Runners find motivation with virtual races

Runners find motivation with virtual races

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McCoy-Sports -TJ Gray-2020

T.J. Gray takes a virtual run at the Canalway Trail in Pendleton on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

When T.J. Gray started running about two years ago, it was to knock a 5K off his bucket list. At age 46, he didn’t train all that much, but he enjoyed the race, thought he had a pretty decent time, and figured he could do even better if he started training.

Signing up for races became a way for him to stay motivated. It’s more difficult to blow off a run if you know that you’ve already invested in a race in a few weeks.

“I always signed up for something long-term to keep my motivation after I caught the runner’s bug,” said Gray, who lives in Lockport.

But what to do when all the races were canceled? How could Gray find his motivation?

Enter the world of virtual races.

“I started to see all these virtual races and that gave me motivation,” Gray said. “They would send me a medal in the mail and a T-shirt. I mean, as long as I get a T-shirt, that’s motivation. And I can improve my time.”

With races canceled, postponed or in a still to-be-determined status, runners are turning to virtual races to fill the void, satisfy their competitive side and stay motivated to keep moving during stay at home orders.

Virtual races work in a number of ways.

More traditional virtual races include a registration fee that goes toward a finisher’s medal and T-shirt, and often a donation to a nonprofit organization. Participants usually have a time frame in which to complete their distance then submit their time. At the close of the race, winners are announced in age categories, just like at an actual race.

Girls on the Run is taking a different approach to its 5K on June 7. Race day for the organization has always been a celebration, not a competition, with the emphasis on getting out, running, challenging yourself and supporting your friends.

While typically the program is run for girls in third through eighth grades at school sites throughout Western New York, the national office and local chapter have adapted lessons that girls can do at home with their parents. The idea is to get moving and explore the link between activity and both physical and mental health.

In the spirit of the program, their virtual 5K, which will be held on June 7, has no registration fee and does not keep track of participants' finishing times. Instead, they ask people to take photos and tag Girls on the Run Buffalo on social media.

“We know everybody is hurting financially and we want to open this up to everyone,” said Katie Joyce, council director for Girls on the Run Buffalo. “We’re encouraging people to register so we can keep track of everyone, and we’re doing giveaways each week. We’re sharing fun ways to create your own 5K at home and ways to stay motivated.

“We’re asking people to post a picture. A lot of people walk it. Some will be indoors on a treadmill. Some might not do the whole 5K. And all those are OK. We really just want to encourage people to physically move, to have fun, to do something enjoyable with your family. Our whole mission is to encourage girls. We don’t want to focus on time but on the experience.”

For those interested in a different kind of experience, the minds behind the timing company Score This!!! have come up with a virtual distance race from May 15 to Sept. 15.

Called the NYSVR434 – for New York State Virtual Race 434 – participants register and upload their distances over the four-month period. The 434 stands for the distance, in miles, from Niagara Square in Buffalo to Times Square in New York City.

Participants, who can choose to run/walk, bike, or even swim (yes swim) their distances, have five distances to choose from: Niagara Square to Rochester (70 miles), Niagara Square to Syracuse (150 miles), Niagara Square to Albany (290 miles), Niagara Square to Times Square (434 miles), and Niagara Square to Times Square and back (868 miles).

The entry fee pays for a finisher’s medal and a shirt with organizers guaranteeing that at least $5 per entry will be donated to FeedMore WNY.

Virtual races don’t excite every runner. There’s something about lining up with other people. There’s a camaraderie among runners. Running with other people can push you to run faster. Running with other people allows for commiseration at the end of a long race when everything hurts and you think you’re dying.

But they do provide an outlet. And for people like Gray, it’s helped not only his running motivation, but created something for the entire family. His 9-year-old son started running with him. They picked a race, printed out bibs, and his wife was their finish line to hand out medals.

“We’ve started walking more as a family,” Gray said. “We’ll go out for 2 or 3 miles and take in some fresh air. We signed up for a free 5K that’s a walk or a run, and we’re going to do that as a family. It’s brought us closer together.”

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