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Virtual Racing: The New Way to Raise Money and Attract Athletes

23 Dec, 2014

By: Tracey Schelmetic

With many things going virtual these days – shopping and gaming being two of the most obvious – it’s not surprising that many sporting events are disappearing into cyberspace. Virtual races, as they’re called, still require participants to actually run (or walk or ski or snowboard), but racers can accomplish the activity anywhere they please and enter their times online with other participants. It’s a particularly popular idea for races that raise money for charity: they generate cash for a good cause but don’t require much capital outlay on the part of race planners.

Notable upcoming virtual road races include the Polar Bear Run events, which are virtual races of 5k, 10k, and half marathon. The events are held between Saturday, December 20, 2014 and Sunday, December 28, 2014, and participants are invited to plot their own race courses.

“This is a virtual race, so run/walk/crawl where ever you are whenever you can. You can even complete this race on the treadmill,” wrote the event planners.

Participants are mailed a bib in advance of the race and a medal for completion afterwards. For the Polar Bear Run events, the money raised is donated to the Children’s Health Fund. The entrance fee is $30 ($25 for early registration). The family-friendly Polar Bear Run is followed, after New Year’s, by the appropriately named 2015 “Hangover Run,” which will raise money for the bone marrow and umbilical cord donation charity, “Be the Match.”

“Run for the Bling,” the charity organization that sponsors both the Hangover Run and the Polar Bear Run, features a long list of virtual races (including bike races) that raise money for a variety of different charities.

Obstacle Racing Media (ORM) recently announced it plans to make an annual event of its popular 2013 virtual “Cranky Bastard” 5k race. Its first race proved so popular that the group had to cap the number of participants (when it ran out of medals). Participants register online and pay a $25 entrance fee. Unlike the Polar Bear event (which runs on the honor system), “Cranky Bastard” participants are asked to prove their participation in the form of run tracking data, a GPS screenshot, phone picture, or other evidence. Participants are then ranked and mailed a medal.

The virtual race idea has also been seen in slope sports. Clothing giant the North Face, which sponsors the annual North Face Park and Pipe Open Series taking place at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia in mid-January this year, is debuting virtual races in 2015 in cooperation with the live event. Freeskiing athletes aged 14 and being invited to submit their best park and pipe runs online. Athletes, who will be able to register online in early January on North Face’s Web site, will be required to submit video of their participating runs.

“Virtual competition submissions will be voted online by peers, then judged by a panel using similar criteria as past PPOS events, evaluating progression, amplitude, variety, execution, and difficulty,” wrote the event’s planners. Winners will receive $10,000 in cash and other prizes.

The hype for many of these races, charity or otherwise, is often carried out on social media rather than on starting and finish lines (adding to its truly “virtual” nature). For race planners, it’s a chance to raise money or awareness, engage in marketing and boost social media engagement for very little upfront investment. Race planners often donate their services (for charity events), and they become a highly popular way for participants to donate, earn bragging rights on social media and get involved all at the same time…just not too involved. 

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