Jeff Clarkson and his son Logan, 3, go for a run in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kari Clarkson, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Jeff Clarkson and his son Logan, 3, go for a run in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kari Clarkson, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Runners find joy in virtual racing during COVID-19 pandemic

Canada’s road racing season was about to begin when COVID-19 hit in March

Jeff Clarkson wasn’t a runner when COVID-19 shut down recreation and fitness facilities in March.

The 36-year-old was refereeing a Tier 2 junior hockey game when he received an email in the second intermission. Hockey Canada, it said, was shutting down operations across the country immediately.

With just a stationary bike and no weight equipment at his home in Oshawa, Ont., the 36-year-old laced up his running shoes and headed outdoors. Mere months later, with traditional road races not an option, he has become one of many finding a new running outlet with virtual racing.

“I thought ‘You know what? I’ll start running and I’ll just work my way up,” Clarkson said. ”I think the first run I did was about 4K.

“I’m hooked now.”

With virtual racing, runners complete the distance on a day of their choosing in a particular window usually over a few weeks. There’s no requirement to run the actual race course. Runners track their times via Garmin or another track device then upload it to Race Roster, a London, Ont.-based event management company.

Clarkson was part of a running boom sparked by the novel coronavirus. People were looking to escape the confines of self-isolation at home, and searching for ways to exercise. Asics was among the global sporting goods companies that reported record shoe sales in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

Charlotte Brookes, Canada Running Series’ national event director, said the number of queries she’s answered from people new to the sport is a good sign.

“They’re calling us all the time because they’re not sure what shoes to wear, and those types of things,” Brookes said. ”It’s exciting to see people getting out and getting active, and finding that outlet that existing runners already knew about of the mental health benefits.

“It is so exciting to see how many people have embraced it through this difficult time.”

Canada’s road racing season was about to begin when COVID-19 hit in March. The early days were tough, Brookes said. Governments had banned large gatherings. How could road racing possibly survive?

Brookes said the drinking game joke early on was drink each time someone said “pivot.”

And pivot, they did. All eight of the Canada Running Series races across Canada are being held virtually. The first was the Under Armour Spring Run-Off, the early-April race through Toronto’s High Park that traditionally kicks off the season. The virtual “race” sold out with 2,000 runners.

Clarkson did the Spring Run-Off, placing “somewhere in the 40 to 60 range” for his age group. He’s registered for the Oasis Zoo Run 10K, which he must complete by Sept. 30, and he entered his son Logan, who’s three, in the 800-metre Cub Run. He’s also registered for both the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront half-marathon and 10K.

His wife Kari, who’s due with their second child in October, will join him in races next year.

Brookes, meanwhile, is registered for The Whole Shebang — 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon — which is new this year, since virtual racing allows for the runs to be spread out.

Kate Van Buskirk, a national team middle-distance runner and host of The Shakeout Podcast, believes virtual races are ideal for new runners.

“It could actually be the perfect transition opportunity into the world of racing,” Van Buskirk said. “Because a start line might be intimidating for some people who are just getting into running, or really committing to a full training plan might be a bit daunting.

“But if they’ve been running for the last few months, just because that’s the only thing they can do, why not register for a virtual 5K and get a finisher’s medal and feel like you really accomplished something?”

READ MORE: Runners complete Boston Marathon in South Surrey

Many runners had already paid their registration fees when COVID-19 cancelled live races. Brookes said runners were given three options: either receive a full refund, defer their registration to next year, or transfer it to the virtual event.

Registration for most virtual races comes with the usual swag bag including race T-shirt and medal. The medal for the Scotiabank Vancouver Half-Marathon and 5K doubles was particularly popular. It doubles as a bottle opener.

The message to entrants was: “Like going and getting that cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, join us virtually, support us, let’s do this together through what’s going on,” Brookes said. “And we also donated a portion of their entry to the charity of their choice.”

There’s also a Facebook group for runners with bi-weekly Facebook Live get-togethers, a running podcast, Spotify playlists for training runs, and an eight-week running program for kids.

“It’s a really nice way to dip your toe into what this running thing is,” Brookes said.

