Virtual Racing at its Finest – by Grace Roberts

Why do we race? Many people do it for a personal best or the sense of achievement – accomplished by a well-designed and marshalled course. Others race for the atmosphere, or to be part of a big event. So why virtual race when these things are lacking? 

I’ve never been one for virtual races before – I never found them particularly motivating or worth the money. By summer 2020, marathon training meant that I was lucky enough to be able to run distances up to, and slightly beyond, half marathon without much preparation, so I don’t tend to get that sense of achievement from covering a particular distance by myself.

However, after a few months of lockdown, I did start to miss a challenge and competitiveness of racing. I saw an advert for the local Great Owl Running’s ‘VirtuOwl Challenge’ – a bit different to your standard virtual race. Instead of paying to run a single distance and getting a medal in the post, you pay £25 for a race number and t shirt, then tackle as many or as few of the available distances (1k to 50km) as you like. Signing up also meant you were supporting local businesses such as Great Owl, but also the t shirt and number printers, and there was the option to include beer and/or coffee from Leeds businesses as part of your entry too. 

There were a few rules to the runs. Firstly, you must have proof of your run (using Strava, Garmin etc.) and only your elapsed time counted. Personally, I think this made it fairer (you wouldn’t pause your watch in a real race and have a breather…) plus it added the element of giving your virtual race route proper thought. Planning in advance to avoid road crossings whist considering elevation added an extra dimension. 

However, where you started/finished didn’t matter – you could bomb it down a hill till your heart’s content… as long as you don’t pause your watch! 

The scoring is where the VirtuOwl got really interesting, but it took me a while to understand it. Basically, for every distance not attempted, your score is 100 points. Once you’ve run the distance, your points is your final ranking for that distance. Your lowest 5 scores are added to make your overall final score, and lowest scorer wins. So if you come in first place for 5 distances, your overall score is 5. 

As this event ran over 2 months, the positions were constantly changing as people submitted new runs (you were also allowed to submit improved times for the same distance) so it was fun to keep checking on the leader-board and seeing what had changed. At one point I got up to 3rd place! 

In the last few weeks, it became more about tactics than just smashing out miles. I knew I had no chance scoring high for the shorter distances, so I focused on the longer ones. I was marathon training before lockdown so this gave me an advantage. I did the 10 miles, half marathon, 19 miles and marathon (coming 7th, 4th 3rd and 2nd respectively!). 

Throughout the series, news challenges would be announced. These included the infamous Barkley 5k (fastest 5k possible with watch pausing -very much encouraged!) – I did this once for the HPH challenge and I really didn’t fancy it again, so I gave it a miss! 

There was also the vertical challenge of maximum elevation gained in an hour. I was surprised that I found this quite fun! I found a good spot near my home: a quiet road that was a big hill, small dip and another big hill – I managed to get up it (and back down again) 8 times in the hour, making 368m of elevation. I got a lot of funny looks from passers-by doing this one! 

The ‘time auction’ was a matter of the longest elapsed activity time – your time being your ‘bid’ in the auction – by a continuous single activity on foot with minimal stopping time. I had a few errands to do round town on a weekend so I walked to town and back, and tried to keep moving when popping inside shops, resulting in a single activity of just over 2.5h – the winner of this challenge racked up an impressive activity of over 8 hours!  

Lastly, there were 10 points up for grabs for submitting a picture wearing your VirtuOwl shirt – the ‘fashion show’ challenge (I used a conveniently placed stone to prop my phone up to take my picture)!

My VirtuOwl T shirt on tour – the sign says “Welcome to Ballynafeigh”

All in all, it was really good fun. It gave me the challenge I wanted over a range of distances, I got a few PBs, it encouraged me to tackle distances I’d not done before (19 miles & marathon) and it gave me motivation to really push myself over a range of different distances – things I wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. I was definitely more active and ran harder through June and July due for this virtual challenge, and really enjoyed myself too! 

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