A few years ago, when I first started talking about running, one of my best friends, who was a combat medic in the Army, said “don’t always run the same course. You’ll get bored and that’ll kill your motivation.” And he was right. Even though the courses (I found two, since he’s a smart guy and I thought I should take his advice) were beautiful (one through a park and the other alongside a river), I gave up pretty quickly. I never reached my goal of being able to run a 5K.
I picked it up again last year. I had re-set my 5K goal for 2019 but this time, I didn’t have easy access to the nice scenery I’d had previously. I pretty much had a treadmill at a local gym. This was the absolute antithesis of the “don’t run in the same place” advice since really, my only options were which window to look out while I ran. And yet, this time I succeeded. I’ve successfully run several 5Ks now.
So what changed?
Two things: One: rewards. And two, I’ve run all those races virtually.
Virtually? The idea of running virtually is hard to explain to some folks, since the word itself means “faking” it. So when I tell people I’m running virtual marathons, they look at me strangely and ask if that means I just sit on my couch and imagine myself running? Nope, that’s not it (although that would certainly be a lot easier, it wouldn’t come with as many other benefits, which we’ll get to in a second). No, the idea of running a virtual race is that you can run it anywhere, anytime, however you want. You want to run 5K on a treadmill, great! You want to pick a route in your neighborhood or find the track at your local school field and tick off a few kilometers there, perfect! You wanna take your dog, awesome! You want to break it up over a couple of days, or mix it up by walking and running to get all your distance in? That’s just fine, too! The whole idea is to set aside some specific time for you to get yourself moving. It’s that simple. You can do it with other people around or you can do it by yourself. And now, thanks to modern technology, you can even have real time competitions with folks from all over the world.
The world of virtual running has been around for less than a decade but is now really hitting its stride (pardon the pun). There are now numerous virtual running clubs, all over the world, with different themes or foci, providing all the comraderie you miss when not running in a planned, physical event, but minus the early mornings, port-a-potty lines, and jostling for position while getting more and more frustrated at hearing Steve Rogers yell “on your left” as he passes you…again. “But what about the medals” I hear you asking. You know, the bling your friends who run keep showing you when you visit their place, what about those? No problem! That’s the rewards I was talking about up above. The medals and so much more.
For me, the kicker was Disney. Last summer, I joined their virtual run series, which, in 2019, was themed around Marvel Comics’ 80th anniversary and featured three runs, one each in June, July, and August, complete with accompanying medals. This gave me enough motivation to keep going to the gym, since my personal sense of honor wouldn’t let me just slide by and claim the victory. That’s the thing about most virtual races – they’re on the honor system. You submit your times and they send you the medal. But no one is watching over your shoulder, there’s no official time keepers. You get the medal you pay for, whether or not you run the race, so it’s up to you to actually earn it.
For me, that’s enough. And since those runs, I’ve joined several other groups, including the Fandom Running Club (fandomrunning.org), who theme their monthly runs and accompanying medals around various fandoms, with distances changing to fit as needed (the Eleven K, shaped like an Eggo for the Stranger Things run or the current (as of this writing) Yippie Ki Yay Mother 5K, medal complete with Hans Gruber falling from Nakatomi Tower. That same organization also has running clubs for Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Gilmore Girls fandoms. They are incredibly active on social media and, in another positive benefit, a portion of your entry fee goes to a charity – a different one selected every month.
For longer events, the Conqueror Series, in conjunction with My Virtual Mission (www.theconqueror.events) has virtual runs ranging from a 21 mile swim across the English Channel to the whole of Route 66, complete with postcards and Google Street Views along the way, so you can see the virtual sites as you cruise by. These, you can also do in teams (Yup, I got my family involved!) with everyone contributing to the final distance goal. You can also expand your exercise methods to not only include walking/running, but swimming and cycling are also available options.
Then there’s Zwift (zwift.com). Zwift is a little different, in that it removes the medals and amps up the “virtual” to a whole new level! With Zwift, there’s a little bit of an initial cost outlay (as opposed to an à la carte, per race/medal fee of the others) to get the technology needed, but then you’re home free. For running, you can use any treadmill, you just need to buy a cadence tracker (Zwift has their own, available on their site or at Amazon as the MilestonePod) which will then connect to your tablet and the Zwift app. If you happen to have a smart treadmill, you don’t need the cadence tracker. Either way, you just need to connect the app and the device via Bluetooth and you’re ready to run.
Why all the connectivity? That’s where it gets fun! See, Zwift is a training app which sets itself up as a game, so there are levels and various modes all designed to increase your abilities. Once you’re inside the virtual world, you can see yourself (well, an avatar of you) running through various landscapes and you can see other runners who are running the same course as you. You can sign up for training sessions, group runs or even races. That’s right, as opposed to the solitary, go at your own pace of the other virtual runs I’ve mentioned, Zwift figures you might also need a little bit of a push so they’ve set up racing events. No matter where you are in the world, everyone gets on their treadmills at the same time and when the countdown finishes, everyone takes off. And you can see it all happen in real time.
Now, about those landscapes. Zwift certainly has some real world places for you to run through (New York, London, Innsbruck, and others), but even more fun is their land of Watopia, where you might run past dinosaurs or the ruins of lost Mayan civilizations.
Virtual racing has become so popular, even real life marathons are getting in on the action. Several big name runs (in New York and San Francisco, for example) give you the opportunity to compete virtually if you can’t make it or, more likely, don’t get an official registration spot. Some even offer guaranteed future registrations as an incentive!
Of course, if none of that is going to get you going, then there’s the plain old advantages of running which could help sway you. It’s a known fact running is good for you. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter where you run. Both running on a treadmill and running outdoors, either on a track or along some sort of road course, will bring you a net positive result. Aside from the physical benefits, like weight loss or strengthening your joints (yes, even your knees) which is well known with any type of exercise, running is good for your mental well-being, too!
According to articles in magazines like Shape and Runner’s World (and backed up by scientific research), running can improve your mood. As little as 30 minutes of exercise can be a great way to combat depression. It can also increase your memory and the trend in research is showing that it might even have an effect in fighting the symptoms’ of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not only running, either. Walking is a great gateway form of exercise. You still get a lot of the great benefits, like fat-burning, heart health and joint strengthening, and pretty soon, you find yourself moving a bit faster, picking up your legs a bit more and, before you know it, you’ve graduated up to jogging. From there, running is only about picking up the pace a little bit. The most important thing is that you’re moving.
So this is where the world is these days. We’re moving inside our computers while still moving our bodies. We’re running with friends or just to collect some awesome medals. Whatever your motivation, there’s something out there to help get you started. And if anyone wants to join me, let me know and we’ll set up some runs. I’m addicted to it now, so I’m always looking for people to join my adventures!