Saturday, August 22, 2020

471 Runners Weigh In on Virtual and Live Racing

Do runners want to return to racing? Are virtual races a viable substitute? What type of runner is the most likely to run a virtual race? My hypothesis: it all comes down to why we race.

I surveyed 471 runners to find the answers. The respondents are my social media followers and members of a Facebook racing group. I think this is a large enough universe to be statistically significant. This will be a long blog post so I have summarized the key points below:

1. The top reason that runners race is because it motivates them to train for something and stay active. Over half of the runners surveyed cited this as one of their top two reasons for racing. 

2. Of the runners who typically run 6 or more races per year, 46% of them have not registered for a virtual race. Within this same group, the top reason they race is the atmosphere (spectators, cheering, volunteers, etc).

3. Of the runners who are most motivated by the opportunity to set a PR, 59% of them have not registered for a virtual race. One could infer that they would not view a PR from a virtual race as legitimate. 

4. Of all runners surveyed, 50% of them have not registered for a virtual race.

5. Of all runners surveyed, 12% (57 runners) believe that nobody should race a live event until there is a vaccine. Ironically, of these 57 runners, only 17 of them said they would choose the virtual option over the live option if a race offered both options. 14 of them said they would definitely race the live event, and 26 said it would depend on the size of the live event. I guess there is ideology, and then there is reality! 

6. 22% of all runners surveyed do not agree with race cancelations, while 12% believe that nobody should race without a vaccine. The remainder fall in the middle.

The decision to run a virtual race is generally not correlated to motivation for racing.
My hypothesis was that certain types of runners would be more inclined to register for a virtual race than others, based on why they raced. This survey did not find any such correlation except for those whose primary reason was to set a PR. Within that group, the majority of them (59%) have not registered for a virtual race. Among the entire population of runners surveyed, 50% have registered for a virtual race.

I had suspected that the following primary racing motivations would equate to less virtual racing, but I was wrong. Within these groups, it's about 50/50 for virtual vs. not registered for a virtual race:

  • The feeling of accomplishment and crossing a finish line
  • The competition against other runners
Only 43 respondents (9%) listed the medal and the shirt as one of their top two reasons for racing. Within this group, 63% registered for a virtual race. This indicates that those runners who care most about the medal and the shirt are more inclined to run a virtual race than other runners. This is no surprise because you get the same medal and shirt from a virtual race that you would get from a live race. But race directors offering virtual-only events should keep in mind that over-promoting this SWAG won't necessarily be a strong marketing point. Only 9% of runners really care about the medal and the shirt as a reason to race.

As I mentioned above, the top motivator for people to race is that it motivates them to train for
something and stay active. Over half (52%) of respondents listed this reason in their top two. The second most common motivator is the feeling of accomplishment & crossing a finish line. Arguably, you do get a feeling of accomplishment from a virtual race, but you do not get the feeling of crossing a finish line. Well, unless you created a DIY finish line and had a few people there cheering. 44% of runners indicated that this feeling of accomplishment was one of their top two motivators.

Some of the write-in responses were:
  • To try to pull out the best in me
  • Trying to run a marathon in each state (multiple people stated this)
  • To stay healthy and sane; lower anxiety
  • To qualify for Boston
  • A day to compete and get away from life
Live races turned virtual: most runners won't run virtually
82% of respondents were registered for a live race that turned into a virtual race. For the purpose of this section, I am referring to only those runners within the 82% (386 runners). 

Only 17% of these runners responded that they always ran the virtual race whenever this happened to them. This leaves us with 83% of runners registered for a race that became virtual, that they didn't end up running at least once. Why not? I didn't ask that question but I can think of a number of reasons:
  • The race was a half marathon or full marathon and they didn't want to cover it without support
  • They had no interest in a virtual event
  • They signed up for the race as a backup to a live race, but then that race also became virtual
  • They didn't have the motivation
  • Their primary motivation for registering was not going to be met with a virtual event
For the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, only 12% of registrants ran the 2020 virtual race, myself included. That's lower than my survey suggests as typical. I suspect, however, that a 10-miler might fall into the category of being too long to run as a virtual race, whereas a 5K and a 10K are more manageable distances.

Virtual races are not as popular as live races
This shouldn't surprise anyone, but how much less popular are they? In this context, I am referring to runners registering for virtual races, knowing that they are virtual. NOT participating in a virtual race that they had originally registered for as a live race.

Only 28% of all respondents registered for 2 or more virtual races knowing they would be virtual. And yet, 97.5% of respondents typically run 2 or more live races per year. This shows that runners are racing much less and are less willing to pay to run a virtual race.

I'll stray from the data a moment to add my own perspective on this one. I have paid to run 3 virtual races: the Mother's Day 4-miler, the Firecracker 5K and the Indianapolis Monumental Mile. In the case of the 4-miler, I did it to support the local running store. For the Firecracker 5K, I also did it to support the local running store and for a sense of maintaining tradition. For the Mile, I wanted the shirt! And I wanted to have an official mile race to train for. However, now that some live races are coming back, I do not think I will register for a virtual race again.

