Rethinking Running Events – Part 3 – Virtual Events

One alternative to running events that has become popular in recent times has been the Virtual Events, where participants run on their own and connect with each other through a platform – an app or a website. Though there are no clear definition of what can be called as virtual event, I would keep the definition open to any event that is called a running event but are not held physically at any location. In my earlier post, I suggested that the recent trend of virtual events is not likely to effectively replace the running events regardless of their increasing presence and popularity. However, I do feel that they have potential to be a separate category of event altogether and find an audience of its own if they can offer some meaningful way of engaging with each other.

To start with, the concept of virtual event is not something new that came out of the COVID crisis. The first time I heard about such concept was when astronaut Sunita Williams ran the 2007 Boston Marathon in space. The Hundred Days of Running, a movement that started formally in 2015, has been organising virtual events for a while, and their flagship event attracts more than 10,000 runners annually in each of the last two years. The most important development in virtual events over the past decade has been the rising popularity of Strava – an app that combined the features of GPS watches and social media. In an excellent piece, titled “Kudos, leaderboards, QOMs: how fitness app Strava became a religion” Rose George summarised it well,

Perhaps the golden years of this clever, uncommercial app being available for free are numbered. But Strava is still a beacon of positivity among the bile and manipulation of other social media. Trolling is rare and usually only takes the form of excessive kudos from randoms – and what’s wrong with that?

The growth story of Strava has lessons in it for many of the organisers to find ways to make their event popular and carve out their niche in the increasingly crowded space of virtual events. During my recent conversation with P. Venkatraman, who started the movement ‘You Too Can Run’ and also created a registration portal by the same name, he classified the organisers of virtual events in four categories – 

  1. Promoted as a temporary event in place of existing event. This was followed by organisers of Berlin, New York, London etc.,
  2. Promoted by current event organisers as a new offering. New York Road Runners, organisers of New York Marathon, are regularly organising such events through Strava for free.
  3. Promoted as a business proposition or as a means to raise funds for charitable causes. 
  4. Online challenges offered for free/pay – The Hundred Days of Running challenge is one such example. Ajay’s Goals.fit helps many clubs to organise similar challenges. 

Regardless of who organises it, there is certainly some value in these virtual events, if viewed separately from physical event. I would like to explore some of the areas where these events can help in the cause of running and help runners get together.

Think Different

Renowned Design Guru Mario Garcia, in a podcast, highlighted the changing dynamics in the media world.

“65% of newsrooms in the world still come to work everyday to plan a printed edition, but 80% of the people are reading content on other platforms. It’s like, you own a restaurant, and you lay out the table cloth, the flowers, and candles every evening, and everybody comes to pick up the food in takeaway.”

It does not help to organise a virtual event while planning it like a ‘physical event’ and assuming that runners would be attracted to virtual event in the same way, they are attracted to the physical event. There is a need to create a totally different ecosystem and get users to adopt the ecosystem. In some instances, there could be a totally different set of audience that these events can cater to.

Purpose of the Event

It is rather too easy for anyone with business acumen to start a virtual event, for it practically costs nothing to start one. Every rupee earned through registration is a gain and there would be a host of ‘entrepreneurial’ folks keen to enter this space. On the day, when Berlin Marathon was supposed to be held, there were at least half-a-dozen ‘Virtual Berlin marathons’ in addition to the event organisers’ virtual event. 

One easy way to stand out of this mess is to identify a cause or purpose for the event (certainly, not in memory of those who never ran!). Virtual events can certainly be a fund raiser for many causes. It is also a way for people to show their support for a cause by more than just donating money. In other instances, it can just be an act to show support for each other in these troubled times. As one study points out, staying at home for long can make one socially awkward and virtual events can help people to step out (with precautions) and stay active.

