When the cry of “3, 2, 1, Go!” kicked off the Providence Marathon, Graham Briggs didn’t need to angle for position. He was, after all, the sole runner. And oh, he was in his own driveway, in Natick.
It was 5 a.m., and the “official starters” were his daughter and his neighbor, shouting and giggling through a megaphone in their pajamas.
Running circles in his neighborhood, he asked himself a question: “Why am I doing this?”
Do we even need to say it? COVID-19. Like everything else — Grandma’s birthday, kindergarten, your annual physical — road races have gone virtual. Run when you want where you want.
These on-demand races are not anyone’s first choice. They reduce the race mainly to the running part, when for many of today’s charity and other non-runner-runners, camaraderie is the propellant. They thrive on the shared experience of raising money for a cause. The road trip. The finish line. The after-beers.
But running alone together is all we have, so race organizers — eager to keep customers satisfied and engaged (as possible) — are taking a decidedly upbeat approach.
The iconic New Balance Falmouth Road Race has rebranded its 2020 event as the “At-Home Edition.”
“Perhaps the best thing,” the website proclaims “is that it can be done your way. . . . It’s OK to run the 7-mile race one mile at a time, even over a period of several days. Try doing THAT in a race.”
(A race that can be done one step at a time? Maybe there is something we’ll miss about the pandemic.)
Boston’s Run to Remember is also emphasizing the positive. “You will be mailed your special commemorative finisher medal and t-shirt!” the website promises.
“Your pace. Your happy place,” is the motto of the Girls on the Run Greater Boston’s 5K.
In one way, stay-at-home orders have been great for running. With gyms closed, people who haven’t run in years are returning to the sport. Others are taking it up for the first time. But prohibitions on group gatherings are messing with long-anticipated races.
Some are rescheduling in hopes the pandemic will be called off in time. The 124th running of the Boston Marathon has been moved from April to September. The Paris Marathon is now planned for October. Others have been canceled with no DIY option. The Great Wall Marathon in China is simply gone this year. So is Maine’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K.
“There is no single vision of what constitutes a “virtual” race, and we did not identify an ideal option,” the Beach to Beacon website explains. “Additionally, shipping and supply chains remain interrupted and we have concerns about being able to reliably ship t-shirts as part of a virtual event.”
Another issue with virtual races: They allow for procrastination.
That’s true even for someone like Susan Hurley, founder of CharityTeams, which trains and motivates charity runners.
On a recent day, an un-run Maine Coast Half & Full Marathon was hanging over her head. It had snowed on May 9, the race’s original date, and while she would have happily run an old-fashioned, in-person race, when it was up to her to decide she figured she’d do it tomorrow. Or the day after that.
“I just have to get out there and do it,” she said on May 13.
“Next weekend,” she said on May 18.
Some canceled or postponed races are offering refunds, but some are not. And runners who are out their entry fees aren’t the only ones feeling the impact, said Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon and president of DMSE Sports, Inc.
Even when races go virtual, he wrote in an emotional e-mail to friends, so many can still suffer — the charities that rely on runners’ fund-raising efforts; the workers who earn a living putting out barricades and cones; event organizers like him; the runners who come to racing seeking community not competition.
But do-it-yourself is all we have right now, and the trend has led to a world where you can step out of your front door in, say, Waban, hear “God Save the Queen” playing, and spot someone running the London Marathon, which has been postponed until October.
That’s what happened to Adam Brill’s neighbors on April 26 — the day that he should have been running past the Tower of London and Westminster, but was instead circling his house 36.5 times (for a total of 13.1 miles, since, hey, he was his own race director).
“You’d see him every few minutes,” said Lisa Damon, who lives nearby.
She and others learned about the race from signs posted around the neighborhood by Brill’s wife, Elizabeth.
“If you feel up to cheering for a live sporting event, poke your head outside and clap, cheer or wave,” the posters read. “It also might just feel good to go outside and yell.”
Back in Natick, it was around 9 a.m., and Graham Briggs, alone and three blocks from his house, glanced at the mileage tracker on his watch and pumped his fist. '"Yes!" He’d achieved his goal — 26.2 miles in under four hours.
Or maybe he had. “The tracker was probably off a half-mile one way or the other,” he said. But hey, it’s a pandemic. “I’m going with it."