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Ready, Set, Go Virtual: How the New York City Marathon Organizers Are Recreating the Event for Runners

This year’s participants will be able to experience spectator cheers and an augmented-reality medal feature via the marathon’s apps.

The virtual version of the TCS New York City Marathon begins on Oct. 17 and ends on Nov. 1, allowing runners to run the race at their convenience and at the location of their choice.
The virtual version of the TCS New York City Marathon begins on Oct. 17 and ends on Nov. 1, allowing runners to run the race at their convenience and at the location of their choice.
Photo: Courtesy of NYRR

NEW YORKInstead of transversing the five boroughs, this year’s participants of the TCS New York City Marathon will be running online only.

It isn’t the first time the race has gone virtual though. The digital iteration, a part of the New York Road Runners’ Volvo Virtual Racing Powered by Strava, will be returning for its third consecutive year, having debuted in 2018. But for 2020, which marks the marathon’s 50th anniversary, the organizers behind the major race are amping up the experience.

Christine Burke, SVP of strategic partnerships and runner products at the New York Road Runners, explains that the organization decided at the end of June to cancel the in-person marathon due to coronavirus-related health and safety concerns for runners, spectators, volunteers, and staff, saying that they wanted to give as much advance notice as possible to the event’s partners and vendors.

Other marathons including those in Chicago, Berlin, and Tokyo have also been canceled. The London Marathon, which took place Oct. 4, used distance-measuring devices to help keep the elite group of athletes (amateurs ran a virtual course) and staff safe during the races. The wearables light up and make a sound when the user gets too close to someone else.

Burke says that the use of such tech would have been impractical to deploy during the NYC marathon simply because of the sheer volume of runners and transportation logistics. “Getting 55,000 runners from Manhattan to Staten Island [where the race starts], to safely move that many people is not possible.” (Runners travel via bus or ferry to Staten Island on race day.) She did say that the organization is already exploring ways to keep the participants socially distanced during next year’s event.

The NYRR Racing app will display where the marathon runners and their fellow virtual racers are in real time and where they would stack up on the actual marathon course.The NYRR Racing app will display where the marathon runners and their fellow virtual racers are in real time and where they would stack up on the actual marathon course.Photo: Courtesy of NYRRInstead, for this year, organizers focused on enhancing the virtual experience via the NYRR Racing app, including displaying where the runners and their fellow virtual racers are in real time and where they would stack up on the actual marathon course. Plus, friends and family will still be able to track their runner’s progress, similar to if they were cheering them on IRL from the sidelines.

The app will also include audio cues and sounds of the city that would be heard along the course such as the silence as the runners cross the Verrazano Bridge, the roar of the crowd on First Avenue as they exit the 59th Street Bridge, as well as the cannon blast and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” which signal the start of the race, Burke says.

The race’s title partner TCS has also launched a free app, TCS New York City Marathon App, Powered by Tata Consultancy Services, which includes an augmented-reality feature that allows participants to “wear” their medal after they finish, a finish-line photo replay feature, and selfie frames and cheer signs.

The virtual marathon period will begin Oct. 17 and finish Nov. 1, allowing runners to run the race at their convenience and at the location of their choice during a specified period of time. In this case, runners will have one day to complete 26.2 miles. The New York Road Runners also provide runners with advice on setting up their at-home courses, including where to place stations for water and nutrition.

So far, over 20,000 runners have registered, and runners are able to sign up until the last day (Nov. 1). 

There are four different registration tiers: 1,000 entries ($150 for members and $175 for non-members) receive guaranteed, non-complimentary entry to the 2021, 2022, or 2023 in-person New York City marathon, as well as virtual training with NYRR Coaching Lab, a medal, and running buff; 200 entries ($150 for members and $175 for non-members) for those who raise $500 or more for Team for Kids, NYRR’s charity running team, as well as the same benefits as the first tier and a Team for Kids backpack and singlet; an unlimited number of entries ($50 for members and $60 for non-members) receive a medal, running buff, and 50% off virtual training; and an unlimited number of free entries receive 10% off virtual training. All entries also include sponsor tie-ins such as a Strava subscription and a discount on a purchase or a lease of a new Volvo.

In addition to the race, organizers also designed a virtual expo, which is usually a favorite spot for runners. Accessible through the app and online, it features virtual booths with gear that’s available for purchase, as well as information sessions.

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