Written by 2021 DBR Ambassador Marjolein Wijbenga-Groot
I should lace up. My race starts in 5 minutes. I don’t have to travel far. Fifteen steps from my front door is the sidewalk. Start, finish… Here I come!
We continue to navigate a global pandemic, and while some races are coming back, the virtual challenges don’t see to be going anywhere too quickly. At this point, I have run more virtual races than traditional ones. In many ways, it will be the most minimalist race you have ever run: no competition, no volunteers, no race location.
You decide the course. You decide the date, time of day and the nitty-gritty details. You are in charge of aid stations and can match your fuel to your training plan. Here are some tips to help make your experience a great one.
Virtual Race Hack #1: Choose your Course
In any virtual race, you will choose your own course. This can be loops around a backyard or a beautiful trail through the mountains: your only limitation is what is accessible. For instance, you might not have a backyard, and you might not have mountains at the end of your street. Throughout the pandemic, there might be imposed lockdown rules or limitations on how far you can run from your house.
When planning your course, spending some time thinking about the finer details will go a long way. Things to think about are: possible aid station locations, first aid access, and available washroom stops. You will thank yourself later.
The scene of my virtual 50k varied from beautiful trails and ski hills to a straight stretch of road between my house and my friend’s place on the other side of town. Another event ended up being a combination of rail trail during the day and roads when it turned dark.
The start and finish of both events were quite familiar: My front door.
Virtual Race Hack #2: Think about Timing
What is your favourite time to run? Dead of the night? Early morning? Or do you prefer to sleep in before your race?
The good news with virtual races: YOU get to decide your start time. As long as you stay within the time frame the organizers have set, you are free to complete your run whenever you feel like it.
Depending on the parameters, there are other amazing thing about this. Didn’t succeed the first time? Weather isn’t cooperating? You don’t automatically DNF or have to weather the storm. You can run your race the next day, or if it allows, even the following weekend!
Tip to consider: While we’re still in the pandemic, your area might have imposed rules for how long you are allowed to be outside your home. Keep these in mind while you are planning your virtual run, in particular if you’re running a longer distance.
Virtual Race Hack #3: Remember your Tracker
A key difference with virtual events: There is no chip timing, and there are no volunteers to record your time for you. When a medal or a buckle requires proof of time, you have to record and provide it yourself.
Before your run, choose and test your tracking device, and ensure it can handle the amount of time your run will take. If it doesn’t, like mine, there’s a chance it will charge while recording data. For part of my 100k, my workaround was keeping a fully charged power bank that connected to my phone from inside my sweater pocket. It worked!
Finally, as the last step, submit your time results (the organizers of the race will let you know how to do this).
Virtual Race Hack #4: Prep your Aid Stations
What? There won’t be a volunteer handing out gummies every ten kilometers?
These virtual events are self-supported and independent: Depending on your route and your crew, you might have to carry everything you need in your pack.
Alternatively, by dropping supplies and a change of clothes at a safe place (like a friend’s porch), you can run your race as a loop or an out and back. Alternatively, a traveling aid station can end up where you need it to be, so long as you have access to a car, a driver and the things you may need. Whomever your driver, make their driveway part of your route so it makes a parked aid station.
My husband was ‘designated traveling aid station’ for my first virtual ultra. Fuel, drinks and first aid were stacked in the back. Just opening the hatch brought access to anything and everything we might need.
Virtual Race Hack #5: Remember your Volunteers!
There’s a chance that you will be the lonely runner. Instead of being part of your big race family, most people you encounter are out and about and doing their own thing (not thinking you are running a race, let alone an ultra marathon, should that be your undertaking of choice).
Even though there were others participating, I may as well have been running my virtual ultra solo. My friends knew my route and my husband could track me through my phone for safety. Every so often I heard a faint ringing or cheering. From a safe distance, those same friends brought out cowbells, cheers, and a surprise pacer or two to get me through.
They may not be the perfectly stocked, energetic aid stations along the trail, the power of other people is strong: Just seeing a friendly face or an encouraging text message will go a long way.
Virtual Race Hack #6: Have Back-Up Plans
Some Plan B’s to consider: Carry identification! A driver’s license or ID bracelet can go a long way in case of emergency.
Masks and hand sanitizer are still mandatory in many buildings as we navigate a world of pandemic, so carrying these two items may provide access to public spaces for washroom or food breaks, if necessary.
With any distance, in particular the longer ones, the aches and pains may start to surface. Finding yourself battling an injury without support or access to a paramedic may incentivize a DNF, but, chances are, you would not have listened to those aches and pains during a traditional race anyway (the finish is only a mere ten kilometers away, after all).
While you may not be able to prepare for every scenario, having a few contingency plans up your sleeve can help ensure you make it to your finish line.
Virtual Race Hack #7: Review your List of Necessities
In short, you need emotional tools and physical tools to make your virtual race a success.
Your emotional toolbox should hold mental grit, determination, a positive view and a minimalist mindset.
Your physical ones? Fuel, hydration, first aid items, a tracking device are some of the tools to ensure your success. Risks are different for everyone, as are the tools to help mitigate them. A phone and a whistle might be universal, but would bear spray be effective if snakes str the cautionary creatures?
Success factors for my three virtual ultras included friends, support and a good dose of humour. Starting and finishing at your front door instead of crossing a crowded finish line might be anticlimactic, but you have achieved a huge goal and most likely have a couple of close friends or family to share it with. No crowds, no cheering masses, but smiles for reaching the stars.
This is Marjolein’s first article with Dirtbag Runners, and you can follow her on Instagram @flamegurlsfunnyfarm. Think you might be a dirtbag but still unsure? Here are 10 telltale signs to help you decide.