People love marathons so much, they’re running in virtual races

Like this, but without all the people.
Like this, but without all the people.
Image: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
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About 50,000 people will take part in the New York Marathon this Sunday (Nov. 4), but only 15,500 spots are designated for general entry. To get in, you have to win a lottery. And roughly 105,000 people applied this year.

If you want to run in next year’s race, though, you could try your hand at a “virtual” marathon.

The organizers of the New York marathon are offering automatic qualification—the likes of which usually only come with finishing well in other respected marathons around the world—for those who run the unusual “race” this weekend. About 500 runners around the world are taking part in the race, organized and tracked by fitness app Strava, this weekend, according to Bloomberg.

They have to run 26.2 miles (42 km) on their own wherever they are, with no adoring crowds, no fueling stations, no toilets, no pacers, nothing. Once Strava logs the run, they will earn a real-life medal for their efforts and a place in the real New York race in 2019.

New York is the only major marathon to trial virtual races for entry to the real thing. The organizers have 10 virtual races scheduled for this year. Over 15,000 people have finished the first seven so far; the next one is a 5km run on Thanksgiving. But other companies are also loving them. Lululemon held 8K Ghost Races earlier this month in 12 US cities, registering 35,000 runners.

The rise of the virtual marathon corresponds with the rise of running itself as a recreational sport. The oversubscription to marathons show they have achieved new desirability, too. Bloomberg cited a Statistica figure that shows that 55.9 million people last year in the US ran in competitive races. And a club for people who have run marathons in all 50 US states has ballooned over the last decade. Why do people like to run so much? They are keeping fitter and the rise of health-tracking tech also helps. But it probably runs deeper than that.

“It’s kind of primal,” one member of the 50-state club told the BBC. “It’s me and a pair of shoes, I’m not thinking about work, I’m not doing a PowerPoint presentation, and I’ve still got it. You can think, ‘My job sucks, I feel like crap, I’m getting old’ but once in a while you show up and still do 26 goddamn miles.”