Van Buskirk recently did the Virtual Special Olympics PEI 5K Race, hosted by NHL player Dion Phaneuf and his wife — Canadian actress Elisha Cuthbert. The couple usually hosts a fundraising gala that pays for most of the province’s Special Olympics program each year, but went with a virtual race this summer.

Fundraising is a huge part of road racing. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon alone has 150 charity partners, and last year, through its Charity Challenge, raised more than $3.6 million.

The Spring Run-Off raised money for The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Fred Mathewson, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer and underwent surgery at the Princess Margaret in January, was the top fundraiser, bringing in more than $11,000. Most of it came from donations from his Rogers Communications colleagues.

Mathewson and his wife Rhona and their adult sons Jake and Hayden also completed the actual mapped out course in High Park. Fred and Rhona walked — “I think we might actually have had the worst time,” Fred laughed — while their two sons ran.

Mathewson’s cancer diagnosis, and then completing the event, has led to a “mind shift.” He can’t run because of bad knees, but has taken up power walking in his new Under Armour shoes he won as the top fundraiser. His wife ran sporadically, but now does so more frequently.

“It’s all been pretty much spurred on by obviously my health but also the participating in the Spring Runoff, whether the race was virtual or non-virtual we would have continued to do it,” Mathewson said.

The entire family works from home. Getting outside has been key.

“Personally I’m in better shape now than I was before COVID,” Mathewson said. “I’ve been working out more frequently, doing the power walks. I’ve been eating better.

“It’s definitely been a change in lifestyle and a change of mindset. And to keep yourself not only healthy in body but also healthy in mind, you need to get outside.”

The CIBC Run for the Cure, which is independent of the Canada Running Series, will be held virtually on Oct. 4. Almost 15,000 runners have registered to date. Tanya Henry, vice-president of signature programs at the Canadian Cancer Society, said she expects final registration numbers to be about half what the annual live races, held in 56 cities across Canada, usually draw.

The event raised just under $17 million last year for breast cancer research and support. Henry said this year’s event is on pace to surpass its goal of $8 million.

“There’s a lot of financial instability in people’s lives right now, and the fact we’re on track to come in above $8 million is really incredible in a time of great uncertainty around the world,” she said.

Alan Brookes, the executive race director and president of Canada Running Series, and Charlotte’s dad, said maintaining a community for runners was front of mind when they pivoted to virtual racing.

“That’s been the big challenge for us, to try and sustain our community, support our running community during this unprecedented time,” he said.

Brookes said about 15 full-time staff members in Toronto have undertaken the hefty task of assembling the waterfront marathon swag bags. Each bag includes a handwritten thank-you note.

The operations staff has even been hand-delivering packages by bike around Toronto. Charlotte and a colleague biked 45 kilometres for a recent delivery.

“So, it’s been a whole effort to try to substitute in the digital space what we can to give people goals, to inspire people, to motivate, to try and keep the community whole until we come through the other side,” Alan Brookes said.

The virtual runs have allowed Canada Running Series to keep its 17 full-time employees across the country.

Alan Brookes said even when live racing returns they’ll likely maintain a virtual component. The virtual races have drawn runners from as far away as Europe and Australia.

“In some ways our universe has contracted,” he said, “but in some ways it’s expanded.”

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusrunning

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nurse Vicki Niemi administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Joyce, 88, on Mar. 23, 2020 at the Terrace Sportsplex. All adults in Terrace are now eligible to register for a COVID-19 vaccination. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
All adults in Terrace can now register for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment

Community members can register by calling 833-838-2323 or visiting getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca

April 2020 to March 2021 was the second wettest year on record since at least 1969, according to Environment Canada. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
VIDEO: Terrace records wettest spell in over a half-century

Terrace saw close to 1,500 millimetres of precipitation between April 2020 and March 2021

Terrace fire department responded to a call from Skeena Saw Mills at the early hours of Friday morning. (Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)
UPDATE: Fire crews respond to early morning incident at Skeena Sawmills

No injuries were reported as mill workers immediately alerted the fire department after seeing smoke

Terrace Tim Hortons on Keith Ave. experienced a fire during the morning of April 4, 2021. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
Nature of Tim Hortons fire made it difficult to detect: Deputy fire chief

Fire likely burned undetected inside a wall, resulting in extensive damage

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Most Read