Organizers transition to virtual ‘social distancing’ races
With organized charity races across North America cancelled due to COVID-19, many are shifting to a virtual run format.
Race organizers in Canada and the United States are finding ways to keep their events alive during the pandemic by allowing entrants to participate remotely, while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
“During these unsettling times our charity partners need our support more than ever,” says Jennifer Payne from Charity Challenge, an organization that facilitates fundraising for charities through various physical challenges.
Extraordinary sums of money are raised for charities through annual races. The Bum Run raises money for colon cancer research in Toronto, while WWF Canada’s CN Tower Climb supports nature conservation. The Wings for Life World Run fundraises money for spinal cord injury research, with almost two dozen races in cities across Canada and the United States.
“The current situation puts them in an extremely vulnerable position as a huge portion of their income comes directly from races which they have now lost,” said Payne.
Due to social distancing guidelines implemented by various levels of government, including restrictions on public gatherings and stay-at-home orders in various U.S. states, races that would typically have thousands of runners congregating in close proximity are now out of the question.
“Within 48 hours, my next seven weeks of racing were cancelled,” says Micah Lang, a running enthusiast who planned on racing every weekend this spring.
“After the initial round of cancellation emails, another round started trickling in.”
Moving to a virtual race means participants can still do the event, though runners will have to keep track of results themselves.
WWF Canada’s CN Tower Climb went virtual on March 13. A statement issued by the wildlife organization said, “Instead of climbing 1,776 steps up 144 flights, we’re challenging our supporters to do a ‘virtual’ CN Tower Climb for Nature.”
“Nearly 7,000 individuals registered for last year’s climb,” said Laura Eney, communications specialist of WWF. While the large event can no longer take place in Toronto’s iconic tower, CEO Megan Leslie is encouraging participants to use stair machines, dance, climb, or walk their way to their goal.
Organized races provide runners and walkers the opportunity to donate (usually through entry fees) to a particular cause associated with the event — moving to virtual format allows the fundraising aspect to continue. Other racing events allow participants to fundraise for a charity of their choice, using completion of the race as an incentive to their donors.
Fans of The Sporting Life 10K, which runs annually on Mother’s Day, will still be able to support Camp Ooch by running a virtual 10 kilometres sometime in May and posting it using the hashtag #WeStillRunForOoch. The camp is well known for supporting over 1,900 kids and 745 families affected by childhood cancer from across Ontario.
“Community safety has always been the Sporting Life 10k’s first priority,” says Jean-Paul Corbeil, director of advertising and marketing for the sporting goods retailer. With the virtual run set for May, the organization hopes to expand its scope to include thousands more participants across Canada.
Virtual races have also become a sensation south of the border.
“This would’ve been the 43rd year of our event,” says Mike Norcia, organizer of the Rotary Club of Los Gatos (Calif.) Great Race, since dubbed the Great Social Distancing Race. “Once we got the shelter-in-place [order] back on March 17 — later that week, we made the decision that we were not going to be able to do it.” That’s when it was decided to go virtual.
Participants can still earn their finisher’s medal and T-shirt by completing the distance of the original event — 6.5 km in the case of the Great Social Distancing Race — anytime in April. Finishers manually input their results or upload their finished race to apps such as Strava, RunKeeper, or GoogleFit.
Although Norcia does not expect the usual 1,300 to 1,500 entrants, he hopes that as many people as possible sign up, especially now that there aren’t the usual restrictions associated with road racing.
“This year, we actually created a dog category. People can run their (6.5 km) with their dog, so hopefully that gets some people excited,” says Norcia. Strollers are also allowed this year for the first time, and top three finishers in the category will be awarded.
For Norcia’s social distancing race, two-thirds of proceeds go to local high school scholarships, but his organizing team is actively looking into putting the other third — usually set aside for local projects — into COVID-19-related undertakings.