Before 2020, I had never ran a virtual half marathon. In fact, the last time I had stood on the start line of a Half Marathon, was in September 2017, in Newcastle, for the Great North Run. This was by far my favourite Half Marathon; the number of runners around me created a buzz of excitement and the crowds lining the route from start to finish, was something I had never experienced before.
The race finished in South Shields, with the last mile being on the road overlooking the sea front. People lined the last mile, 3-5 deep in parts and we even had service personnel on guard. This was an amazing experience and something I wanted to do again. Even though I ran a Marathon 4 weeks later, my racing had been quite limited, due to injuries etc…
2020 had started with some optimism, and I had registered for a few 10k races, but I hadn’t considered doing any longer distances. The year had barely started, before the whole world had gone into lock down due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Everything was closed and put on hold! I carried on with my training but wondered when I would be able to race again.
In August, an email arrived from The Great Run Company. I hadn’t entered the ballot for the 2020 Great North Run, but due to the event being cancelled, they had announced that this year’s race would be a virtual run instead. I had run a few virtual races in the past, but only up to 10k, so the question was, could I do this?
Table of Contents
Creating the route
Creating a route was the hardest part for me. I wanted a route that would be a bit of a challenge, but one that wasn’t too hilly. I logged into my map my run account and began plotting my route. After I had planned, deleted, and planned again, I thought it a good idea to complete my training runs on the route, so I knew what to expect. I decided to start and finish at our local park and boating lake; about 10-minute walk from my house. That way I could get a little walk in before and would be a good cool down after.
The following Sunday, I completed 10 miles of the course. It was ok, but having to cross a major road twice, there were a few concerns creeping in if it was the right route. I did look at alternatives and even looked at a shorter route and do laps instead, but everything I looked at, involved a road at some point. I decided to stick with it, even though I knew it would potentially add to my time. After a couple more, shorter runs on parts of the route, I felt ok with it.
A couple of weeks before, I had run 10 miles as a training run and, even though it was slow, I felt comfortable and confident that the injuries were being manged better. After I clicked on register and paid my fee, I set about planning; I had 5 weeks! The training was straight forward for me. I went to an old Runners World book I had and found some training plans in there and followed the final 5 weeks improvers Half Marathon plan.
The plan covered 3 runs per week, something I was doing any way and covered all the bases you would expect from any running schedule; Intervals, hills, tempo, long runs etc. Added with 2 days of strength training, I knew I was in ok condition to run this.
Fueling the run
Fuelling right for any distance is vital! And a virtual half marathon is no exception. Remember, you will have no water stations, unless you are running laps past your house and can store things for when you go past. I had my hydration vest and carried a 400ml bottle with an energy drink and 2 gels. I found that was enough for this race.
A couple of days before race day, I had been sent a few emails and instructions and given details of an app (viRACE) to download on to my phone that would form the focal point of the run. I had the choice of 2 waves (09:30 and 13:00). I chose the early one, as that was when I usually ran anyway, and the weather was forecast to be warm, so I didn’t want to run if it was too hot later in the day.
I walked to my start line and got there about 15 minutes before the race was due to start. It did feel a bit strange at first, going to a race and not seeing anyone else that was running. No baggage drop, no portaloos (they are important!). There is always something to do when you get to the race start and I was just stood around waiting. Whilst waiting, I ensured my Garmin was set up and had GPS coverage.
I opened the Race App and followed the instructions. Everything worked and got a welcome message. I proceeded with my own warm up, even though there was a warm up going on via the App that I could have followed. A 10 second countdown started and then I was off! The organisers had got some celebrities to do voice overs for the App, and every now and then, I would hear someone giving words of encouragement.
As it was a very warm day, I knew I would have to be sensible and run a steady pace and not push it too soon. The first couple of miles weren’t too bad, but I felt that the route was a bit too busy and found myself weaving around people and was not enjoying it too much. Due to trying to get out of the way of people and dogs, I was running faster than I had planned.
I got to the first major crossing and did have to wait before I could get over. After that I had a few miles of straight roads and only crossing minor roads. Thankfully, when I got back to the main road, about mile 8, I was able to get over quickly. I then hit another road and had to wait for nearly a minute. I was not happy!
When will this end!
Miles 8 and 9 were the toughest for me and at one point, I nearly stopped and walked the rest of the way. This was torture! Not because I felt tired, but just the whole thing of racing on my own for this distance. No crowds, no water stations (I did take drinks and gels with me). I had trained for Half Marathons before and had even done a 15-mile and 18-mile training run on my own a few years back, but this was a race; I needed something to pick me up!
After mile 9, I had a steady run-down hill and then had to run back up. As I got to a turning at the top, I decided to change the route a bit, knowing I could run on a flat stretch; that was a good move. I eventually got back to the park and it was even busier than when I had started. I had no energy or motivation to run fast, so just ran at steady pace and got to the finish.
The finish line
I have done 10 Half Marathons before this and never gone over 2 hours. I don’t know how I manged it, but still finished under 2 hours, even though it was only 2 seconds under. I mentioned before about it feeling strange at the start. Well, the finish was the same. No one cheering you on and no medal to pick up. There was a medal, but I had to wait for it to be posted. I was glad to finish though and the walk home and some food was welcome.
Will I run another virtual half marathon?
The event organisation was superb. From the communication before, to the app during the race. I have completed quite a few Great Run races and have always enjoyed them. In all honesty though, I don’t think I would do another Virtual Half Marathon. The sense of achievement is still there of course, but this was more mentally challenging than any race I have done before.
I had music playing, which is something I don’t usually have when racing, but I couldn’t get into a positive head space. When you run an organised race, there are always people on the route cheering you on, other racers giving you encouragement and these things pick you up.
The course was tough, but I couldn’t think of an alternative route that would have been better. I found the course too busy; when you do a race, they are on closed roads or paths. The weather was also a major factor. It was very warm, and I struggled late on.
Should you do a virtual run?
Virtual runs are a great way to have a focus and stay motivated and I would highly recommend it. The one mistake I made, was treating it as a proper race, even though it was. If you are going to enter one, remember there will be factors that may slow you down, traffic, people etc.