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.


  1. I’ve been running free short distant races with Rock n Roll Running Group - just to keep me motivated. I have a few friends doing the same however the thought of running a virtual race beyond a 10K I have no interest. I was scheduled for a half and it turned virtual but didn’t run it. I don’t see the point to push so hard without the feeling of a real race.

  2. On your summary point #5...I was one of the 12% (57 runners) who believe that nobody should race a live event until there is a vaccine. The second part of that question carried too many assumptions. (Honestly...Who wouldn't choose a live race?) This survey question required participants to assume they were to answer the question taking into consideration the current state of affairs, or assume this is a future state question under the assumption that there is a vaccine AND assume everyone has received said vaccine... I didn't like this question when I answered it.

    Great post! Just sharing my opinion��

    It would be interesting to see additional responses related to this question.

    1. That question assumed that things were are as they are today because a virtual option is usually offered due to health concerns. But that does bring up the question: once things return to normal, will races offer a virtual option because some runners prefer to go solo? Or can’t travel? The question with the chart above didn’t ask for write-ins so you see all the responses. But based on your comment, i can see that some respondents might have assumed a future state, and thus a live race race preference.

  3. I wrote this out on Facebook but am commenting here.

    As someone who works with directing and hosting events for our local nonprofit running club... it's not about the runners. We are runners, and believe me, we want to be directing events too, but event organizers have to analyze the costs and benefits as well as the business risk (and obviously, health risk- but we're almost six months into a pandemic so I'll just discuss the business side).

    Permitting regulations vary too. SC is one of the lesser regulated states when it comes to reopening, but state event size restrictions differ from local event size restrictions. Often when you put those size restrictions into play, that's when the risk (both health and business) isn't worth the reward. In other words, races under a certain number of runners will lose money. Size restrictions also include volunteers.

    We don't want to lose any more money. Nor do I want to post any runner or volunteer obituaries, or have some sort of public health outbreak traced back to a club race. Nor do our sponsors want that.

    So don't sign up for a virtual race, but please... don't refer to a virtual race as "cancelled". I've put work into a race that "turned virtual" and many others have too... it's not that we weren't doing all we could to make it happen. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone and if the worst part of it is having running goals become a dream deferred, or a race go virtual, we need to consider ourselves lucky.

    1. All of these points are totally understandable. This survey solely covers the runner’s perspective and I’m sure the story would be different from the race director’s perspective. I’ve talked to some race directors and they’ve tried to get permits but we’re denied them. I understand that if a race has less than a certain number of runners then it’s not financially viable. So the race organizers with other income streams are more likely to try to have live events. A live race that becomes virtual is both canceled and not canceled; the runner won’t have the experience they signed up for but they do have the opportunity to run on their own, submit a time and get the SWAG.

  4. You didn’t give enough room for the virtual race question. I have raced one virtual race per year for four years now. It’s a charity run for TWLOHA. Some years we get a group together locally and run it. Some years I run it alone. It’s not for PRs. It’s to raise money to prevent suicide and provide services for mental illness. Any other race? I don’t want pay full price for a race to be turned virtual. It’s a bait and switch. I’m not registering for anything until race day at this point (and that won’t be until next year for me; I’ve given up on 2020 and am chasing other goals).

  5. Interesting data! The competitive nature and atmosphere of races is definitely the top reason virtual races haven’t appealed to me. As someone who is generally gunning for a PR or at least to push myself harder than I can on a solo training run, virtual races aren’t worth the money to me. I see why they appeal for some people though- especially when it’s a series of races! I also understand supporting a local store (PR Running is the best!) & keeping a tradition going. 😊

  6. Wow and interesting assessment with a scientific perspective in your survey. I didn't go thru it fine-point, but I suspect what keeps runners running the training towards some virtual is simply to keep habit and consistency going, so you don't loose too much conditioning when time comes again for real live racing.

    Certainly some small scale and local races likely can resume like the one you went to started in small and separated waves, then practice the SD post-finish and no fancy ceremonies or crowds packed in post-race-celebrations. Cannot forsee any major marathon going on that fields thousands of runners, and more so, runners come from around the world and across entire US. No way to do that until the positivity rate nil and/or vaccine developed and in wide use.

    One comment caught my attention "qualifying for Boston" but I don't see any way to qualify for Boston in a virtual race scenario.

    But you Zebra are the real answer to why and/or the value of virtual racing. Your posts tell it all. keeps you focused, training for something, and running it to your virtual and unofficial best! And that says a lot about your character and spirit!

  7. This was a really interesting survey, thanks for putting it together. When looking at the results and thinking about how it could be applied going forward, I would like to understand more about how statistical significance comes into it. You said this at the beginning:

    "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."

    Could you elaborate on how statistical significance comes into play here? What do you mean and how should we think about that?

    1. I'm happy to discuss that with you, but I'd need some clarification. Please reach out to me on any of my social channels and we can chat!

  8. Very interesting read, thanks for gathering and sharing the data. It's complicated. A lot of runners want to get back into racing (me!). I just don't know how many races will be able to come back. Locally, I know that our race directors would like to return to racing (their livelihood depends on it!), but state and city guidelines don't allow for events large enough to make the race profitable. We have some loose data on outdoor gatherings that seem to indicate that they're relatively low transmission events, but Louisiana is focused on containing our second wave while allowing schools to reopen. With that as our priority (which I totally support - I get it - the kids have to go back to school!), a lot of other things have simply had to be parked for now. I talked to a RD I know and he is hesitant even if we move to phase three or beyond - he doesn't want to invest in an event just to see the state pull back to a prior phase. I'm definitely worried about these clubs and organizations going out of business. I hope the running community can find a way to support those who have put so much of their lives and talents into the racing scene!

    1. I agree that the top priority is schools. We should focus on getting those to re-open. One of the best reasons to do a virtual race is to support a race organization financially. I, too, am worried that some of our favorite races will never come back or our favorite courses will be forever run on paths instead of roads. I totally understand the race director perspective of not wanting to invest in a live race for fear that the government officials could change their minds and pull the permits at any time.

  9. Long past the date but my PT and I have talked about virtual racing, she has no interest in them and nor do I. For what the shirt? Who cares... While I have not asked her for her reasons and and it is January 2021 with the virus spiking, I still think racing outdoors in 100% fine! The virus is spread mostly indoor private homes.

    Lets have a stay outdoors order, nobody allowed in their homes for 3 weeks. Learn how to make a camp fire if you are cold like they did in ancient times.

    It's crazy what is going on and sad. I'm starting to feel like I'm getting back to normal and I just want the bs to end. I'm tired of hearing about COVID and I had to lose work just recently because of clowns partying that got COVID and the health department shut my store down because of them. Fortunately we'll be back open this weekend for business!! I was COVID free from my PCR test!