Sherri McMillan calls virtual events “the DVR of racing.”
“You can decide when you want to race, where you want to race and how you want to race,” says McMillan, organizer of the Pacific Crest Endurance Sports Festival in Sunriver. “That’s the biggest positive. And you can kind of create whatever experience you want. There’s a lot more flexibility.”
As live sporting events have ground to a halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, running, cycling and triathlon events have a significant advantage over team sports and other activities — they can be held virtually.
Participants choose a day to race within a time frame provided by race organizers, find a route anywhere in the world, and then complete their distance. They can typically upload their times on the event’s website or on runsignup.com. And yes, virtual races rely on the honor system.
“You still have that little bit of community and there’s still something you can use your training for,” says Bend’s Max King, who reformatted the April 19 Bend Marathon into a virtual event. “There’s a lot of people doing their first half marathon or first marathon, and that’s a really big goal for them. And all they need is to be able to run that, and have that acknowledgment and be able to post the results. They don’t really need the course.”
The downside is the absence of competition. Because most everybody is running a different course, times can’t be compared to determine overall winners or age-group winners.
“You don’t have winners, which is fine,” King says.
“For the majority of the field, that totally doesn’t mean anything. But for people going for the age-group win or the overall win, you kind of take that incentive away. You can’t measure that.”
When the Bend Marathon, which also includes a half marathon, 5-kilometer and 10K race, was canceled, King offered registrants the virtual option, a refund or deferment to next year’s event.
He says about 600 runners (about a third of those originally registered for the physical race) competed in the virtual event — and runners are still registering, because they can complete their race any time through May 31.
“We were like, screw it, let’s just make it a huge window,” King says. “People can still run the race. We still have a few sign-ups trickling in every week.”
The Pacific Crest Endurance Sports Festival — which includes a marathon, half marathon, triathlons, duathlons (bike and run), aquabikes (swim and bike) of varying distances, and 5K and 10K runs — were originally scheduled for June 19-21 before getting canceled. Now, participants can complete their race distances anytime from June 19 to July 4 via the virtual option.
The Deschutes Dash, another popular multisport event in Central Oregon, was also canceled and will be held virtually. The Bend event, originally scheduled for July 12, also includes triathlons, duathlons and aquabikes of varying distances as well as 5K and 10K runs. Participants can complete their race distances July 12-17.
McMillan — the president of Why Racing Events, which runs Pacific Crest and many other running and triathlon events, mostly in Portland and southwest Washington — has held four virtual events this year.
“Our athletes have really appreciated that we’re not just canceling, but giving them some options,” McMillan says.
“We’re not locked into a specific location and time frame. So if someone likes to sleep in they can do their race when it’s convenient for them. They can pick their favorite course or just go around their neighborhood.
“There’s no long line for the porta potties. Some of our athletes appreciate the advantages of a virtual race. But they don’t get the energy of having a few thousand people all together at the starting line.”
Pacific Crest typically hosts about 4,000 athletes each June in Sunriver. McMillan says about 1,000 have signed up for the virtual race, while others have deferred their entry fee to next year.
Pacific Crest will hold a virtual awards ceremony and will send its participants the usual swag — T-shirts, medals, etc. — that they would receive on site. Most virtual events are offering to ship the swag.
“A big piece of virtual is the swag,” King says. “People are looking for that, since they can’t have the physical event.”
McMillan is quick to note that while virtual races do not have winners, they are still races and they still afford the opportunity for endurance athletes to meet their goals.
“Even though you’re not racing together, you know you’re still racing,” she says. “It makes you go harder and challenges you. You still want to do well and it still challenges you. It gives them a positive thing to focus on and put some purpose to their training. And for mental health, too, just having something positive to focus on is so important right now.
“Adapt, adapt, adapt. That’s kind of the message in the world right now.”