Amid your rhythmic footfalls, Falmouth Road Race landmarks come and go. The Nobska lighthouse. The flat miles along the Vineyard Sound. The loop around the inner harbor. You check your watch at each mile marker. Right on pace. As the beachside finish nears, the crowds grow larger and louder. You sprint beneath a giant American flag, cross the line 150 yards later, and find a bank of photographers clicking away. Then, with the satisfaction of a race well run, you step off your treadmill.
Welcome to the world of remote road-race participation.
For the first time, runners can enter Falmouth as remote participants and experience a virtual version of the 7-mile course on their treadmills. To make it all possible, the 43-year-old race partnered with Hopkinton-based Outside Interactive. At the heart of the system is the company’s Virtual Runner app and high-definition course video. When used with an optional footpod attached to a shoelace, Outside Interactive’s software automatically adjusts the video speed to each runner’s exact pace — or the speed can be adjusted manually for those without a footpod.
As the course video plays on a laptop, tablet, or television, runners may feel as though they are actually running through Falmouth, minus ocean breezes, of course.
Outside Interactive executives and race officials believe the remote option could be good for runners who failed to gain entry through the registration lottery or cannot travel to the Cape on race day, either because it is too costly or inconvenient.
But while the app closely approximates what it would be like to experience Falmouth from a runner’s point of view, it can’t replicate the real race.
“This is more about participation than competition,” said Outside Interactive founder and distance runner Gary McNamee. “We’re trying to expose the world to these different marquee races.”
That said, Dave McGillivray, who serves as race director for Falmouth, the Boston Marathon, Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and dozens of other road races, believes the appeal of live events, the excitement of racing with crowds of runners and spectators will never go away. Also, remote race participation doesn’t seem sensible or fun for full marathons, though virtual training on sections of the Boston Marathon course could be valuable preparation
Falmouth is the first road race to use Outside Interactive’s technology for official remote participation, making the event both a pioneer and test case. The company has captured 10 other race courses on video, giving those events the option to register remote runners down the road. The list includes Beach to Beacon, the Boston Marathon, the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Wash., and the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in Washington, D.C.
Across the country, race directors will be tracking what happens with Falmouth before and after its Aug. 16 race day. A successful launch will likely prompt other races to create remote participation categories. Could remote participation be the next big trend in road racing? Events certainly have incentive to try it.
For famous races with field size limits such as Falmouth, remote participation lets more runners enter. For all races, more participants means more funds — a particularly attractive feature for charity events.
“My initial take on it was that this would be primarily for people who were closed out of an event like Beach to Beacon or Falmouth,” said McGillivray. “For me, it was more about giving them the experience of the event, not disappointing them totally by closing them out versus another revenue concept.”
But it will be a revenue boost, too. For Falmouth, Outside Interactive will split remote participation payments with the race 25/75, giving the race $30 for every $40 virtual runner fee.
Remote participants who train and race on different virtual courses also provide a potential marketing opportunity for races, their sponsors, and their host cities and towns. If runners like what they see on the video, they may want to participate live in the future, increasing the popularity of the contests and tourism dollars.
“I really wanted to run Falmouth in person, but I’m not able to get up there this August,” said Kristin Bold, who will race remotely from her home in Tampa, Fla. “The remote participation option gives me an opportunity to see the course and, hopefully, feel like I’m running it on my treadmill. It’s a great, low-risk way of trying out a race course before you decide if that’s a race you want to pay to travel to.”
The concept of virtual racing is not new. For several years, opportunities have existed on different websites, with specially programmed treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines, and through various apps. To name a few, there is the website www.willrunforbling.com, the Zwift platform where indoor cyclists can compete against each other video-game style, and the iFit subscription service with video routes compatible with various indoor exercise machines.
In many virtual road races, runners cover a designated distance outside or on a treadmill, then typically report a time to race organizers for some recognition or race souvenir in return. The partnership between a race like Falmouth and Outside Interactive takes remote participation to a new level, with the high definition video, pace-tracking capability, and direct connection to a well-known US race.
With Falmouth 10 weeks away, 67 remote runners have entered the event so far. Remote registration will remain open through race day, and McNamee hopes 500 runners sign up. By 2018, he said, “we want to have more remote participants than the 12,800 people who toe the line in Woods Hole. That’s the goal.”
This year, for a $40 fee ($25 less than other entrants), Falmouth’s virtual runners will receive a downloadable custom race bib, finisher’s certificate, and official race swag. And they will be included in the official race results in a special category for those who finish the course on treadmills. As an added bonus, runners who compete remotely in 2015 will be entered in a special lottery next year, improving their odds of running live in 2016.
On the day of the event or a day they choose to race in the week preceding the official start, remote participants will enter a one-time activation code into the app. That lets the app know, as McNamee put it, “this one counts.” When virtual runners finish, their times will be sent from the app to the race’s website and counted officially in the remote participant category. Organizers recognize that cheating would be relatively easy but they are not concerned. The results for remote participants are separate, and no prize money or qualifying times are at stake.
When he dreamed up the idea behind remote participation, McNamee wanted a more interesting treadmill experience. Forced inside by harsh winter weather and bored with long treadmill runs while training for the 2010 Boston Marathon, he looked for a way to bring the marathon inside.
McNamee first filmed the Boston Marathon course through the sunroof of his car. It wasn’t pretty. After years of trial and error, his company figured out a Segway-mounted camera system that produced high-quality course footage. For videos that come as close to the real race day experience as possible, the Outside Interactive crew films courses roughly 45 minutes before the starting gun goes off.
Over the next few years, McNamee hopes to build a catalog of a couple dozen marquee races. He can also see expansion into other sports such as cycling and rowing and markets such as the military and health clubs.
“It’s still a fairly new concept,” said McGillivray. “It hasn’t been totally rolled out yet. I think they’re right on the cusp of this thing expanding significantly. This is probably a watershed year for them.”
If runners and race directors buy in on a big scale, then the future of road racing could look a lot different than it does now.Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.