Entry fee

For events that are organised for raising funds for a cause, the answer is fairly simple. Their audience will certainly pay what is being asked for as they are likely to believe in the cause and the organisers. Events that are organised for commercial purposes need to find out what they offer before they decide on pricing. Presently, Strava hosts many virtual events for free of cost. They offer easy registration, good back-end support to capture data accurately, provide excellent leader boards and rankings (for subscribers, it is more), and offer a ‘e-badge’ to brag about; not to miss out those ‘kudos’ and words of encouragement from your followers. Similarly, Garmin has come up with Garmin Sports to promote such events. Most virtual events that I checked out, do not even offer anything more than what Strava offers for free. There are events that offer medals and t-shirt for the fee. Such events resembles an e-commerce activity than a running event, as participants are not even obliged to run to receive them. 

Innovations

Virtual events have a chance to innovate and try new areas to get their audience engaged. SCC Events, the organisers of Berlin Marathon, organised the 20139 Run – How far can you run in 2 Hours 1 minute and 39 seconds, a timing that corresponds to the record set by Eluid Kipchoge for the marathon in 2018? They provided the participants an app, in which the run was tracked accompanied by music and commentary mimicking a real event in the process. My friends in Coimbatore Cycling launched a new challenge to riders to visit 20 spots around the city which was well received. One way to get them popular is try innovative ways of engaging people. There is absolutely no need to get events to replicate the distances of physical events like 5K, 10K, etc., The ‘Segments’ feature in strava is certainly one unique way of organising events, subject to risks though.

Data Protection

As a popular saying goes, “If you are offered something for free, you are the product.” There are plenty of issues in Virtual events when it comes to privacy and data trading. Not many runners would be aware of what they are signing up for and how their data could be used or misused. Strava, for instance, sells ‘anonymised’ data for commercial as well as non-commercial purposes. This relates to data on locations where people ride or run often. Recently, they offered to provide town planners with information on where cyclists ride often in their town and plan cycling routes accordingly. It is important that organisers are transparent about how the user data would be used in events to build trust with participants.

Building a Virtual Community

The success or failure of virtual events depend on how well they can build the communities that would eventually translate for real. During the recent lockdown, I found solace through my Strava connecting with my friends across the globe – from Manivannan in USA to Manish in Australia. It certainly helped us to keep encouraging each other and move forward. The binding is strong because we knew each other from the past and hope to meet and run sometime in the future too. For sure, no one would be interested in running with bots. 

The Limitations

Finally, however good the concept and execution turn out to be, virtual events just cannot replace the existing running events. To start with, the lack of human connect would make it an imperfect substitute. The joy of running with hundreds and thousands can never be replaced by an illusion of running with millions and billions. The carnival-like atmosphere and the crowd support are irreplaceable. As I wrote in one of my earlier blogs, history is rarely made in empty arenas. 

Second, virtual events make it necessary for every runner to rely on some gadget or platform. It certainly misses out many runners who aren’t tech savvy or cannot afford to be in expensive platforms. 

Third, no matter the quality of technology or the GPS receptions, technological glitches are bound to happen and it can frustrate runners. I had difficulties with the Berlin Marathon app and it was frustrating to get your head around it at the start. It was difficult to save the run giving some nervy moments. For others, it could mean battery running out or lack of GPS reception.

Fourth, data can be manipulated. From simple hacks like riding a bicycle to editing the file, any of the information can be manipulated by runners in virtual event.

Lastly, there are inherent dangers in virtual run like risks arising out of accidents, over exertion, and irresponsible behaviour. Not very long ago, many landed in trouble playing the Pokemon Go and there has been instances of death due to chasing segments in Strava. 

In conclusion, there are some merits in virtual event being a genre by itself. Success of such events will depend on how well it is integrated with physical events and become more egalitarian. As I see, NYRR is active in this space and extending the benefits of virtual events to physical events. During the virtual New York Marathon, about 1000 participants who registered with fee were guaranteed a spot in the NY Marathon 2021 or 2022. It would be a challenge to keep the audience engaged as it is rather too easy for the audience to suffer from ‘event fatigue’ rather easily, and may stop showing interest soon. Similar to the use of apps, the success of these events depend on the ‘stickiness’ – between the participant and organisers, and also between the participants themselves with the new platform.

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