Virtual races embraced by endurance athletes during coronavirus pandemic

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic have impacted the endurance sport industry and event companies. To help combat that and engage its community, IRONMAN has created a virtual racing series that consists of weekly races conducted online and at home.

Athletes can sign up through IRONMAN's virtual club for free and participate in the races through connected devices, wearable technology, app trackers, smart bikes and treadmills to log results. The series has leaderboards and Facebook Live look-ins.

So far, the company has held two virtual races, the most recent attracting 23,000 participants from all 50 states and 130 countries. More than 56,000 people have joined IRONMAN's virtual club platform and the series has helped raise nearly $100,000 for the IRONAID COVID-19 support fund.

IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick said virtual racing was something the company has had in the works, but the urgency was accelerated as COVID-19 led to the cancelation of events across the globe.

"We know how important our races are and our training is to the people in the global IRONMAN community, and we felt there was an important opportunity for us to try to replace the fact that we have no races whatsoever and can't even tell people when races are going to start again," Messick said. "With something concrete, that lets people train with purpose and be able to have control at least in this one aspect of their life. And we've been really pleased with the response."

The company has seen nearly 100 of its events impacted in 2020, so it wanted to find a way to feed the appetite of its competitors.

That appetite hasn't gone away, and with people stuck at home, athletes are looking for an outlet to keep their training structured organized. They're also looking for goals to reach and something to train for, according to Messick, and virtual races are providing an opportunity to work toward a training goal.

"Athletes will sign up for a race a year in advance, and during that year they're deeply engaged in preparation for that race," Messick said. "We feel that it's important for us to be able to offer a whole suite of opportunities to help our athletes in their journey. And that can be around training, it can be around nutrition, it can be around equipment choice, it can be around really optimizing performance on a particular race course."

There are other companies and organizations besides IRONMAN that have taken the virtual route, including the New York Roadrunners, which operates the New York City Marathon.

Tough Mudder puts on obstacle-course events across the country, and CEO Kyle McLoughlin said his company is more focused on growing its community than trying to replace the events it has lost.

Rather than virtual races, Tough Mudder has created a series of daily content that consists of high-end workouts, casual workouts, healthy-eating content and support groups for people trying to set fitness goals.

"Our approach is, at this point, people don't want to be buying things," McLaughlin said. "Everybody is on a little bit of a nervous economic and financial standpoint, and it feels a bit inappropriate to be selling things in the current national situation. Everything we're doing is largely free, and if people want to buy tickets, we'll certainly facilitate that, but we're focusing right now on building our community and being a good partner to them."

That community for endurance sports companies usually fuels the industries of event organizers and operators, timing companies, photography companies and other mom-and-pop organizations involved in putting on the events.

The larger companies, including IRONMAN, Tough Mudder and Spartan, have expressed concern for the endurance sport industry because of the climate we are in. The companies have come together to form the Endurance Sports Coalition, which has started to lobby the government for assistance from the next round of economic stimulus.

Messick wonders when it will be safe to start again, what event companies need to do differently, what constitutes the right level of social distancing and how to minimize the contact between athletes and event organizers.

His other challenge is helping those mom-and-pop companies.

"[IRONMAN] should be fine through the end of this, but there are many people who aren't," Messick said. "When we start again, we need those people to still be in business, because if they're not in business, we can't have events."

The running industry has seen a boom because of stay-at-home mandates. But, as the coalition outlines, the entire industry and endurance companies top to bottom must be able to succeed

"The goal is that we are now pushing, lobbying Congress, advocating to ensure that as they consider more industry-specific rounds of stimulus in the coming weeks, they consider industries like ours that provide a public benefit," McLaughlin said. "Both in health and economic impact and the vast amount of charity fundraising that many of our organizers do on behalf of foundations and nonprofit causes. And ensure there is support above and beyond what has been legislated already so this industry can weather the storm and be ready to satisfy what is largely 30 million athletes that participate in our events throughout the year."