The pandemic has taken a lot of in-person interactions from our lives and for runners like me, the lack of races to train for and accomplish really hit hard. Until I learned about virtual races that is and then the skies of possibilities opened up again.

Here’s how it happened, and how a virtual race works:

I headed into 2020 with the goal of running six half marathons. I had just completed my first half in a shockingly faster time than I ever anticipated and I had the bug for long-distance racing.

Then after just one in-person half marathon in March, the world shut down and my goal seemed to be slipping away. #FFS However, after a little bit of wallowing and some thought, I decided that while COVID safety procedures could take a lot from my life that year (and rightfully so) I would not let it take that goal. I needed to be able to control something in my daily life.

Enter: virtual racing.

Essentially, you run a chosen distance and you get a medal to commemorate it. Boom! Easy as that. Some races require that you go online and enter the course you ran & proof of time via a running app before they send you the medal in the mail. Most work on the honor system though. (After all, why would you want a medal on your wall you didn’t earn? Lame.)

So after completing five virtual half marathons in 2020, I have a few tips on running a virtual race successfully.

TIP 1: There is nothing wrong (or sad) with doing it alone. That is where you’ll build the most mental resilience.

If you want to do it. Do it. You’ll be that much stronger physically and mentally for doing it by yourself than if you ran with someone else.

Think about it (no pun intended): If you’ve only got yourself to motivate you through the tough parts, you are going to finish up a LOT more mentally resilient than when you started. How? You will have proven to yourself that even when it got hard, the hills/heat bothered you, your feet/legs/entire body starting hurting, you still pushed through and finished.

Having cheerleaders along the way in a traditional race to root for you when you’re feeling low, tired or hurting, is a HUGE pick me up. But just like in life, we may not always have a cheerleader when we need one. We need to be our own cheerleaders sometimes.

A virtual race, whatever the distance, will inevitably leave you with more than one thought of:

“OMG, [insert body part here] hurts.”

“Why the f**k did I decide to do this alone again?”

“No one will know if I don’t do the WHOLE distance. Maybe I can stop and say I did it anyway.”

But the thought that needs to blast through all of those is this: I CAN do this.

And I say this very confidentiality even though I don’t know you. You 100% CAN do it. You are fully capable. Running truly is 10% training plans and 90% mental. Even Olympians and professional runners will tell you it’s hard and they think these same things. And they CHOSE to do it for a living!

TIP 2: Run with a partner who’s a bit slower (or faster) than you.

Yes this directly contradicts Tip 1, but here’s the deal: even the strongest of us get tired of the thoughts in our own head and all the Beyoncé and Hamilton soundtracks in the world can’t fix that.

Mix up your racing plans to include a race with a partner who isn’t quite at your same level of fitness. There are benefits to both sides of the slower/faster spectrum:

If they are slower, you get automatic walk breaks built in! Seriously. Even after completing a total of seven half marathons with one more on the way in October and a full marathon in November, I still need walk breaks on long runs, particularly when the weather is a beast.

(NOTE: Long = whatever YOU define as long. It’s different for everyone and no one else’s distance matters besides yours👊🏻)

If your partner is faster, they’ll inspire you to keep pushing yourself even when you are tired and I’ll bet money you don’t end up with as many walk breaks if you do it alone.

If they are slower, then you’ll get those walk breaks, won’t feel like you’re dying and still get the medal at the end. #winning

For one of my virtual halfs last year (on a mountain no less), I posted in a local Facebook Group that I’d love some company on my run if anyone wanted to join me for a portion of it. Guess what? I made a new running friend! And she came long at the 9-mile mark, right when I needed motivation.

These final four miles passed so much faster by having someone to talk to thereby distracting me from the ache in my feet, hamstrings and glutes. (13.1 miles on a mountain remember? Ugh.)

TIP 3: Have a cheering squad at the finish line.

Seriously cannot stress this enough, particularly if you are pushing yourself beyond your normal distance or going for a PR (personal record) with speed. Knowing someone is at the finish line waiting for you is like having a puppy run up to you for cuddles on a bad day. INSANE mood booster and a solid motivator for that final push to the finish line when you feel like your tank is out of gas.

Remember that mountain half I mentioned? Well, I asked my dad and his wife to be at the finish line for me along with my awesome Hydration Captain, Wendy, who kept me stocked with beverages throughout the run. Seeing them drive to the finish line as I wrapped up my final mile and then again at top of the hill that marked the end added a massive boost to my thrusters.

Bonus: finish line photos!

This tip works no matter your distance too. A friend and I recently did a virtual 10K (in the heat of summer in the South) and seeing her kiddos and husband cheering for us as we came to the finish truly brought a smile to our faces. The fact that they made signs made it feel even more like a real race.

The kids handed us our medals, we took some pics, and just like a normal, in-person race: we headed to brunch!

Bottom Line

There are so many things in life we cannot control. What we can control is whether we move our body (or not) and our mindset. Doing the former automatically translates to improving the latter and running accomplishes two birds with one stone. So even though in-person races are coming back, if you aren’t ready to tackle that crowd then virtual racing is a solid option – when you do it right.

Happy racing!


Channing Muller is an award winning marketing & public relations consultant and the principal of DCM Communications, based out of Chicago. She works with event professionals and business owners to grow and scale their businesses with refined marketing strategies developed through one-on-one and group consulting, customized marketing programs and public relations. She has been named a "25 Young Event Pro to Watch" by Special Events magazine and "40 Under 40" by Connect Meetings. Channing is an avid runner, lover of Labrador Retrievers, good food, delicious drinks, and an advocate for the American Heart Association.

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