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Can a virtual run be used fairly to win titles and prize money in races?

April 28, 2023
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A virtual run advertisement
A virtual run advertisement

Sometime in 2020, Canadian runners held the Canadian 10K national championships, as a virtual run. By the end of that day, we had two newly crowned Canadian national champions for the 10K, Justin Kent who ran a personal best time of 28:52 and Natasha Wodak who won the women's virtual run in 31:42. And, they did also walk away with some prize money. 

Some of the conditions that the race organizer had put in place to ensure a fair virtual run race included racers running on an out and back route, obviously to ensure no one takes advantage of a downhill course; a race companion to take a video of the runner on the route and a GPX file to be uploaded to get the official results.

 However, questions still arise as to whether it can really be possible to get fair results from virtual races and the rightfully deserving winners be awarded for their efforts.

Challenges of a virtual run

Below are some of the main challenges to be put into consideration in ensuring a level playing ground for runners in a virtual run.

Altitude is definitely the main factor in ensuring a fair virtual run. Elite runners can save up to two minutes in a 10km distance when they move from a high altitude to run at a lower altitude. Perhaps there needs to be a formula that can adequately address this so that times run at certain altitudes can automatically be equated to times run at lower altitudes.

There should be standard GPS watches to be used. From the experiences of different runners, different GPS enabled watches often record different distances on the same route. Most reviews on GPS watches rate many models of these watches below 5 on a scale of 1 to 10.

While some solutions may be considered to address the challenges above, the hardest one to deal with is the weather. It is impossible to have the exact same weather conditions at different places even on different days. Some runners may be lucky to run in ideal weather during their virtual run race while others may be affected by headwinds, rainfall, hot and humid weather, among others.

All in all, the race organizers will eventually be the ones with the final say on the conditions they will put up and that they think will get them the rightful winners in their particular races. Virtual racing cannot fully replace real racing, but it is the only option we have at the moment and if the world will continue to be on lockdown, races will happen in one way or the other.

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