US race lets run­ners com­pete vir­tu­ally from re­mote tread­mills


While thou­sands of run­ners de­scend upon Cape Cod for the New Bal­ance Fal­mouth Road Race this week­end, an ad­di­tional 100 are plan­ning to com­pete from the com­fort of their home or gym.

Whether they failed to snag a cov­eted bib or are serv­ing over­seas in the mil­i­tary, the dis­placed run­ners can grab a tablet com­puter, hop on the tread­mill and take off while watch­ing video of the ac­tual course of Sun­day’s race.

Fal­mouth is among the first races to let run­ners com­pete vir­tu­ally from the tread­mill, an idea that oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing to widen their reach and boost their rev­enue.

The goal is to draw run­ners who can’t at­tend in the flesh. For Fal­mouth, that in­cludes 3,000 run­ners who were turned away this year be­cause of size lim­its, along with oth­ers who couldn’t travel to Cape Cod.

“This gives them an al­ter­na­tive to ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle bit about what the race is all about,” said Dave McGil­livray, di­rec­tor of the sto­ried 7-mile race, now in its 43rd run­ning.

Grow­ing in­ter­est in the sport has pushed other U.S. races to their ca­pac­i­ties in re­cent years, while at­tract­ing tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies that see a de­mand for vir­tual rac­ing.

The com­pany be­hind Fal­mouth’s vir­tual race, Out­side In­ter­ac­tive, is un­veil­ing its tech­nol­ogy for the first time on Sun­day. Tread­mill com­peti­tors sim­ply down­load an app to the tablet and are off and run­ning.

Be­fore now, the com­pany spe­cial­ized in cre­at­ing videos that whisk run­ners away from the tread­mill to scenic cour­ses in Cen­tral Park or the sandy beaches of Puerto Rico.

“It’s never go­ing to be fun, but we’re try­ing to make it en­gag­ing,” said Gary McNamee, founder and pres­i­dent of the com­pany, which is based in Hop­kin­ton, Mas­sachusetts.

Another com­pany, RunSo­cial, has an­nounced plans to of­fer a vir­tual ver­sion of the Lon­don Marathon next year.

By cast­ing a wider net, races can also tap into a new stream of rev­enue and at­tract new spon­sors.

Vir­tual run­ners at Fal­mouth will pay US$40, com­pared with US$65 for the out­door race. Those fees cov- er race costs only, McGil­livray said, and any­thing leftover is do­nated to char­ity.

‘It’s a 7-mile com­mer­cial’

But the race’s spon­sors will get ex­tra ex­po­sure through ad­ver­tise­ments that will be shown dur­ing the vir­tual race.

“It’s a 7-mile com­mer­cial,” McNamee said.

For their fee, tread­mill run­ners will get an of­fi­cial fin­isher’s mug and a race key­chain. Their times will be posted online but kept in a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory from the out­door race.

The price seemed fair to Jen­nifer Walker, who plans to race from a tread­mill at her gym in Bal­ti­more.

A for­mer Bos­ton res­i­dent, Walker has al­ways wanted to run Fal­mouth. But with two young chil­dren and a hus­band who’s a physi­cian, she said, trav­el­ing can be a chal­lenge.

“This is so easy for me. All I have to do is pretty much do what I nor­mally do — go run on the tread­mill,” Walker said.

The video for Fal­mouth was filmed on a Seg­way about half an hour be­fore the race started last year. It in­cludes throngs of cheer­ing fans along the course’s ocean vis­tas.

Out­side In­ter­ac­tive has filmed 10 more races that could be de­vel­oped into vir­tual ver­sions, McNamee said.

Although the tech­nol­ogy for vir­tual rac­ing is rel­a­tively new, the idea isn’t.

For years, mem­bers of the mil­i­tary in far-flung lo­cales have or­ga­nized their own races to co­in­cide with ma­jor events, such as the Chicago Marathon. In 2007, Amer­i­can as­tro­naut Su­nita Wil­liams ran 26.2 miles on a space sta­tion’s tread­mill dur­ing the Bos­ton Marathon.

The tech­nol­ogy from Out­side In­ter­ac­tive bor­rows from that con­cept but tries to cre­ate an au­then­tic sim­u­la­tion of the ac­tual course.

When the video ap­proaches a hill, for ex­am­ple, it prompts run­ners to in­crease the el­e­va­tion on their tread­mill. If run­ners want to pick up the pace, they in­crease the tread­mill speed and then ad­just a pace set­ting on the video, which can speed up or slow down.

McNamee hopes that in the fu­ture, ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy will make those ad­just­ments eas­ier.

As close as vir­tual run­ning gets to the real thing, though, race di­rec­tors pre­dict it will al­ways fall short.

“Truth be told, I don’t think you can com­pare the two,” said McGil­livray, who is also di­rec­tor of the Bos­ton Marathon. “It’ll never re­place ob­vi­ously the ex­pe­ri­ence of run­ning the race in per­son. Noth­ing will ever re­place that. But it’s an al­ter­na­tive to that.”

As ev­i­dence, he only has to point to the grand prize for vir­tual run­ners: They’ll be en­tered into a lottery for a chance to run in-per­son next year.


In this Thurs­day, Aug. 13 photo, Joe Ci­a­vat­tone, an em­ployee of Out­side In­ter­ac­tive, demon­strates the com­pany’s vir­tual race tech­nol­ogy at the New Bal­ance Fal­mouth Road Race expo in Fal­mouth, Mas­sachusetts.

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