This was supposed to be a milestone year for Kate Kelly.

Not only was the 63-year-old from Cumberland planning to compete in her 13th consecutive Tri for a Cure in July, but she was also going to fulfill a goal she’s had for many decades by completing her first Ironman triathlon, in Lake Placid, New York.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many race organizers in Maine and beyond to postpone or cancel their events. Some, like the Ironman in New York, have yet to make a decision, although Kelly said she plans to skip the event should it be held.

“I had been training for that since November, six days a week, very rigorously,” Kelly said. “It hasn’t canceled, but I can’t imagine going to Lake Placid amongst all those people.”

Meanwhile, the Tri for a Cure – a women’s triathlon in Portland that benefits the Maine Cancer Foundation – has joined a growing list of events statewide that have gone virtual. The Old Port Half Marathon & 5K, which annually draws close to 6,000 runners and is the state’s second largest road race, is also going virtual.

With social distancing measures in place, as well as restrictions on gatherings of large crowds, virtual races are becoming more popular.

Virtual races offer athletes flexibility and convenience. Athletes who sign up choose when and where they wish to compete, then upload their finish times (using the honor system) and await the results.

It’s a far cry from traditional races, but the pandemic has forced organizers to rethink how to hold races, particularly ones that draw large crowds of competitors and onlookers.

Just how popular are these races?

There are at least 15 virtual road races scheduled in May and June in Maine, according to runsignup.com, a national online registration service for events.

Johanna Goode, a RunSignup spokesperson, said virtual races comprise at least 90 percent of registrations nationwide as many Americans are sheltering in place because of the pandemic.

“We did have one large virtual race that had more than 10,000 runners the last couple of years,” Goode said. “But it was more of an exception than a rule. For the most part, the companies that existed that were doing virtual races, there were a handful of companies that would do them that would build their campaign around having cool swag, medals and t-shirts for people who generally were newer runners, or didn’t have access to races, or that kind of thing. Or, they were a virtual option tied to a real race. If I run the Philadelphia Marathon for five years, and then I move somewhere else, I could sign up for the virtual edition and participate anyways … I would say (virtual races) were mostly a niche thing for people who enjoyed them, but they were not something that most people were signing up for.

“It’s definitely a mix right now of new events, some of which are just straight virtual races. Some of them are cool challenge ideas. It’s a mix of new events that are being put on by race organizers who can’t put on their regular events, as well as events that aren’t happening doing virtual races instead. Last week, the top 20 races on our site for transaction volume, 18 of them were new virtual races, and one was a previously real race that converted to virtual. We think about 90 percent of our (races) currently happening are virtual.”

Gardiner Area High School track and field coach Jen Boudreau said she’s long competed in virtual races and isn’t surprised of the new-found popularity.

Jen Boudreau and her daughter, Izzy Boudreau, go for a run on May 15 in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I used to do them,” Boudreau said. “You would earn medals, you’d pay into some kind of fundraiser, something like that. It was cool, but then I kind of got out of it because I was like, ‘Well I can just go to a road race.’ Now that obviously races can’t happen, I get it and understand the need to continue to do stuff, because running isn’t canceled and neither is walking, so we should just keep on doing that, what we love.”

Not every race will provide a virtual option: The TD Beach to Beacon 10k, for example, will not be held this summer. Organizers issued a statement saying going virtual just wasn’t an option.

“There is no single vision of what constitutes a “virtual” race and we did not identify an ideal option for the TDB2B10K,” the statement read. “Additionally, shipping and supply chains remain interrupted and we have concerns about being able to reliably ship t-shirts as part of a virtual event.”

The race, which began in 1998 and was scheduled for Aug. 1, was expecting more than 6,500 participants.

GOING VIRTUAL

Emily Woodward, 47, of Topsham, has run four half marathons, none more unique than the virtual Maine Coast Half Marathon on May 9.

“I signed up for a ton of races, but then all of them got canceled or have gone virtual, Woodward said. “I signed up for the Maine Coast half because of the ocean views, but that wasn’t going to happen anymore. I decided to do the race on that day it was going to happen, on May 9, and that’s the day it snowed. At first I thought, ‘maybe Ill map out a scenic route in Brunswick and go down by the water,’ but then I said I’d just do it in my neighborhood because it was gross out.”

Woodward did loops around the Mt. Ararat Middle School, visited the new high school construction site and then headed home, where her children — Jack and Maggie Whalen – awaited with a sign and a medal.

“It was hilarious,” Emily said.

Nokomis Regional High School in Newport annually holds a benefit spring run. This year, the school looked to raise money for the Yellow Tulip Project, a nonprofit in Portland that aims to “smash the stigma” of mental illness.

“NHS chooses a foundation to get involved with, and this year it was the Yellow Tulip Project,” Nokomis teacher and race committee member Lisa Kelley said. “During the year, we work toward having one big (event) for it. But to have it canceled was almost devastating. We were talking during a virtual meeting, and I threw out ‘Can people just run anywhere and just post their times?’ And it just kind of went. I didn’t even know virtual runs were a thing. And then my coadvisor said ‘Yes, people can do a virtual run.’ We went from there, and we just went for it.”

Jack Whalen, right and sister Maggie Whalen pose with their mom, Emily Woodward, after Emily completed the virtual Maine Coast Half Marathon on May 9. Emily ran the race in her Topsham neighborhood. The race was one of many that went virtual this spring and summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Submitted photo

Another race forced to go virtual was the annual Run for Independence, which was held May 16 in Brunswick and put on by the Independence Association, which provides support and services to families living with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Maine.

Race director Carlene Hill Byron said there were plenty of factors for making the event virtual.

