Virtual races attract many first-time participants drawn to convenience, flexibility

SINGAPORE – The coronavirus changed the world but not Wong Lay Hoon’s determination to compete again in ultramarathons.

While many live races have been cancelled due to the pandemic, the bank executive, who had surgery on her right anterior cruciate ligament in January, is back pounding the pavements. She has also found a new outlet for her passion – virtual runs – and is planning to take part in the Oct 12-Nov 15 Craze Ultra, a 100 mile (161km) virtual challenge.

Wong, 49, said: “Virtual runs give me something to work towards, which is better than not having anything (to train for). Without a goal or aim in mind, you won’t get that rush.”

She is not alone as many fitness enthusiasts have turned to the many digital alternatives available.

All 4,700 slots for the OCBC Cycle 2020 Virtual Ride, a free event, have been snapped up, while the remaining slots for The Straits Times Virtual Run (STVR) are selling out fast.

Almost 70 per cent of OCBC Cycle 2020 Virtual Ride’s participants are signing up for the first time, an increase from 40 per cent in previous editions.

Virtual races have also been well-received internationally, with the Virtual London Marathon selling out with over 45,000 general entries.

Senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School DrBoey Yew Tung attributed the popularity to the prominence of these mass sports participation events in recent years. There were 116 mass runs in Singapore last year.

Gyms and exercise studios expanding their online offerings in recent months has also helped to normalise virtual participation in workouts.

Dr Boey said: “At times in Singapore, there were more than two such events over a weekend, so people might be expecting this trend to continue.

“Now that it is possible to participate in virtual races, it is very likely that these factors motivated people to enthusiastically sign up for such races.”

Some have also joined virtual races for the first time as they find it less daunting as compared to a traditional one. The convenience and flexibility of these virtual races are another factor.

OCBC Cycle 2020 Virtual Ride participant Dennis Tan, who is a first-time participant of the OCBC Cycle, said: “One of the reasons I didn’t want to join previous editions is because it’s a huge event with many people and I was just afraid in terms of pace and number of people.

“I prefer virtual events, especially for first-timers. It’s a good platform because it allows you to gradually gain the confidence to join an event.”

HOW IT WORKS

Technology plays a much bigger role in virtual races than it does in traditional events as participants are required to track their runs, swims and bike rides on a GPS-tracking device.

Event management company Infinitus Productions, which is the organiser of the Star Wars Virtual Run South-east Asia and STVR, uses its own fitness technology platform, MOVE by LIV3LY, where participants can log their workouts and can see how much of each challenge they have completed on the app.

Others may rely on existing fitness applications such as Strava.

Infinitus Productions managing director Jeffrey Foo said: “We have a different set of challenges with technology as every phone model is built differently.

“But the benefits of technology is that you can almost bring (consumers) to any venue and it could earn you a slot in the physical event that is sold out worldwide.”

Some organisers like Togoparts.com, which has been organising virtual cycling challenges since 2016, have also come up with platforms that allow interactions between participants.

Gamification elements are also added to encourage and reward participants when they cross certain milestones, which is why its chief executive Evan Lee believes that virtual races can complement physical ones.

Holding the event online means that the production costs can be 40 per cent of those of traditional races, but the registration fee is also significantly lower, with sign-up fees often costing less than $20.

Organisers of virtual runs also have to mail race entitlements to participants, which means that a bulk of the budget goes towards courier service fees instead of logistics like tentages and barricades.

For many organisers, converting their events to a virtual format was done out of necessity.

As more traditional mass sports events have been cancelled or postponed this year, keeping races going will “help companies remain top of mind”, said Dr Boey.

He added: “Reinforcing brand awareness and recall are important tactics for companies especially when they cannot actively present themselves to the public when their regular mode of operations is severely curtailed.”

ARE VIRTUAL RUNS HERE TO STAY?

Most likely though many say one thing that cannot be replicated in virtual races is the race day atmosphere.

For that reason, Dr Leng Ho Keat, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education’s physical education and sports science department, believes live races will still be more popular than its virtual counterparts in the near future.

He said: “Many participants do not take part in sports events solely to win medals. Instead, they participate in sports events to enjoy the camaraderie and create shared experiences with other participants.”

Certain long-distance events such as the Boston Marathon, which one has to qualify for, also have a certain prestige to them, which is why James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia, believes that the race calendar will go back to the way it was in two to three years.

But he also added that there could be a market virtual events that cover shorter distances or allow participants to join a challenge that requires them to complete a certain distance over a period of time.

He said: “For 5km and 10km runs, there’s no crowd, no euphoria, people are doing it because they want to test themselves and join their friends in the race. We’ll see these kinds of events more because they fit in the community.”

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