What is a Virtual Race (and why haven't you done one yet)?

Virtual races have existed for some time now in the endurance space, but really hit mainstream awareness in 2020. (Gee, I wonder why?)

The COVID-19 pandemic kept people away from mass participation events around the world, but fueled the boom in sign-ups to virtual races whether single-sport or multisport. Services like Zwift were already well-used to hosting races where anyone anywhere in the world with a subscription could compete. IRONMAN, a juggernaut in the mass participation space, fast-tracked its launch of the IRONMAN VR platform where athletes could upload completed runs, bike rides, and recently swims (recorded on tracking devices or on Zwift or Rouvy) to satisfy the distances required for that weekend’s virtual race. And many marathons and triathlons converted themselves into virtual races so there were some unique occurrences like, say, someone in South Australia completing the Malibu Triathlon.

A virtual race, simply put, is one where a participant wherever their location can complete the required distance whether in a single session or cumulatively during a certain time frame. They then upload this data for verification to qualify as a finisher. Registration can be for free, or there may be fees involved (which usually go towards sending finishers some race swag).

We asked our MX Endurance members about their experience doing virtual racing for the past few months.

For many of them, the virtual races provided much-needed motivation and competition done at their convenience, especially with movement restrictions in place.

“I did a lot of the IMVR races in April/May when the UK was in first lockdown. It gave me some focus and purpose as was really struggling with not working or being allowed out much.” -- L. Richardson
“I think Virtual Racing has been a great filler due to the lack of races. I have done 19 out of the 32 IMVR and enjoyed them all. Don't really race them, just use them for motivation to get out and train on the weekends. Have also done a couple of virtual running races for the exact same reason. Will keep doing them until things get back to normal again. Whenever that will be.” -- K. Miers
“Did the Gold Coast Marathon 10k & 21.1 event and have the GC50 15k on 5/12. Considering the current circumstances here in Adelaide there may be a few more.” -- S. Smith
“79 zwift races in 2020 so far, Going for 100 by NYE! I love the different grades and different courses. I really love that I can jump online pretty much anytime and there’s a race starting, so it’s really flexible around my schedule, i.e. no real set time I have to do it.” -- T. Morwood
“A few Zwift events in the first lockdown - different kind of intensity! Enjoyed the Red Bull event [Timelaps 2020] as that was part of a team. I do want to do a couple of virtual runs but don’t want the flat underneath to complain about the treadmill!” -- J. Tugwell
“Raced a virtual 70.3 as the real event was obviously cancelled. All set over one weekend. Really enjoyed it. The social media ‘camaraderie’ or piss taking over the race weekend was fantastic. The organisation team even sent out finishers t-shirts. They even ran age group prizes with very strict rules for fairness. I enjoyed the race. Something to enjoy during Covid.” -- A. O’Brien
“I think Ironman got the City to Surf right this year. You could run anytime within a 48-hour period, you had an app to start you and track you on the real course and got the usual updates at the key locations i.e. heartbreak hill. You could print your own virtual bib and you got a medal posted out after finishing (not before).” -- R. Warry

While the benefits and enjoyment from doing virtual races can’t be denied, it’s still not the same as the in-person race experience: queueing up at the starting line with hundreds or thousands of like-minded competitors waiting for the gun to go off so they can individually propel themselves forward towards the finish line.

For others, finish rankings felt hollow, as participants don’t share the same course and conditions and virtual platforms can be hacked or gamed.

“If I’m gonna race I wanna race people otherwise it’s just training.” -- L. Pritchard
“The virtual events are okay... but I have a tough time getting fired up for them and definitely don’t go all out.” -- J. Chapman
“I’ve done a couple VR races this year. They got me moving with a goal. On the other hand they mean nothing. I just missed a half marathon race this weekend because the weather sucked. If it had been real I would have killed it. Mind games.” -- M. Mabry
“Did a virtual 10k in the middle of summer. Personally I didn’t love it as I tend to feed off of others’ energy and being by myself made it harder to push through.” -- C. Davis
“I have done one of the IronMan VR ‘races’ when they first came out and 2 zwift bike races. The Zwift ones (even thought I joined the right category) wasn’t really a race - top 10 just disappeared like they were on steroids, which wasn’t very good for the morale to keep going.” -- H. Cools
“I do plenty of Zwift racing. I find that my bike power has improved since racing. Don’t take it too seriously, set your own goals (eg: stay with front pack for as long as possible) and realise people cheat on Zwift.” -- P. MacFarlane

On the one hand, if you feed off chasing competitors down and moving up the field to cross an official finish line to a crowd’s cheers, some races next year have already opened registration in response to the news about successful vaccine trials. On the other hand, virtual races are here to stay whether you’re trying to avoid mass participation events, or just can’t get yourself out to race due to life circumstances (virus or no virus).

Virtual races have resonated and will continue to resonate with many endurance athletes looking to scratch an itch, and will be around for the foreseeable future.

Curious about virtual racing? MX Endurance periodically runs members-exclusive virtual competitions over Strava and Zwift, with some big prizes up for grabs.