Hill: Virtual races can mimic energy of in-person events

I had just finished a plate of pancakes and bacon on a Sunday morning when I got a text from one of my teammates. She was a block from my condo and looking for company.

As I slipped on my running shoes to meet her, she texted again urging me to hurry; she was supporting a woman running the virtual Boston Marathon and needed to dash when the racer showed up.

I crossed the street behind my condo and immediately saw what could only be the virtual race crew barreling toward me: a runner with a bib number surrounded by three pacers, one on foot and two on bikes. I did the only thing that made sense to me — I started to run with them.

As I raced down Central Avenue, I learned from Hailey De Yaegher’s pace team that she was nine kilometres from the finish. I had never met Hailey before, but I follow many members of Saskatchewan’s running community on social media and knew her name and face. I also knew what it felt like to be 33 kilometres into a marathon. I ran in step with Hailey, following her pace while keeping up a stream of encouraging comments and talking about the course ahead. I found myself wrapped up in the excitement of the event, those last few kilometres that can make or break a marathon.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first forced road races to cancel in-person events, I rolled my eyes at the idea of virtual races; why, I thought, would I pay to run a time trial? A conversation I had with Canada Running Series event director Charlotte Brookes as part of a Canadian Running Magazine assignment helped me change my thinking. Brookes explained that virtual races are opportunities for race directors to try things they’d wanted to add to races, but had never been able to get permits for — things like different distances or the ability to run on different days and courses. Virtual races give runners almost total control over their runs and, by registering for the events, runners are supporting race organizations, many of which are struggling financially after being forced to cancel traditional events in 2020.

One of the things I love most about in-person races is the energy and I’d initially thought that couldn’t be recreated in virtual events. I eventually learned through my own virtual racing experiences and from talking to other virtual racers — including Hailey — that members of the running community excel at coming together to create something special.

Hailey de Yaegher stands next to Tarrant Cross Child after completing the virtual Boston Marathon. Photo by Lyndon Smith

In Hailey’s case, she’d been apprehensive about running 42.2 kilometres solo in her hometown of Battleford, so she took it upon herself to find her own community. Like me, she follows several Saskatchewan runners on Instagram and, though she’d never met them in person, she reached out to a couple for help. The response was overwhelming. One of her messages went to Saskatoon runner Tarrant Cross Child, who runs Prairie Run Crew Outreach. Tarrant had already helped several runners in virtual races — from pacing to setting up his company’s finish arch and time clock along routes he mapped out — and was thrilled to help again.

“I don’t know how to say it without sounding cheesy: I just get excited when other people are excited about their goals,” Tarrant told me. He’s not the only runner who thinks this way.

Hailey travelled from Battleford to Saskatoon to run a route Tarrant mapped out for her. Not only did Tarrant pace her for much of the way, but Tarrant’s wife and daughter joined in for part of the race, excited about the opportunity to support a fellow runner. Another of Hailey’s Instagram friends (now a friend in real life) drove from Regina to bike alongside her. And then I joined her pack less than 10 kilometres from the finish line in my casual pants and stomach full of pancakes. We were a big group and exuded energy. People we passed cheered us on. I felt like I was in a race.

When Hailey crossed her virtual finish line, smashing her personal best, we were thrilled and the excitement was no different than what you’d experience at the finish line of a large race.

“It was incredible,” Hailey told me after the race. “Honestly, it maybe wasn’t the actual Boston, but I think this experience is going to be a tough one to beat.”