Vir­tual races help keep run­ners on track

Roanoke-based firm puts cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion at fore­front of events

Daily Press - - State News - By Ali­cia Pet­ska

ROANOKE — Molly Bulling­ton wasn’t sure what to ex­pect when she went live with that first event in June.

The owner of Blue Ridge Rac­ing rea­soned if she could get 200 or 300 peo­ple to sign up, it’d be a run­away suc­cess.

Her Roanoke-based firm spe­cial­izes in the hec­tic work of or­ga­niz­ing large-scale races that bring to­gether crowds of run­ners and walk­ers for ev­ery­thing from 5Ks to full marathons.

The novel coron­avirus, though, had put the ki­bosh on such events three months ear­lier. The rac­ing year was up­ended, and fans of road races — of their ca­ma­raderie and chal­lenge and com­pet­i­tive thrill — saw events ev­ery­where toppled in a se­ries of can­cel­la­tions.

Vir­tual rac­ing isn’t an en­tirely new idea in the run­ning com­mu­nity. Even in pre-in­ter­net days, there are records of mail-in races be­ing held, ac­cord­ing to Run­ner’s World.

But those events had never re­ally ri­valed in-per­son races in pop­u­lar­ity. Now, forced to change course, or­ga­niz­ers found them­selves won­der­ing: Would run­ners still lace up for an all-vir­tual event?

Bulling­ton found her­self mulling that ques­tion when she launched her first vir­tual race chal­lenge this sum­mer.

Then she saw the ticker start to go up — and up and up. In the end, more than 750 run­ners reg­is­tered for the chal­lenge.

“It re­ally ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions by far,” she said. “I had no idea how suc­cess­ful it would be, but it turns out it was re­ally suc­cess­ful.”

Vir­tual rac­ing is in­creas­ingly part of the new nor­mal as com­mu­ni­ties and event di­rec­tors try to con­tinue of­fer­ing an out­let for those who want the fun or per­sonal chal­lenge of get­ting across the (now on­line) fin­ish line.

Two ma­jor fall events in the

Roanoke Val­ley — Salem’s half marathon in Oc­to­ber and the Roanoke Res­cue Mis­sion’s Drum­stick Dash in Novem­ber — an­nounced last week they’re go­ing vir­tual.

In the spring, the Foot Level­ers Blue Ridge Marathon, which has been called Amer­ica’s tough­est road marathon for its el­e­va­tion gain, also went the vir­tual route.

Adapt­ing and sus­tain­ing these events is im­por­tant not only to the run­ning com­mu­nity — which has ral­lied around the mantra “Run­ning Is Not Can­celed” to en­cour­age one an­other to stick with their well­ness goals — but to the non­profit world, as most races ben­e­fit lo­cal char­i­ties.

In Roanoke, that is most keenly high­lighted by the At­lantic Union Bank Drum­stick Dash, the city’s big­gest an­nual race and the sin­gle largest fundraiser for the Roanoke Res­cue Mis­sion. The 5K, usu­ally held on Thanks­giv­ing Day, of­ten brings out more than 11,000 peo­ple and raises enough money to cover the home­less shel­ter’s food bud­get for the next year.

That trans­lates to more than 200,000 meals for one of the com­mu­nity’s most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, said race di­rec­tor Kevin Berry. Do­na­tions also sup­port food pro­grams for fam­i­lies who are fac­ing the dif­fi­cult choice of buy­ing gro­ceries or pay­ing bills.

“When we say your con­tri­bu­tion is go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in the com­mu­nity, it’s re­ally true,” Berry said. “That’s what makes the race and the peo­ple who sup­port it so im­por­tant.”

Or­ga­niz­ers of the Drum­stick Dash, now mark­ing its 15th year, felt some sad­ness when it be­came clear that an in-per­son race wouldn’t be pos­si­ble this year, Berry said. But as al­ter­nate plan­ning pushed for­ward, the team started em­brac­ing new ideas to keep the race fun and en­gag­ing

even as it adapted to the new all-vir­tual plat­form.

Cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion can be key as events start ex­pand­ing their vir­tual foot­print. Blue Ridge Rac­ing, now in the midst of its sec­ond on­line event of the year, de­vised new themes to chal­lenge run­ners: Can you run the equiv­a­lent length of In­ter­state 81 in 81 days? Can you run or bike the equiv­a­lent length of the Blue Ridge Park­way?

Both events ben­e­fited char­ity. The park­way chal­lenge is rais­ing money for Friends of the Blue Ridge Park­way. The I-81 chal­lenge, launched at a time when food banks were over­whelmed with need, helped Feed­ing South­west Vir­ginia and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

The Drum­stick Dash, for its part, sweet­ened its swag bag to in­clude ameni­ties like a medal and a high-per­for­mance shirt. A new 8K race was added to the mix of op­tions, and or­ga­niz­ers worked to get par­tic­i­pants ac­cess to the RaceJoy app.

Lead­ers are op­ti­mistic that sup­port for the event will re­main high and that fam­i­lies who have made it part of their an­nual hol­i­day tra­di­tion will con­tinue to take part.

“We still have an awe­some op­por­tu­nity for our run­ners and walk­ers to have an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Berry said.

The LewisGale Half Marathon, which has an 8K and a kids’ fun run op­tion, also is look­ing ahead with op­ti­mism.

“Run­ners are a unique breed and they adapt to con­di­tions and cir­cum­stances all of the time,” said spokesman Mike Stevens, adding that the vir­tual for­mat has its own ad­van­tages.

Run­ners get the flex­i­bil­ity to mold their own sched­ules and set their own cour­ses. And miles can be logged over a win­dow of time — 15 days in the case of the Salem event and one month for the Drum­stick Dash.

Join­ing a vir­tual race can help hard­core run­ners keep up with train­ing goals, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion Race Di­rec­tors HQ, as well as be a less intimidati­ng en­try point for newer run­ners, some of whom have picked up the sport as a pan­demic hobby.

And, vir­tual or not, set­ting a goal and con­quer­ing it pays its own div­i­dends, Stevens said.

“We hope the run­ners see this as a unique op­por­tu­nity,” he said in an email. “Plus, who doesn’t want to say they won a medal in 2020!”

The Salem Half Marathon is also of­fer­ing gift bags and ac­cess to the RaceJoy app. The event ben­e­fits the Salem Food Pantry. The team or­ga­niz­ing it in­cludes Blue Ridge Rac­ing.

With lo­ca­tion con­straints thrown out the win­dow, an­other po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity for vir­tual events is the chance to reach a new au­di­ence.

Bulling­ton said that of the on­line-only chal­lenges she’s done this year, more than half of the run­ners had never taken part in one of her events be­fore.

Run­ners from as far away as Great Bri­tain found the chal­lenges and signed up — track­ing their progress and com­par­ing their stats with oth­ers from across the United States.

“I think peo­ple are def­i­nitely go­ing to be very ex­cited when we’re able to re­turn to in-per­son races,” Bulling­ton said. “But I also think there is go­ing to be some de­mand and some room for cre­ativ­ity with these vir­tual out­lets. It may very well be a prod­uct that’s here to stay.”

Join­ing a vir­tual race can help hard­core run­ners keep up with train­ing goals, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion Race Di­rec­tors HQ, as well as be a less intimidati­ng en­try point for newer run­ners.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Rrac­ers take off at the start of last Novem­ber’s Drum­stick Dash 5K Race and Fam­ily Walk in down­town Roanoke. Vir­tual rac­ing is in­creas­ingly part of the new nor­mal as com­mu­ni­ties try to con­tinue of­fer­ing an out­let for those who want the fun or per­sonal chal­lenge of get­ting across the fin­ish line.

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