“The first (element) was the unpredictability of rescheduling,” Byron said. “Talking with other race directors that were balancing dates – even well outside into the summer, and that’s even if they’re able to run their events. So we would look at possible reschedule dates, and know that people were feeling uncertain whether it would allowable to gather, or even if it were allowable to gather, if people would feel comfortable gathering.

“Another (issue), because we are a provider of residential services to people with disabilities, our clients look forward to this event every year, and because we are keeping people safe and well, they’re pretty cabin-fevered, like all the rest of us,” Byron added. “Having a fun event that we can look forward to and participate in and see each other – even if it’s only on Facebook and in the Zoom after party – is a great way to give, especially our residential clients, something to look forward to get them outdoors and moving about.”

Boudreau, of Gardiner, is working in conjunction with her church – Christ Episcopal Church in Gardiner – on a virtual road race, with proceeds going to a school in Haiti.

“We’re going to start in June for a one-week period,” Boudreau said. “We’re going to have shirts made up that say ‘Running is not canceled.’ (The shirts) are pretty big and bold and they’re awesome. Walkers will get (a t-shirt that says) ‘Walking is not canceled.'”

The Tri for a Cure is the Maine Cancer Foundation’s annual major event. According to the foundation, the triathlon drew more than 10,000 athletes and raised nearly $10 million between 2008-2016. The event was scheduled for July 19, but chief planner Julia Bachelder said moving the virtual event to August gives participants more time to train and prepare.

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland traditionally hosts the event. Logistical issues prevented the event from being held in September.

“We have an amazing host in Southern Maine Community College,” Bachelder said. “We take over their campus for essentially three days. In the fall, when the students come back on campus, we just can’t do that.”

Bachelder said there was confidence in turning the Tri for a Cure into a virtual event after an earlier event connected to the MCF – Mary’s Walk and the Kerryman Pub 5K on March 20 in Saco – also went virtual, earning some positive feedback. The MCF used a Facebook page to encourage participants to post photos, times and stories for what was motivating them to participate.

“The feedback was really awesome, we were floored,” Bachelder said. “It was definitely a very unique situation, and while it was disappointing for participants (not to do the event together) and it was disappointing for us – it brought in less money than we had hoped or what is typical for that event – it did bring in a sizable donation. But it was neat, because we got to interact directly with participants. There were definitely a lot of silver linings (for that event).”

PROS AND CONS OF VIRTUAL RACES

There are drawbacks to virtual races, from the loss of race-day camaraderie with fellow competitors, to crowd support, and, in the case of a triathlon, finding places to train safely.

A triathlon is a demanding sport that features running, biking and swimming.

It’s the latter that presents a few challenges.

Jana Grant, 36, of South Portland, plans on competing in the Tri for a Cure. She said training for the swim portion of that race — one-third of a mile — has been difficult, as area swim centers are closed and the ocean is still too cold.

“I’d say the swim (training) has been the most impacted,” said Grant, who finds motivation from the memory of her sister, Jill Richards Landers, who died three years ago after a 6-year battle with brain cancer. “I had just kind of gotten back into the pool when Covid hit, so I’ve really done very little swim training. I’ve had to adjust my training schedule to be a lot more running. I do a lot of indoor cycling and luckily my gym that I go to – Crisp in Scarborough – has been wonderful and has let us take spin bikes home and is offering online virtual classes. So I’ve been able to be pretty active with biking and running, and I’m adding in some strength training to kind of supplement that stuff, because I know I’m not getting as much as I typically would this time of the year.

“(The Tri for a Cure) is more than a race. I do a lot of races throughout the year and this is certainly one that’s more than a race. It’s an experience, it’s an event, it’s the emotion that comes with the day that really is the important part of it.”

Added Goode, a RunSignup spokesperson: “I would say some of the cons are, you kind of lose out on the experience of being with people and kind of having one big cumulation thing where there’s no crowds, there’s no one cheering you on, and those kinds of things can’t really be replaced.”

Woodward agreed, saying race-day crowds help motivate runners.

“They keep you going,” she said. “Doing it by by myself, it was a little lackluster. But it was fun. I’ll be doing more (virtual) races.”

Triathlete Kate Kelly of Cumberland poses with her bike at her Cumberland home on Thursday. Kelly will compete in the virtual Tri for a Cure this summer. The 13th edition of the event has gone virtual this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

However, competitors can use social media to stay connected with each other.

“The benefits — and this is applies no matter what but I think is real important right now — is a lot of people are able to sign up for an event with family and friends that they can’t see right now,” Goode said. “So they might not be able to see them at race day because they’re in two different states and they can call each other before their run and get on Zoom when they get back and talk about how it went. They can have a little bit more of a community feeling from a little bit more of a distance, because you don’t have to be in the same place to participate, you can do it anywhere.”

WAY OF THE FUTURE?

While the popular trend leans toward attending a road race full of participants, both Goode and Bachelder see a future where a virtual option may be open to runners who either cannot attend a race the day it’s scheduled or are uncomfortable with getting right back into a loaded field of runners when social distancing rules ease.

“Everyone is going to come back to have the same in-person event, hopefully, next year,” Bachelder said. “But I think we could continue to see virtual components of these events moving forward.”

“I think there’s two ways that we will see some of this continue at a much higher rate than we did before,” Goode added. “First, is a lot of these events that didn’t previously have a virtual option – or that did and that wasn’t used very much – I think that as an option for a race will become a lot more popular, since people will kind of realize they can do races along with their friends and family when they aren’t in the same place. I also think there’s been a lot of cool challenge events. There’s (The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1000K) – which is a 4-month, 1,000K race out of Tennessee – that has 18,000 (participants), and stuff like that, where it’s a longer-term goal-type virtual event … I think those will also still kind of have their own place, even when there’s real races.”

 

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer


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