How Virtual Races Let Me Travel When We Can’t Actually Go Anywhere

When I joined my first online running club in 2018, I had no idea that virtual races would one day become the only option. I encountered Fanthropy Running Clubs through some accident of internet wizardry, and joined because it took only the click of a button.

That January I’d resolved to become a runner, and to find a running community to keep me motivated. But, the runners I’d seen breezing around my neighborhood in their matching club gear on Sunday mornings intimidated me. They seemed so fast, so strong, so… well, not like me.

I told myself I’d work up to it. That I’d go for an in-person group run when I could run a mile without stopping… two miles… okay, maybe three.

As I kept changing my excuse for avoiding in-person group runs, I fell in love with the Fanthropy online community and virtual racing along with it.

I spent a lot of time explaining my new hobby to people, since virtual races were then largely unknown.

We sign up for events on the honor system, getting the miles on our own time, either on the suggested run date or not. Each race supports a different charity partner and has its own unique theme with a medal and t-shirt to match.

And then, there are the real-time virtual races, exhilarating and exhausting 10-day events hosted on a platform called Racery.

During these events, participants join teams (each with their own name and avatar). When the race starts, each team members runs and walks intentional (not incidental to another activity, like grocery shopping or working retail) miles to speed our avatars along the virtual map and cross the finish line.

I watched the first events from afar, marveling at the all-encompassing nature of them. People just… moved, for 10 days straight, without seeming to stop or do anything else.

Crazy at looks from the outside, when I finally threw my Brooks running shoes into the Racery ring, it was love at first mile.

For those who haven’t used it before, the platform lets you map out a virtual race course pretty much anywhere you like as like as Google can map it. Why is Google maps a requirement, you ask? Well, that’s arguably the best part.

Whenever you log miles in Racery, there’s an option to pull up the Google Street View to see where you’ve landed yourself or your team along the course.

If I loved this feature in pre-pandemic times, that’s nothing compared with how logging my Racery miles feels now. Two years later, I’m as obnoxiously obsessed with these online virtual race events as ever, and suddenly it feels like the rest of the world is catching up.

When IRL races first began getting cancelled or switched to “virtual” in 2020, opinions were mixed, to say the least. Many were confused, some outraged, at the notion that you could earn your medal/shirt/sense of accomplishment without coming together physically.

And while I can certainly understand this argument for the competitive runners among us, concerned about factors impacting the validity of their race time and that of their peers, for me the idea was nothing new, at all.

As we entered months of sheltering in place, and my real life perambulations became limited to the streets around our house, I threw myself into Racery with renewed enthusiasm.

Suddenly, the Google street views weren’t just a fun perk. They let me feel like I was somewhere new, seeing new sights, going somewhere besides where I’d been the day before, and the day before that.

From my safe-at-home parameters, I traveled through Chile, Iceland, and more. Though I couldn’t go anywhere new in the real world, I could experience the sensation of a really long walk or run in another country through each mile drop.

When Fandom Running Club announced a yearlong Racery event for 2021, Fans Run the World, I became a real-life version of the “take my money” meme. A full year of “traveling” solo along a 365-mile virtual course through New Zealand, beginning in Hobbiton? I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

Since January 1st, I’ve taken walks and runs for over 100 miles and counting. Each time I log miles, I get to see myself move along the map in New Zealand, watching the countryside go by.

For that moment in my day, I can imagine my way into another country in a time when actually traveling to one isn’t an option. Though I may have gotten that mile doing loops around the quad at work, or on my treadmill in the basement, the 360 panoramas in Racery allow me to pretend my way into travel.

It lets me dream of a day when we can go new places again in a way that feels a little bit more concrete, a more active form of pretend. Each time I log miles, I get a little thrill of wondering where I’ll end up next, whether there will be any surprising landmarks or features.

With those first race postponements in 2020, I don’t think any of us imagined we’d be heading into February 2021 still wondering when safe, in person races would be a possibility again.

I know many of us who love the feel of toeing the starting line for an in-person race miss it terribly, and I certainly look forward to the day when I can run along a real course again, reading spectator signs and cheering on my fellow runners.

But for now, I’m grateful each time I see my little virtual avatar move along the map, and even though the course may be virtual, the distances my feet cover are real.

Pittsburgh-based writer & wearer of many metaphorical hats. Making words about self, health, books, travel, and more! She/her.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store