Most runners think that small races can return safely
Of all runners surveyed, 12% (57 runners) believe that nobody should race a live event until there is a vaccine. The rest of the respondents think that small races can return safely, or they flat out do not agree with the cancelations. 103 runners responded, "I don't agree with the cancelations; let runners choose if they want to participate." 

This was a higher number than expected. On social media, I see so many people saying "it was the right decision" to cancel a race. But not everyone believes that. Rarely do I hear runners speak out against cancelations. The more vocal crowd seems to be the smaller number of people who believe we need a vaccine for races to return. 

269 runners responded, "I think small races can return safely, but we need a vaccine for larger ones." This is where the majority fell, and it's not surprising. I think this is where we are as a society. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what makes a race safe. It truly depends on who is making the decisions. It is typically the government officials who are the ones denying race directors the permits. But in some cases, the race directors don't want the responsibility.

I don't know of any races of more than 500 people that have occurred since March. Marathons and half marathons are more likely to be canceled than shorter races, likely due to the number of volunteers required.

Some runners wrote-in responses. Here are some interesting ones:

"I personally am not comfortable with live racing, but if runners want to safely participate in small events with guidelines, then let them."

"I think we need to learn more about the virus before we return to large races."

"If races use smart safe precautions then let's have them. Both large and small races. As long as they
take every precaution."

"I don't think a vaccine needs to be in place. Start small and with distancing."

"I think right now we have figured out how to do small races and we could be having more of them."

"If a race doesn't want the responsibility/burden/guilt of potentially spreading a deadly virus, I'm not going to disagree with them."

"I wouldn't go so far as to say a vaccine has to be available for large races to happen, but I would need to see what steps were being taken to minimize risk."

"Have runners bring their own fuel and sign a waiver."

"I think races of any size can be held with planning. Split participants into smaller groups and stagger start times. Require wearing a mask at the start line."

"Frustrating but understandable. My distance and pace PR goals don't stop because events stop."

"I think running is fine because everyone is spread apart most of the time. The only issue is the start and finish."

Final thoughts and Key takeaways
I think the return to racing is a "we have to walk before we can run" approach. Small live races are happening today with precautions in place. Even though it's truly arbitrary, many see January 2021 as when things will start getting back to normal. That's most likely because people can't envision these cancelations continuing into another calendar year. 

After reading through 471 survey responses, the overwhelming sentiment is that runners want to race. Not all runners, but most runners. They do want to race safely, of course, but most of them believe that we are ready to do that today. Even some of the runners who believe that nobody should race until a vaccine is available said that they would run a live race if given the opportunity.

Many runners are participating in virtual races, but they are not running nearly as many virtual races as they would live races. While virtual races offer runners the ability to train for something and gain personal satisfaction, they are not a replacement for live races.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this survey.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Outer Banks Lighthouse 5K

I did it again. . . I ran a real, live race in the midst of the COVID-19 cancellation era! (My first race back was a 1-mile race in Winchester). But this race wasn't something that I searched far and wide for, it just happened to be occurring during Greg and my vacation

to the Outer Banks. The Lighthouse 5K is a series that is held every Wednesday in the summer in Corolla,  North Carolina. Even though we've been to the Outer Banks many times before, we've always gone before or after "busy season" so the race wasn't going on. This year, we went during the height of the season to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary.

The original plan was to go to Africa to celebrate our anniversary. We had a trip planned that started in Victoria Falls, then onto two safari locations in Botwana, and then to Zebras Crossing Lodge in South Africa. All four properties we booked were prime zebra viewing locations. In one of them, it's not uncommon to see 100+ zebras outside of your window. But alas, we had to postpone our trip to August 2021. I seriously hope we can go then, and that the places we are staying haven't gone out of business.

Because Africa was postponed, we decided to head down to the Outer Banks to celebrate our anniversary. We arrived on Saturday to a beachfront condo. On Sunday morning, we did a "sharpening" workout of 8 x 400m on the track with 200m recovery jogs. Luckily, there was a track in close proximity to our condo which we had run on during previous trips. It was 78 degrees with high humidity, so we were thankful that the prescribed pace was 10K effort increasing to 5K effort by the end: 1:39, 1:40, 1:39, 1:38, 1:39, 1:37, 1:37, 1:37.

On Monday morning, we ran short and easy: just 40 minutes. Thank goodness for that because once again we were faced with 78 degree weather and high humidity. Of course we had all day to recover and I was really good about drinking plenty of water + UCAN Hydrate every day. Not only did we sweat off pounds of water during our runs, but laying on the beach in the sun is also dehydrating.

On Tuesday, we did a short set of 3 x 200m strides just to get the legs moving, plus warm up and cool down. And then we were ready for race day!

Before the Race
We woke up at 5:40 and I had my standard English muffin with peanut butter. We packed the car with a cooler of ice, water, and towels for afterwards. Greg unfortunately forgot his Garmin, which we realized about 3 minutes into the drive. We could have possibly turned around for it, but then we would have been cutting it very close. He decided to run without it.

