Running a COVID-safe virtual race

You can hear the cheering crowd before you can even see it. The echo makes its way through the woods, along the trail and finds you tired, breathless and in pain, somehow still managing to get your burning legs to keep moving.

The chants and cheers are interpreted by your brain and suddenly you get a boost a second wind. Your feet, that you were dragging a second ago, are now taking bounding gazelle leaps. It’s what gets most runners past the finish line: the buzzing energy of all those waiting to celebrate you.

My favourite part of a race is finishing it. The euphoria caused by a cheering crowd and an endorphin high after five, eight, 10 or more kilometres of running is incomparable.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Canada, racing became a thing of the past. Events were cancelled, cheering crowds disappeared and there was no buzz to magically pull your exhausted body to the finish line. But runners usually aren’t quitters.

My first 10K race was a run for women’s mental health in Edmonton, Alta. in 2014. My personal fitness journey changed a lot over the years, and recently I had picked up running again. I was looking for that endorphin high and craved that finish line. So in May, when I saw that Tamarack Ottawa Race weekend went virtual, I had to sign up. A virtual race allows you to choose where you’ll run and log your time online if you want, which was ideal as I was lacing up my shoes for the first time in months and wasn’t too concerned about minutes.

A virtual race on your own terms allows you to choose your path. You can choose your usual trail and expect every hill, turn and obstacle ahead. You can get on a treadmill in the comfort of your basement with a movie on TV. For this 10K, I ran my favourite trail in the woods at Mer Bleue Conservation Area, then onto the boardwalk around the bog and along Ridge Road until my tracker said “10 kilometres” in my headphones.

I train alone and run alone so I knew what to expect. And though the runners, the supporters, the music and the hype of an event help me get through a race, I believe it’s going through the solitude of training and surviving the preparation for that day that guarantees a successful finish. Really, a virtual race looks the same as a normal race in your head, it’s your surrounding environment that looks different. It’s the same one-on-one battle with yourself.

When you’re alone, you don’t get motivation from other runners. Sarah Ascencio, 22, a health sciences student at Algonquin College, finds it hard to run virtual races. “You’re alone so you have no competition,” Ascencio says. “I need someone to push me and usually get that from other runners on my trail.”

For the competitive ones among us, tailing a runner can lead to an intense dual. I can’t get motivated for a virtual race like I would for an actual event,” Ascencio says. “There are no other people, just like there are no water stations but whatever bottle you have attached to your body.

You receive your event shirt, medal and gifts from sponsors in the mail. You can also upload and customize a bib online. Though different, there’s still a lot to be proud of and a race medal symbolizes your hard work and accomplishment.

But it’s not the same as getting it draped around your neck by an event organizer. The handshakes, the high fives and the sweaty hugs between participants after crushing an endurance event cannot happen during a pandemic. And interactions, competition and celebration between members of the universal family of runners are what make these races so special.

All the while, running remains an activity that is fun and beneficial whether you are socially distancing or running in groups. Racing events aren’t the same, but at the end of the day, your biggest opponent is yourself. And it’s the kind of duel that never gets cancelled, not even in the midst of a global pandemic.

In such trying times, it’s important to stay active and healthy while following guidelines by Ottawa Public Health. It’s the perfect time to start running. Read all about virtual running events in Ottawa on


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