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

A door is boarded up following a fire at Pho Xuan restaurant on Yale Road on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
UPDATE: Early morning fire at vacant Chilliwack restaurant was deliberately set

Fire erupted north of the Yale Road overpass at Pho Xuan, which was permanently closed

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission schools

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways

The Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve’s network of trails is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. (chilliwackblueheron.com photo)
Provincial funding goes to Chilliwack’s Great Blue Heron Reserve for trail upgrades

The popular destination saw even more traffic in 2020 as people headed outdoors during the pandemic

The 4th Annual Fraser Valley Marches for Women March is virtual this year, and this file shot depicts speeches from the first march from Jan. 20, 2018. (Jennifer Feinberg/Chilliwack Progress file)
Video on women’s march emphasizes that violence against women increasing

Key messages from Chilliwack women leaders as the FV Marches for Women March goes virtual

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Post-COVID-19 recovery clinic in Surrey, at Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre. (Photo: Fraser Health)
Surrey gets one of three post-COVID-19 recovery clinics

The Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre is located at 9750 140th Street

Competitors make their way through the course at the 2019 Canadian Cross Country Championships, which was hosted by Abbotsford in 2019. (File photo)
Abbotsford to host 2023 Canadian Cross Country Championships

Clearbrook Park last hosted the event in 2019, Ottawa hosting 2021 and 2022 races

Abbotsford Police officers investigate the scene after a pedestrian was struck and killed on Friday morning. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
Male pedestrian, 37, killed in Abbotsford after being struck by vehicle

Collision took place in 31800 block of South Fraser Way on Friday morning

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Disgraced Kelowna social worker faces another class-action lawsuit

Zackary Alphonse claims he was not informed of resources available to him upon leaving government care

Most Read