A Dedicated Runner’s Perspective on Virtual Events

 

Running USA member Patrick Stiegman has fully embraced running through the challenges of 2020. He shares his thoughts on races and engaging mid-pack athletes.

Patrick Stiegman knows sports, and he’s personally passionate about running. As ESPN’s Vice President and Editorial Director, Global Digital Content, he oversees the development of ESPN’s digital editorial content around the world.  Stiegman is an individual member of Running USA and volunteer board member of the Hartford Marathon Foundation.

When not immersed in global sports content, you can find Stiegman logging miles on the roads and trails near his Connecticut home. Since picking up running in less than a decade ago, Stiegman has completed more than 120 half marathons, 25 marathons and three IRONMAN 70.3-mile races since 2012. He has finished four Boston Marathons, five New York City Marathons, two Marine Corps Marathons and two Walt Disney World Marathons, including runDisney’s “Dopey Challenge” in 2019.

In 2020, he managed to complete a few in-person races early in the year, but since March he’s been fully focused on virtual events. You can read in detail about his experiences, including the virtual Boston Marathon, below. Here are a few of the key takeaways he shared for race directors – from runner’s perspective.

Lean into the advantages of virtual as opposed to treating it like a second-class event,” he suggests from a sports business standpoint. “Don’t think of virtual just as just an alternative right now because we can’t run in person. This is an alternative and complimentary part of your business.”

A few other key takeaways:

  • Technology matters. How easy is it for participants to submit their times and race data? Clunky app experiences are a deterrent for future participation.
  • Check your shipping times! Events are anti-climatic for participants when their medals or other swag doesn’t arrive in a timely fashion.
  • Flexibility is a key attractant for runners: the more flexible you can be with your event setup, the more likely runners are to participate.

Stiegman hopes that his first in-person race back will be the 125th Boston Marathon, although he suspects that it may more likely be a local HMF race. Read on to gain more of his insights.

What were your factors for selecting virtual events?

Stiegman: I managed to run a handful of in-person races early in the year (a pair of half marathons in Central Park and the Rock n Roll New Orleans Half in February) before the pandemic completely disrupted the race calendar. At first, I was looking for races that could be still staged in person as other events were being canceled or postponed – I had been scheduled to run the RnR DC Marathon in March, as a tune-up for what would have been my fourth straight Boston Marathon in April. As those two races moved to the fall, I sought to capitalized on my training with another in-person marathon – at the time, the Maine Coast Marathon was still scheduled in early May, so I registered. Within a week, that race was understandably converted to a virtual marathon – and I decided to go for it, even virtually. I had completed both the NYC Half and the Queens Half virtually as those in-person races were transitioned, so against my better judgment, I took off on the Farmington River Trail (near my home), where I knew I could run with social distance, and embarked on my first solo 26.2-mile “race.”

As the race calendar disintegrated in the subsequent weeks, I decided I would both run those scheduled races that were being converted to virtual, but also started signing up for other events to fill those long run weekends, especially if they were races I wouldn’t normally be able to run because of travel demands, or if they had unique distances, had compelling charitable elements or offered unique opportunities (such as the multi-distance IRONMAN series).

How many did you participate in, and tell us about a couple of your favorites and why those experiences were memorable?

Stiegman: I’ve run more than 40 virtual races over the past six months – I’ve literally raced every weekend since mid-March, and in many weeks, did multiple races (typically shorter events on Thursday and Friday, a longer race on Saturday). That’s included 17 virtual half marathons, 2 full marathons (Maine Coast and the rescheduled-turned-virtual Boston), an IRONMAN 70.3, two 18-mile races, a 20-miler, and countless 10Ks, 5Ks and sprint and Olympic duathlons. I also have several long-distance races ahead me on the calendar, including the virtual Hartford Marathon this weekend, virtual NYC Marathon in November, another IRONMAN 70.3 in December and runDisney’s amazing Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half and full marathon) in early January.

