What is a Virtual Marathon?

legs of runners.
Rob Wilson / Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic changed a number of things, from the way certain industries conduct business and employees complete their jobs to how we greet one another and gather or how seating arrangements occur at restaurants. Another thing that’s changed is the way runners can participate in races. Though virtual races such as the Virtual Turkey Trot, certainly predate the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, their popularity, and the number of options have exploded in light of concerns surrounding the gathering of large crowds. Runners can now find a virtual 5k to take on nearly any week of the year, and there are even plenty of virtual marathons for those looking to take on this famed, bucket-list distance.

Although the majority of in-person marathons are back on and taking place at the event site these days, both first-timers and seasoned marathoners may still find that a virtual marathon is ultimately a better fit for their needs and goals as a runner. So, whether you’re trying to pick your first or next big race, keep reading to learn about what a virtual marathon entails and the benefits of running one to see if jumping on this trend is the motivation you need to nail your 26.2-mile race.

What Is a Virtual Marathon?

A virtual marathon is an organized event where participants register to run a full marathon—26.2 miles—on a specific date or during a specific date range anywhere in the world where their feet and heart take them. Runners can choose to run on roads, paths, fields, trails, tracks, etc. Some virtual marathons allow runners to complete their race on a treadmill, though most virtual marathons require GPS or smartphone app tracking to provide proof of completion of the full distance. In those cases, treadmills are not feasible.

What Route Do I Run for a Virtual Marathon?

You can run any route you choose, from endless loops around a track or neighborhood block to a 13.1-mile out-and-back course, to a big loop around your town, to a meandering route while you’re visiting a foreign city, or even a certified marathon course from a popular race. As long as you hit the 26.2-mile distance, the route is up to you.

What Will I Get for Running a Virtual Marathon?

Most virtual marathons reward participants with a t-shirt, technical shirt, or apparel of some kind and a finisher’s medal. After you post your results, you will also typically receive a finisher’s certificate. Some virtual marathons also send virtual swag bags with discount codes to various running-related stores or brands.

How Does A Virtual Marathon Work?

The actual logistics of a virtual marathon are determined by the race organizers, but in many ways, the overall process is similar to a traditional in-person marathon. Runners register online, pay a fee, and will be mailed any sort of swag. Some even mail a race bib or may have a digital bib you can print for race day. Then, you train and prepare for your event, which will be scheduled for either a specific date (as with a traditional marathon) or a certain range of dates to allow you the flexibility to complete the distance in accordance with your schedule.

On the day of the race, you time your marathon and record your run on a GPS watch or app, or with a free app from the virtual marathon itself. Some virtual marathons simply operate on the honor system and do not require proof of distance covered and time elapsed, in which case you just log your completion on the race website. Otherwise, you’ll upload your run data to be entered into the official race results and earn your finisher’s certificate. You’ll need to submit your results before the end of the race window.

The Benefits of a Virtual Marathon

Virtual marathons offer all the same physical and mental benefits of running a traditional marathon with the added benefits of social distancing, convenience, and financial savings, the latter two being the primary pros motivating many runners to continue taking to this rising trend. For example, with a virtual marathon, you can run right in your own backyard without needing to pay to travel and stay somewhere to run your race—no more shuttle buses from Boston to Hopkinton at the crack of dawn or expensive flights and hotels to pay for. You can run at a time of day that works best for you and train as much as you want on your actual race course—no more surprises of how big Heartbreak Hill actually is. Registration fees for virtual marathons are usually significantly less than traditional marathons and you can recruit all of your neighbors and friends to cheer you on without asking them to travel to a race site far from home.

Tips for Running a Virtual Marathon

If you’ve decided that a virtual marathon sounds like something you’d like to try, here are a few tips that can help you maximize the experience and have the race of your life.

  • Train. Just as you need to train for a traditional marathon, you’ll need to train for your virtual marathon. Follow a smart training program and take your training as seriously as you would for any race.
  • Create a crowd. Remember the rush of energy you get when you hear the roar of a crowd on marathon day? Ask your friends, family, and neighbors to show up on race day to cheer you on. Support goes a long way.
  • Get a running buddy. If you like to run with others, consider enlisting a running buddy or two for race day.
  • Use technology. A smartphone with a run-tracking app or a GPS watch will enable you to keep track of your distance and pace during training and on race day.
  • Use social media. Post about your event on your favorite social media platforms. Be proud of your accomplishments and use social support to motivate you during tough times.

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