When we got to the race, I picked up our bibs and searched for my Instagram friend Heidi. We met nearly two years ago on Instagram and we just happened to both be in the Outer Banks on vacation. It was really

Heidi and me pre-race
cool to see a friendly face and get to know her and her family a little bit. I took a gel about 20 minutes prior to race start and did a very short warm up of only 0.6 mile, which included strides. My coach had advised to keep the warm up short (although he probably meant more like 1 mile) because it was hot. 

Officially it was 79 degrees with a "real feel" of 90 due to the humidity. And sunny! One of the hottest races I have ever run. I can only think of one that was hotter, and that one was not as humid. I totally did not care. I was just happy to be racing. I didn't have a time goal - I was going to try and win an award of some kind. There were no age group awards but there was a Master's award and then the top 3 men and women.

The race had about 150 runners. I had looked at the results from past weeks and it was competitive for a vacation race. It seemed as if families came out with their cross-country high schoolers and college students. If I recall correctly, nearly all of the races had been won in 19:xx for the women. I knew that sub 20 would not be possible in these conditions, so I was going for the Master's win or maybe third place.

The race was delayed by 8 minutes so that runners could finish packet pickup. They started the runners in waves containing about 30 people each. I lined up in the first wave because the awards would be based on gun time, not chip time. Greg was in the second wave.

Mile 1: 6:56
The race started on grass but we quickly transitioned to pavement. Most of the race was on a concrete sidewalk. This wasn't ideal, but whatever- I will take what I can get! The race was mostly flat with a few inclines/declines. Interestingly, there was another small race series in a different part of the Outer Banks (Nags Head) that was canceled due to COVID. This shows that there are not hard-and-fast rules about racing in these times. Some race directors and/or town officials are canceling races while some are holding races with safety modifications. It really just depends on who is in charge.

Anyway, I ran this mile based on effort and I slotted into 3rd place pretty early on. I hoped to maintain that position for the entirety of the race but I knew Heidi was behind me, and she was fast. Greg blew by me and I knew he'd end up having a really strong race.

Average heart rate for mile 1: 160

Mile 2: 7:00
I was not using the Garmin to pace myself-- I glanced at it a few times to know how far I had gone because the race was starting to hurt pretty badly. The sun was beating down on me and I had to exert so much effort just to run at a pace that is slower than my half marathon pace from March! At the turnaround point, the female leader cheered me on and I did the same for her. I also realized that the 4th and 5th place females were tailing me pretty closely. Darn it- this meant I had to work hard to maintain my position!

Average heart rate for mile 2: 178

I'm dying here at the end.

Mile 3: 7:04
This mile was all about hanging on and not backing down. There was no way I could give anymore (see heart rate below). I told myself to hold steady and maintain my position no matter what. The 2nd place female was visible but there would be no catching her. Finally we reached the grassy area and I sprint toward the finish line. (6:24 pace for the last bit). I was actually surprised at how fast that was for being on the grass. I never run on grass.

Average heart rate for mile 3: 189.

Average heart rate the final 0.1: 197!!!!!!!

Official time: 21:31

My max heart rate was 200. I actually didn't think that my max heart rate was that high. I think the highest I have ever seen it in a race is 193, and that was at the July 4th 5K from last summer. So even though my paces were slower than my half marathon pace, it was clear that I was redlining based on my heart rate data.

After the Race
As the 3rd female, I wasn't sure if that would be my prize or if I'd win the Master's award. They ended up giving me the award for 3rd female and Heidi won the Master's award. It really doesn't matter anyway because all of the awards were the same: a medal. That was fine with me. I didn't need a prize, I just wanted the glory of winning an award of some kind.

I was totally gassed at the end and thank God for the icy cold face towels they gave us at the finish. That towel felt AMAZING on my blazing hot face.

The female winner introduced herself to me as someone who was reading my book, Boston Bound! Wow!

Cooling down with speedy Jenny.
What a small world. In fact, she had the book at her beach house! We instantly bonded and ran our cool down together. It was a longer cool down than warm up, which wasn't hard to do given the warm up was only 0.6 of a mile! We chatted about all things running and it's amazing how much two strangers can connect when they are both runners. Her daughter was the 2nd female finisher, and was happy to race given the cancelation of cross country.

This is what I love about racing. It's not just about the competition and the time on the clock. It's about the community, sharing experiences and making connections. 

Greg ran a blazing fast 19:27 which won him the Master's award for the men (he was the 4th male overall). Once the temperature starts to drop below 60 and we can find a 5K, I can see him breaking 19:00. So exciting!

After the awards ceremony we said goodbye to Heidi and Jenny and made our way to Duck Donuts for a celebratory treat!

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
Greg and I were happy to get our race "fix" in during vacation. It was a really relaxed experience as all the runners were pretty much on vacation. The energy was positive and many people hadn't been able to race since February. This was my first 5K since January, and I typically run about six 5Ks per year. 

I'm pleased with my effort level and based on my heart rate there is no question that I gave it my all. Given that I typically run 21:xx when it's in the low 70s, it was encouraging that I was able to do that in the high 70s with a real feel of 90!

Greg and I officially celebrate 10 years of marriage today! It's been a wonderful vacation with great weather, great running, and great food. I'm looking forward to the next 10.