Certainly the two most memorable were the Boston Marathon and virtual IRONMAN 70.3. Boston was mentally exhausting, honestly: after the disappointment of the initial postponement, at least hope remained (at the time) of an in-person Boston Marathon on a Monday in September. When that was ultimately converted to virtual, it decisively underscored that I would be unlikely to do race in-person events for the remainder of 2020 -- and perhaps beyond. It was bittersweet. While fully supporting the B.A.A.’s decision (in conjunction with local authorities) to first postpone then go fully virtual, it was also a visceral gut-check. No anxious bus trip to the start line in Hopkinton, no Wellesley scream tunnel, no Heartbreak Hill, no Citgo sign, no right on Hereford and left on Boylston to a heart-pounding finish line. Was it worth all the effort to train for a virtual event, especially given the iconic nature of Boston?

That question was answered affirmatively and decisively when I crossed a virtual finish line (I had vinyl prints of the pdf version of the start/finish lines B.A.A. had sent to runners, and had a running friend place them on the trail and snap some finish photos). Social media allowed me to “share” my experience with fellow Boston runners and Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge teammates (the fundraising for the Dana-Farmer Cancer Institute was a vital and motivating factor in my commitment to run) and hell yeah, I still got to wear the Boston Marathon Celebration Jacket after the race. As for the IRONMAN races, I actually discovered a silver-lining in the virtual events: I had finished two previous 70.3 events, including IRONMAN 70.3 in Muskoka, Canada in 2017, but I’m a runner first, a biker second and a swimmer … well, not at all. Both of my previous 70.3 races were duathlons -- IRONMAN doesn’t offer many du options, but understandably, all of the virtual events were duathlons. So I was actually able to replace the swim leg with runs – in the case of IRONMAN VR9 70.3, that translated to a 5K run, 56-mile bike and a half marathon. Though challenging as a solo effort, it’s supposed to be hard – that’s what makes the accomplishment so satisfying, and richly rewarding. I have another 70.3 on the calendar, and did a number of IRONMAN sprint and Olympic races over recent months (as well as virtual duathlons offered by USA Triathlon). So IRONMAN, if you’re listening, take note of virtual participation numbers, and offer MORE duathlon options when in-person racing returns.

Did you find it easier or harder to stay motivated to train and then “race” during lockdown?

Stiegman: In many cases, I converted my training runs into races. So when I had an 18 or 20-mile run on the calendar in advance of the virtual marathons, I sought out race vendors who offered unique distance challenges – so rather than just a 20-mile run, I registered for the Air Force 19.47 Mile Challenge, offered by Run Fierce as part of their Military Series. A great charity supported, a nice medal to show for my efforts, and added spice to an otherwise pedestrian long run. I’ve always appreciated quality, creative or iconic medals, and so I sought out races with cool or distinctive swag as added motivation. I also found participating in endurance challenges and team efforts that stretched over weeks or months to be added incentive – just checking the box and updating my pace and distances on a daily basis. For me, it started with WeRunCt, a virtual challenge launched by the Hartford Marathon Foundation. The goal was to encourage people to collectively run the equivalent of every square mile of Connecticut (5,018 miles), and wthin three weeks, more than 1,250 participants ran the state of Connecticut 14 times over -- covering the square mileage of all of New England, approximately 71,500 miles. That led to a number of ongoing challenges for me – running the distance of the Subway system in New York City, running the beaches of Connecticut and Rhode Island, running virtually across my home state of Wisconsin. And of course, DMSE Sports’ Medford2Medford challenge, a team effort collectively recreating the grueling 80-day, 3,452-mile race across the continental US that founder Dave McGillivray ran in 1978 (and his run was definitely NOT virtual). Again, these challenges add shared fun, and make every mile seem more meaningful, something more communal, and mutually inspiring.

What were some of the best practices you developed personally for a great virtual run?

