I couldn’t tell you exactly when running stopped being my pandemic salvation and became my daily torment.

Like much of the last few months, the days and weeks have blurred together. Though I must have fallen out with running sometime before June 26: that, my inbox tells me, is when I signed up for New York City’s Subway System Challenge.

Created by race organisers NYCRuns, the challenge was to run the equivalent distance of the entire New York City subway system, between Memorial day (May 25) and Labor Day (September 7) — a whopping 245 miles over three months.

It was just one of a flurry of virtual events that have flooded my inbox and social media channels during the past few months, as race organisers look to keep their communities engaged and make up for the money they’ve lost from event cancellations due to the pandemic.

New York Road Runners (NYRR), the non-profit organisation that hosts the annual New York City Marathon, has cancelled 37 in-person races so far this year. It had more than 5,000 finishers at its virtual half marathon in March, around a fifth of 2019’s in-person attendance, and it has higher hopes for the virtual incarnation of the iconic NYC marathon, which more than 17,000 people have already signed up for. 

More than 53,000 New York marathon runners crossed the finish line in Central Park last year © NYRR via Getty Images

“We want it to rival or be as big as the in-person event,” says Chris Weiller, NYRR’s spokesman — an ambition that would see participant numbers top the 53,640 who crossed the finish line in Central Park last year. In total, more than 76,000 runners have crossed NYRR’s virtual finish lines this year.

Weiller admits they’re in “uncharted territory” but says that since launching the virtual marathon in late July, NYRR has been encouraged by participant interest and the number of sign-ups, with entry options ranging from paying for swag ($50) to guaranteed entry to next year’s race ($150), and a free ‘‘just run’’ option. 

Smaller races, like community 5ks, 10ks and half marathons, are going virtual too, as are elite challenges like Beat the Heat virtual track meets, which are knockout-style contests across distances from 1 mile to 5km. 

Virtual challenges help alleviate the monotony of running in the same neighbourhood . . .  © Getty Images
. . . and the stress of staying at least 6ft away from others in a city of more than 8m, Laura writes © Laura Noonan

The Subway challenge I participated in was more laissez-faire. I could run the 245 miles however I’d like, then I logged my miles in an online portal that showed a countdown to the final tally. NYCRuns provided event T-shirts, so participants could recognise each other on the streets of Manhattan, the city’s many bridges or in Central Park. 

There was also a group on Strava, a fitness social media platform, where I could follow the more than 10,000 runners participating in the challenge.

It cost $60 to take part — and you could wonder why anyone would pay for something they could do themselves. But I paid the entrance fee gladly, for the same reason I will happily do so for the virtual races I plan to sign up for later in the year: to support the companies running them.

Mary Arnold, a New York-based runner, coach and CEO of a sports marketing group, who has been involved in organising four virtual races so far this year, says the events offer race directors the opportunity to “recoup significant losses” from their cancellations. 

“Close to 80 per cent of the total budget can already be spent before race day,” says Arnold, pointing to the $10,000 permit and site fees in New York City, along with the cost of printing t shirts and medals, which are ordered months in advance, as well as bills for staff and marketing.

Running coach John Honerkamp warns that the early success of virtual events may wane as the pandemic continues and “virtual race fatigue” kicks in. 

“I have done a virtual half and 10k so far and I don’t have much of a desire to do many more,” he says, describing how difficult it is “to create a race environment that will match or even come close to a typical race day vibe”.

Racing without the solidarity of fellow runners and encouragement from viewers is a concern for participants. I’m registered for the virtual London marathon on October 4, and I’m nervous about managing 26.2 miles on my own.

But while virtual races may lack atmosphere, they fill a void left by in-person events by providing runners with a target to focus on.

The Subway challenge’s 245-mile goal was the biggest hook for me, offering meaning to runs that seemed increasingly pointless, the joy sucked out of them by the monotony of running in the same neighbourhood and the stress of staying 6ft away from others in a city of more than 8m.

I also envisaged triumphantly clocking my last mile in Ireland, running with my sister and my best friend, in the Irish countryside or along Dublin’s glorious coastline, having braved the transatlantic flight home despite the uncertain path back to the US. 

So every mile I ran — some in 30 degree heat under the blazing sun, or through humidity so high you could do Bikram yoga under the Manhattan Bridge — brought me closer to that finish line.

Slowed by an injury I acquired midsummer, by the final week of the challenge I still had 60 miles to go — more than I have ever run in seven days. And it consumed me: I ran early, I ran late, I drove to flatter locations than my hilly Dublin neighbourhood, I scoped out the most scenic routes I could find. 

Laura completes her final mile of the challenge at Castletown House in County Kildare, Ireland . . . 
. . . after running 60 miles over the last seven days © Laura Noonan

I had one glorious run along Dublin’s south coast, where 10 miles glided by so easily I barely felt them. And on Sunday evening, with a few hours to spare, I finished my second run of the day and my 245th mile — with my sister running alongside me and the sun shining down on us in a beautiful country estate outside Dublin.

There was no finish line to cross, no supporters cheered the final few hundred metres and no volunteers greeted me with a medal and hearty congratulations. But I didn’t need all of that: I’d just completed a tally I would not have come close to if not for the challenge.

The virtual marathon in October is a different proposition. Will I be able to run for 26.2 continuous miles without water stations and crowds to break it up? I don’t know.

But then, I didn’t know I could run 60 miles in a week either.

The real deal: upcoming virtual races

 

Womxn Run the Vote

Format: Run a virtual relay from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington, DC, from September 21 to 27. Teams of 15-20 will virtually cover the 680-mile journey.

Entries: Per-person registration cost is $30; each registration contributes $23 directly to Black Voters Matter. More than 8,000 people globally have signed up so far. Find out more here.

Virgin Money London Marathon

Format: Run a marathon in a 24-hour period on October 4, the rescheduled date for the London Marathon (when the in-person run exclusively for elite athletes will take place)

Entries: More than 45,000 people have a place in the race, and will be able to compete virtually from anywhere in the world. Everyone receives a T-shirt and medal. Find out more here

 

Virtual TCS New York City Marathon 

Format: Run 26.2 miles in a single calendar day between October 17 and November 1

Entries: All participants receive discounts on coaching and fitness app Strava, and for a $50 entry you also receive a medal; $150 means a guaranteed entry to next year’s race. There were only 1,000 places for the guaranteed-entry option, while other entries are still available. Find out more here.

Have you completed or signed up for any virtual races this year? Share your experience in the comments

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