The rise of virtual races

A race without time constraints, other runners, or even a set route might seem a bit pointless. But then again, perhaps lack of competition and the emphasis on meeting your own goals is the perfect antidote to starting-line jitters, portable toilets, and the bellow of “to the right!” as you get lapped yet again. The rise in popularity of the “virtual race” suggests that lots of us are loving this slower, calmer alternative.

There are now numerous companies and not-for-profit organisations offering virtual running experiences and, while the details vary, the concept is the same: pay money, run the distance whenever and wherever you feel like it, and get the medal in the post. While some organisers demand that the run is completed within a certain week or month, and require a photo or app screenshot as proof, others are more relaxed and work on trust – they don’t even insist you run the distance in one go, allowing you to break it up into as many runs, jogs or walks as you need.

So, without the elements of a traditional race, what’s the appeal? Well, for one thing, if you are new to running, it is a great way to stay motivated and build your confidence. Having a target, no matter how small, can be the difference between lacing up your trainers, or a night in watching TV in your pyjamas. Virtual races are especially good for people who live in remote areas, work unsociable hours, or have children or other commitments that mean they are unable to predict their windows for running, but who still want the thrill of cold, hard metal in their hands at the end of it.

While I enjoy the adrenaline and camaraderie of a race (and the extra push granted by both), sometimes there is nothing like escaping the crowds, and being alone. And I do enjoy a “race” where I don’t have to navigate past the crowds … OK, OK – a race where I’m not left for dust by everyone else.

Of course, there is also the feel-good glow, as many of them are designed to raise money for charities and don’t require you to go cap in hand asking colleagues for sponsorship. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, some of these medals are tiny works of art, and there’s nothing quite like coming home to find one waiting for you on the doormat. Cue a victory lap of the hallway.

Five to try

The Hogwarts Running Club

This American group raises thousands of dollars for good causes ranging from animal shelters to literacy charities. As you may have guessed, the races are all Harry Potter-themed and the medals are stunning. My personal favourite was the super-kitsch pink Umbridge Run medal from earlier this year, featuring a moving cat hologram. Another plus? The geeky camaraderie in the Facebook group – Ravenclaw for the win. Earn house points by signing up for races and turning on the Charity Miles app en route to raise extra funds for good causes. Medal costs vary, but are usually between $30 and $54 (about £22-£40). Pricey but worth it.

Virtual Runner UK

Cheap and cheerful medals from a range of charities with different distances (usually 5k or 10k), plus you can suggest your own good causes for future events. You will need to submit proof of your race, but you are allowed to walk if running isn’t appealing – as long as you cover the distance. Cost: usually between £7.50 and £12.


Another American company, with jaw-dropping medals. These races cover longer distances and are designed to be broken down into short runs as you fancy – unless you’re a distance runner or masochist (perhaps one and the same?). The themes are either literary – for example, Alice in Wonderland’s journey through Oxford, or a jaunt through Baltimore with Edgar Allan Poe – or geographical, including safaris in Africa or the 59.5 mile road to Hana in Hawaii, which takes you down the beautiful Hana Highway. The best bit is that, as you type in your latest stats, it will show you real images from the area and track your progress on a virtual map. Cost: $25.

Moon Joggers

This community was originally set up to log enough collective miles to run to the moon. It succeeded so the goals got bigger. Now the challenge is to get to Mercury – a whopping 48m miles. To join in, you can walk, jog or run, and add your miles to the tally. You can either pay a charity fee and receive a T-shirt, medal and other goodies for $36, or sign up for the free option and just get running.

Run Mummy Run

What began as a tiny Facebook group has now surged to almost 25,000. It’s a closed group with great team spirit, and it holds monthly virtual races – leave the kids with a sitter and sign up now for the summer 10k challenge, which costs £12 and will raise money for Asthma UK.

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