Stiegman: Before I ran my first marathon (MCM in 2012), I used to subscribe to that old running adage “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” While not innately a runner, however, it’s become both a healthy pursuit and a passion --  I’ve run 25 marathons, more than 120 half marathons and, this past weekend surpassed 15,000 total miles run. I’m still relatively “new” to the sport, but my motto from the beginning, whether committing to my training schedule, running when I just didn’t feel it or always covering the planned distance rather than cutting training short, has been “That’s the discipline.” My role as Editorial Director for Global Digital Content at ESPN requires substantial international travel, and I’ve been fortunate to run on six continents along the way – but the pandemic slammed the brakes. So running has been therapeutic, both mentally and physically, and telecommuting has allowed me more flexibility in slotting longer runs, leading to the heaviest mileage in my relatively short running “career.” Virtual racing provided added incentive to keep  moving and honor that discipline – not only does it support an industry in desperate need, but I appreciate the added rewards, both literal and figurative.

Of course, there’s a been a saturation of virtual events in recent months, both from in-person races converting to virtual, and others operating exclusively in the virtual space. What’s your differentiator? How can you make your race stand out, either tapping into the tradition of the event, the quality of amenities you can provide, the commitment to charity and community or customer service (which is paradoxically challenging given the impact reduced races and revenue have had on staffing)? All runners have their own criteria. Some love race shirts and medals, others couldn’t care less. Some want frequent-running rewards that can be converted into discounted merchandise or future race credits, some just want to hit the streets. Some want to extend running streaks, others want deferrals. Some crave the social interaction of in-person races, others crave affirmation on social media. How can race directors cater to needs?

For me, that means make the race registration process simple, have transparent instructions, support multiple apps/vendors or allow a manual option for uploading finishing times, offer flexibility in terms of when/where I can run virtually, and send me a nice tech race shirt and a classy medal – and if possible deliver them to me before I race, not sent in the mail months later. If I’ve had one complaint around virtual races is that the delivery of race medals and other amenities has been wildly erratic, based on each race organizer. Obviously, the pandemic has impacted delivery services, but with few exceptions, I’ve sought out virtual races that essentially guarantee that the race medal will arrive in advance of the “scheduled” race day, or allow you to run the race on your own terms once the medal is delivered. There’s nothing more anticlimactic than finishing a half or full marathon … and then having the medal arrive in the mail six weeks later. Really, what’s the point? The swag distinguishes a race from a training run.

I’ve actually registered for virtual races, ignored the proposed race date, and delayed running the event until I have the medal in hand. I’ve also run several half marathons on the scheduled date, then re-run them once the medal arrived. It’s a way to celebrate the accomplishment. To me, having a tangible reward after running 13.1 or 26.2 miles is motivating. It’s actually one of the things I love about crossing the finish line at in-person race – the ceremonial draping of the lanyard around your neck. Hey, this was real. You did it. That validation of real accomplishment is, in some ways, even more important in virtual events.

I strongly encourage race directors to take that into consideration with virtual offerings. That said, while I miss the in-person camaraderie and conviviality of races, the shared sense of accomplishment and even the anxious moments with fellow travelers in a crowded corral as I wonder (every time!) whether I can actually reach the finish line, virtual racing has some unexpected  benefits, especially flexibility. I can determine my own start time and location, no stressful travel, I can sleep in my own bed the night before the run, I can determine the route and elevation chart of a given run based on how I’m feeling, and – OK, so I’m going to say it – no long port-a-potty lines, and I can always be sure there will be toilet paper.

How has participating in virtual events changed or impacted your thoughts about running or the running industry?

Stiegman: I have sincere appreciation for challenges faced by race organizers, and in most cases, the deep passion they have for the sport and the participants. Events that lead to mass gatherings, such as road races and concerts, are certain to be among the last to return, even as the sports calendar had repopulated and the U.S. and the world reopen various businesses. In the world of running, it is the races operated by smaller local event organizers -- from fund-raising 5Ks and 10Ks to fully staged half marathons and marathons -- that are under the most financial duress.

