those people. The gaming world provides this, so why not bring some of that gamification into the virtual running world? It will happen, of that I have no doubt. For now I will have to be content with knowing that I ran a good time and waiting for my medal to arrive in the post!