Banana suits, selfies and subway challenges: NYC’s virtual races are hot

Naureen Malik

BLOOMBERG – For New York City’s legion of runners, the mass starts might be gone, but not the races.

With all in-person events cancelled for the foreseeable future, virtual racing is booming. Organisers big and small, piggybacking on the upswing in running as a way to cope with the stresses of lockdown, have seen participation soar. The New York City Marathon, one of the biggest road races in the world, cancelled its 50th anniversary edition because of COVID-19. It now expects record numbers to sign up for its virtual event.

Of course, like just about everything else in what was once the epicentre of the pandemic, things look and feel a little different. No crowds, no tables of water or Gatorade, and in many cases, no official routes.

That hasn’t stopped runners like John O’Neill.

On a recent Wednesday night, the competitive triathlete and trail runner began his first virtual race – the Take the Bridge challenge – by snapping a photo of his wristwatch over a checkpoint tagged on the East River pedestrian path. The course, just over six miles, would take him across the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, where he would take another selfie before racing back over the Brooklyn Bridge for one final photo.

Take the Bridge is just one of dozens of virtual events that have taken off this year. NYCRUNS hosts a 245-mile challenge equal to the length of New York’s subway system. The Dashing Whippets is holding a Tour de Summer stage race inspired by the French cycling competition. And New York Road Runners (NYRR) offers 19 virtual races, including the New York City Marathon, which opened for registration this past week.

Entrants can run the virtual race any time from October 17 to November 1, anywhere in the world. Runners will have to chart their own course and figure out critical logistics, like where to get water or go to the restroom. And they’ll have to make do without first-aid tents and cheering spectators waving and handing out bananas. Sinatra won’t be bellowing New York, New York at the start line. Also missing – elite runners.

What the future of in-person road racing will look like is less clear. Races that usually have thousands of runners – like the JPMorgan Corporate Challenge for example – may have to be a fraction of the size. Already-staggered starts will become even more staggered and runners may need to carry their own water, according to NYRR Race Director Jim Heim.

Right now, “anything over 10 people is scary to a lot of people,” said founder and race director of Take the Bridge Darcy Budworth. “If we ever go back to running in real life in New York City, it’s going to be small to start off.”

Budworth was cheering at the Fort Greene checkpoint when O’Neill snapped his selfie. The Priceline business developer clocked in at 33:40, or 5:37 per minute, winning the top seed.

Just then, James Nunciato strolled in, winning cheers simply for donning his usual race kit: a banana costume adorned with the Crown Heights Running Club logo, along with a mask. The 34-year-old, who was about to race for the first time in months, was doubling up on virtual events. The race would also get him six miles closer to finishing off the subway challenge.

“I run for fun, to stay healthy and to stay in shape,” he said. “What I miss the most is the camaraderie.”