The Joy of Virtual Racing

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Chinatown: the finish line of Hans's virtual 5k.

Hans Ho talks about one of our favourite lockdown events: the Serpiesphere Virtual 5k.

Having worked on a railway site on Bank Holiday Monday morning, I needed a rest in the afternoon, so I just sat on the sofa and watched the Dominic Cummings statement live on TV. Suddenly it was 6:30pm, and I hadn’t yet done my normal Monday 5k – as a double race of Serpiesphere and Sri Chinmoy. I needed to be back in time for a friend’s Zoom concert. I literally needed to switch off the TV and go now. I quickly got changed and headed out. I didn’t even bother with warming up as I normally would.

I had no real ambition about this 5k other than fulfilling the distance and not disgracing myself too much, so I just started at a random place in Soho. I ran through the empty Chinatown – I might have got into a few people’s photos trying to show how empty Gerrard Street was now. I soon came to Trafalgar Square and arrived at St James’s Park. The Mall towards Buckingham Palace seemed to be dominated by cyclists, so under Dominic Cummings’ influence I exercised my own judgement and I crossed the Mall randomly halfway towards the Palace. My watch then told me I had already run 3k and the run started to feel tough. I was not going to do a good time. Then I thought, why not change the route from St James’s Park to Whitehall – perhaps I could catch the Cummings and goings around Downing Street?

I reached Downing Street exactly at 4k. I even stopped to catch my breath, although disappointingly there was no sign of the man of the moment. The watch said 19:12 – so I had 4:47 for my last km to get under 24 minutes. I continued towards Trafalgar Square. Could I do it? I had no idea where the finish line was. I went through the side road next to the National Gallery. Come on now – I had 30 seconds left, but I ran up a slight incline. I imagined the few hardy souls in Leicester Square cheering me on, and I could end matters at the Chinatown gate. But my legs wouldn’t cooperate. I overshot 24 minutes by 4 seconds.

It was a hard run – I wondered if I should be happy that I did it in a relatively hot temperature, or disappointed about my worst finishing time in the Serpiesphere Virtual 5k series? Or should I do another run during the week to redeem myself? The immediate question – how much time do I have to run back before my friend’s Zoom gig?

I won’t deny – running a race entirely on your own is just not the same thing as running with others. We all miss keeping up with fellow competitors, we all miss the handshakes with people we’ve just beaten or have just beaten us, we all miss the crowd, and we all miss the post-race meal, drinks or banter. Running, despite being a lonely activity in theory, is built on communities, which have taken up much of our leisure lives.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic. We have had to adapt very quickly to how the ‘new normal’ works, including how the act of running itself – not exactly a ‘stay at home’ activity – can be performed safely in order to avoid a highly infectious disease. Back in mid-March, we were all sad about our Club activities being suspended, with no idea if and when ‘normal’ would return. The Club quickly started organising replacement activities. The Zoom events started to spring up – Last Wednesday of the Month became Last Wednesday of the Week; the monthly post-Handicap coffee now happens weekly online. A few coaches have started leading Zoom circuit training and spin classes.

Running seemed to be the only thing remaining. We in the committee came up with the idea of a virtual weekly race, but immediately agonised about it. Would people be tempted to do the race together? Would a race encourage people to run hard and therefore forget about staying a good social distance from other passers-by? Just like everyone else in the country, we had to balance between the government’s instruction to stay at home and staying physically fit in the ways we’d like.

One event made our virtual race possible. The National Road Relays, due to take place in late March, became a virtual event in early April. Runners were given five days to run a 5k route, with the run recorded on a GPS watch and restrictions in place for gradient change. A national running event happening virtually, without a hitch, gave us confidence that a virtual race would work for the Club. We thought very carefully what social distancing rules should be in place – that it would have to be a ‘solo race’ and runners should not meet up to run together, and that we should always keep a distance from all members of the public.

So it began. Somewhat appropriately over Easter, we resurrected running at the Serpentine Running Club with the first virtual 5k race. To reflect the nature of the race with performances anywhere in the world, we gave it a fitting name – the Serpiesphere Virtual 5k. In the first week, we had only expected a few dozen to log their time, but by the submission deadline of Friday midnight, an astonishing number of 116 members had recorded race results. The entries included those living not only in London and other parts of the UK, but also in other European countries such as Austria (see Carol Wu’s photo below), France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. The huge number showed how much we missed taking part. We have been able to announce a virtual podium every week to reward those who have done well in the handicap race by improving their times – not an easy feat when there is no one else to run with.