While I fully understand – and have experienced – the disappointment of having a destination race or bucket list event deferred, cancelled or converted to virtual, I also fully appreciate that those conclusions are not arrived at lightly – the last thing a race director or its sponsors want to do is cancel an event. Not only does that result in lost income, its antithetical to both the business and philosophical purposes of staging races. I give no quarter to social media mobs that harass race directors for making safe, smart, thoughtful and pragmatic decisions. That said, I’ve found race directors that are transparent with the decision-making process, engage runners through surveys or social channels in advance of the outcome and offer maximum possible  flexibility in terms of race deferrals or virtual conversions to be most successful.

I also appreciate the creativity and non-comfort-zone ingenuity many race organizers have displayed in keeping runners engaged, bringing new runners into the fold (clearly runners who might not otherwise feel comfortable attempting an in-person race have found virtual running a great first step into the sport, literally) and supporting the broader community. For the Hartford Marathon, by way of example, every penny of the $25 individual race registration fee will be donated to charity. That not only supports urgent local needs, it engenders goodwill among runners and non-runners, and reinforces HMF’s standing in the community.

Speaking specifically about the running industry and as a decorated journalist, what is your perspective of the extreme challenges the running sector faces right now and into the foreseeable future?

Stiegman: In May, we posted a story on ESPN.com headlined “Running on empty: Coronavirus has changed the course for races big and small.” Beyond the obvious human toll, the pandemic stripped much of the world of live sport in the spring and early summer. Where sport has returned most successfully, it’s been in controlled environments (for example, the NBA’s “bubble” solution at Walt Disney World in Orlando, the NHL in Canada, even the Indian Premier League cricket tournament relocated to the United Arab Emirates), with limited or no fans in attendance and with unwavering commitment to social distancing, masking and coronavirus protocols.

While it was encouraging to see elite runners take the streets of London for the marathon last weekend, a year in which Boston, New York, Berlin and Chicago were forced to cancel or convert world marathon majors has been particularly challenging for professional runners – and for all the understandable optimism, we still can’t be certain that the Tokyo Olympics, postponed from 2020, will actually take place in the summer of 2021. So the impact on professional and elite athletes is undeniable. For middle-of-the-packers like me – I was part of the biggest marathon field ever, with 53,000+ finishers in the 2019 New York City Marathon, my fifth time completing NYC – it’s difficult to project the exact date on the horizon that tens of thousands of runners will be able to gather safely to run major marathons or half marathons, short of a widely distributed vaccine or other significant coronavirus developments. A number of smaller races have been successfully staged, with distanced corrals, mask requirements, no aid stations and limited or no pre- and post-race amenities. I applaud those efforts, but are they  sustainable? What’s the return on investment for the race directors? How comfortable will runners feel even in smaller gatherings? Those are entirely subjective answers.

Which brings me back to virtual races. While not ideal, these virtual events have helped fill the void on many of our running calendars, and can be part of a sustained business operation, even as in-person racing ultimately returns. While the Walt Disney World Marathon and attendant events will be virtual in January, runDisney has successfully held virtual races for five years –  even while operating races with thousands of runners attending in Orlando, Anaheim, Paris and elsewhere. While virtual racing has been, in most cases, the only viable option for runners in 2020, it’s not a zero-sum game – all “virtual” or all “real.” This is more than just salve on the open wound of 2020. Even as in-person racing returns, virtual events can both provide supplementary revenue streams for race operators and offer challenging and unique companion options for runners – even allowing those distanced by geography and time zones to “run” races from anywhere in the world. It’s a focus group of one, but virtual racing is now a staple in my running routine, and will continue to complement my calendar even when the corrals finally re-open, the start gun fires and, once again, I’m able cross an actual finish line.