By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jogging solo in Florida in near 80 degree Fahrenheit heat, Theresa Winterhalter’s New York City Marathon experience last November looked much different to what you would expect from the world’s biggest marathon.
The 54-year-old was one of 424 people to finish the iconic race’s first “virtual marathon”, an event that race organizers are now expanding. The New York City Marathon will welcome unlimited, free enrolment in its virtual marathon this year, aiming to attract thousands of runners from across the globe.
“I think it’s critical that organizations look beyond the physical races,” Michael Capiraso, president and CEO of New York Road Runners, which hosts the marathon, told Reuters.
“It’s a great way to engage people around the world.”
With 52,813 finishers last year, the New York City Marathon is famously popular with amateurs and pros alike, attracting massive interest in its yearly lottery entry.
Capiraso said he was eager to draw in runners who might be unable to commit to the travel or expenses, and sees huge potential in virtual races.
“I think it’s really exciting where it’s headed and where it’s going to go,” said Capiraso. “People feel as though they are part of something.”
The plan is an extension of NYRR’s years-long push into virtual products, which have included a training program, and a virtual racing series launched last year that has so far seen over 57,000 finishers.
Virtual marathon participants will log their marathon miles through Strava, a social networking site geared toward athletes, choosing to run on the day of the marathon or one of the three days leading up to it.
“Our view is real world racing is never going to go away,” said David Lorsch, Strava’s vice president of strategy and business development. “(It’s an) opportunity to be motivated and connected through a digital experience.”
Winterhalter charted her precise route close to her Clearwater home in advance, which included a stop at a grocery store at mile 20, and finished her virtual race in a little over five hours last year.
By taking part in the virtual race, which last year was capped at 500 people and included a participation fee, she was guaranteed a spot in this year’s “real” race and she plans to be at the starting line in New York in November.
“When you try to string together 26.2 miles that you’re not just running on a track … it can get a bit challenging,” said Winterhalter.
“I knew that once I got started there was nothing that was going to stop me from finishing that distance.”
Registration for the virtual race opens June 19.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)