Sankt Anton am Arlberg, Tyrol, Austria where Carol runs her 5k (Photo credit: Carol Wu).

With time, for better or worse, we have got used to the loneliness of the long-distance virtual runner. The upsides of virtual racing are numerous. Firstly, just like the 5k I have described above, you can make up your own route – literally even as you go along. If you want to avoid the nearest hill and go the other way, you can; if you want to turn at the next street rather than this one – no problem. Although most weeks I use a standard route around St James’s Park, it is just as fine to start randomly elsewhere, as long as you pick up a GPS signal. I had no route in mind and had to make a few more turns to make sure my distance added up to 5k. Perhaps my time suffered; but my liberty certainly didn’t, and that liberty made it a bit more fun for me.

Such is the flexibility of a virtual race that you could also benefit from the reverse. A lot of us have stuck to a tried and tested route, or even running laps of a track (like John Stone below), and have run some fast times as a result. Or you could run up and down your own street like Sid Wills did (see his photo further down). The familiarity and routine could be key on improvement of performances. You would know where the finish is (more on this later), and there wouldn’t be many nasty surprises (like the slight incline around Leicester Square). I personally found it useful to be able to compare a run with previous ones as well.

John running at the Paddington Recreational Ground track (Photo credit: John Stone).

Apart from being able to do your own route, you can also do it at your own time, anytime. Most virtual races allow time submission over a period of a few days – Serpiesphere has race weeks from Saturday morning to Friday night. Too hot today and want to wait for the temperature to drop to get a good time? Do it tomorrow. Or you only have about an hour to fit a race in, like I did this week? No problem, do it now! Very quickly you could get back to your life. There is no travelling to the race and worrying about not getting there on time for the bag drop.

This also means you can potentially do the race again, if somehow you feel you can run faster before the cut-off.  With the 5k there is always the potential to have a second bite of the cherry, as it’s relatively short and less recovery is needed compared with longer distances. Race purists would argue that you should take your designated run as seriously as a real-life race, and if you don’t get the time you want, tough. This could be true, at least for me. I find the vibe of a real race vital in providing motivation. It might not be easy, but imagine all these runners around you, imagine all the huffing and puffing along the way, imagine this is the day that a PB could happen.

Then again, there is only so much you can imagine. One aspect I have found the toughest to imagine in a virtual race is the finish line. To be able to see a finish line 400m away is a whole lot more effective than your watch clocking 4.6km – and the look at the watch could probably cost seconds. One cannot underestimate the ‘finish line effect’. In an actual mass participation race, when I see the sign ‘400m to go’, my mind would read ’two minutes to go’. It doesn’t sound so bad when you have already run a fair bit of distance. The virtual race, however, feels like a drag in the last few hundred metres. 4.6km poses the question of ’are we there yet?’. You just don’t know how much effort exactly you still need to put in. The GPS distance measurement never runs as fast as you’d like it to. The sprint is never the same as chasing down the person in front before you reach that plastic tape funnel. And what if your finishing point is on a narrow path and you have social distancing to worry about?

Sid running the 5k on his own street (Photo credit: Sid Wills).

And here comes the elephant in the virtual racing room – whilst it could be fun, it can never be a fair competition without the ‘same route, same time’ principle. Different people run different routes, all with their own twists, turns, and gradients; people run under different climatic conditions, in different countries, even continents. Even though GPS technology is reasonably advanced these days, it is still no substitute to a carefully calibrated course. Two people who run together on the same course could have slightly different distance measurements, let alone those who run in completely different places. Some races, like the Met League-Surrey League 5-miler at the end of May, require runners to start and finish at the same place in order to eliminate significant gradient drop. But these efforts can only achieve so much – it remains difficult to make the virtual performances comparable.

As for the Serpiesphere Virtual 5k, we want to keep the fun of running in an otherwise less than ideal situation. Whether you’re a 5k enthusiast, or you just fancy calling one of your jogs a race, the virtual race has something for everyone. I particularly enjoy the fact that everyone can win in the handicap race, so those who aren’t the usual suspects of running races could get a mention every week. We have deliberately kept it simple with self-add times and Strava or Garmin screenshots – more to see in what exotic places people are running than about catching the net downhillers. We achieved in providing something we can do together every week, on our own. I hope that by the time the pandemic is over, not only will our running performances be stronger, so will the Serpie community.

Hans Ho has not stopped running since 1996 when he was asked by his teacher to take part in Interschool Cross Country Competition in Hong Kong. Since then he has completed nine marathons in six countries. He is now the Participation Representative of Serpentine Running Club. His book “All the Little Things in Eurasia” is out now.