Virtual challenges and runs are part of a growing trend in recreational running: doing a race whenever you can, wherever you can, and still feeling as if you are part of the crowd, even if you are running alone.

From Nike to the Map My Run by Under Armour, many companies are getting into the growing trend. In fact, as part of the Wings For Life World Run, the App Run plays an integral part of the globally integrated event. “People are used to running with their apps, and more and more people are comfortable with connecting virtually,” said Bob Bickel, founder of Run Sign Up, “whether it is on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, people can actually form friendships even though they do not see each other.”

The idea of combining the success of social networks and fitness, companies like Strava, Freelethics, or Runtastic have accumulated millions of active users and supporting those to live a healthier life. One of their keys to success is the use of Gamification, which according to Deterding et al. is defined as the use of game elements in a non-game context.

As part of my initial PhD research, I have written a number of short posts about the Holistic Health, also talking about Gamification:

Virtual runs can be structured in various ways. Disney’s Virtual Run 5K series started in 2016 and uses an honor system, as a way to incentivise runners. Runners can download bibs to wear to do the virtual runs, as well as can download a finisher’s bib and are mailed a medal after finishing the runs. “It was an interesting opportunity for us to really keep people involved with runDisney that takes place all year round,” said Faron Kelley, vice president of Disney Sports. Most on-site runDisney events are held in cooler months, so the Virtual Run 5K series is held in the summer. Last year’s series had about 18,000 participants.

The Great Pumpkin Run virtual race series also uses the honor system. Runners are mailed a race hoodie and a bib. Previously, the race sent race medals after runners submitted their times, but this year, Courtney Young, co-founder of the race, said medals will be mailed along with the hoodie and bib. “People want that instant gratification,” she said. The Great Pumpkin Run started as a traditional race series, but the virtual option has taken off since its introduction. The first year, 300 runners opted for the virtual option; last year there were close to 14,000. “I think it is helping people get into the sport,” Ms. Young said. It appeals to runners who may not be able to show up to a race on a certain time and day, or who are intimidated by running with other people in their first race.

The New York Road Runners, organiser of the famous New York Marathon, added virtual runs to its race roster in 2018, and this year it has 12, most themed to a holiday or event, like the Resolution Run 5K or the Valentine’s Duo 5K. It also had a virtual half marathon and 5K connected to last weekend’s NYC Half, the one Ms. Silvester ran. The virtual runs started with the question of “how can we continue to engage and extend our impact across the global running community and provide ways in which people can run with us without being here in New York City?” said New York Road Runners president and chief executive Michael Capiraso.

The organisation teamed up with the running app Strava to offer virtual runs to its 60,000 members. Participants still get a sense of community, even if they are running alone, said NYRR CEO Michael Capiraso. "We thought if we can go ahead and give people the opportunity to run in virtual races, at any time, we thought what a great way to connect people around the world and have them engage in fitness through running."

The New York Road Runners’ virtual races are free, unless runners are using them as a way to get into the Brooklyn Half Marathon or the annually sold out New York Marathon bridging the gap between the virtual and the physical world. For guaranteed entry into the Brooklyn Half Marathon, runners can sign up and after completing each of the six virtual races, they will secure their spot the main event. Above all, the organization opened 500 spots for runners to run a virtual marathon, which offers the entry into the New York City Marathon.