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Will Virtual Racing Stick Around After the Pandemic?

This year forced organizers to invent new ways to race—virtually. But what happens to those online experiences when things return to “normal?”

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The feeling of sprinting into chilly water or hearing the roar of a finish-line crowd is a uniquely in-person triathlon experience. But in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic rendered those moments impossible and left athletes and race organizers wondering now what? Some companies seized the opportunity to innovate in the virtual space, bringing hope to athletes who missed the routine of training and the thrill of competition. But if and when we can return to the excitement of in-person races, will these virtual experiences stick around, and what role will they play in triathlon’s future?

Virtual Racing Success

As most races were canceled IRL, many athletes and races moved online—and some found real success virtually. Zwift, the online cycling and running platform, was perfectly positioned for the stuck-at-home lifestyle, and clearly athletes agreed: Its user base doubled in 2020. And in June, Zwift unveiled the Z Pro Tri Race Series, an invite-only weekly competition featuring 60 of triathlon’s top professional athletes with commentary by Matt Lieto and Sean Jefferson.

“I was kind of feeling down about life, as most of us were, and I got this whole new motivation,” said Lauren Brandon, who raced both the Zwift and Ironman pro virtual races this year. “It helped me get through some training and get ready to race other people.” Some race organizers also offered creative online alternatives. The Malibu Triathlon, which typically hosts 5,000 athletes, still had more than 700 athletes take part in its virtual race on Sept. 26–27. “We have this incredibly enthusiastic audience that’s been doing our event for years, and we wanted to help give them something to shoot for,” said the race’s executive producer Michael Epstein. The race did not require an entry fee, but if you wanted a T-shirt and a medal, you could make a $100 donation to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. As of press time, athletes had raised $200,000 for pediatric cancer research.

When Life Time’s flagship events—the New York City Triathlon and Chicago Triathlon—were canceled, the company created virtual events that drew a combined 3,600 participants from all over the world. Athletes had the option to defer or donate their entry fees to various charities. One bonus: The races proved to be a welcoming way to bring more newbies to the sport. “With the flexibility to participate on your own, at your own pace, when and where you want, newcomers bypassed the intimidation and fear that would have prevented them from registering,” said Nicole Bostick, associate marketing director at Life Time.

The most robust pivot came from Ironman, which quickly created virtual opportunities for both age-groupers and pro athletes.

Every week—for more than 20 weeks and counting—Ironman produced an elaborate broadcast on Facebook Live, which (so far) has had more than 13.1 million unique views. “We wanted to create some form of content that was elite in structure and caliber,” said Ironman CEO Andrew Messick. “We were also mindful that pro athletes had no races anywhere in the world—and no way to earn money or showcase their sponsors.” Every pro was guaranteed a modest appearance fee, plus some small prize money opportunities.

The company also offered multiple opportunities for age groupers to race—competitively or casually—through its Ironman Virtual Club platform, which has grown to more than 119,000 members. Through two four-week-long Ironman VR Championship Series, athletes could even earn a spot at the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah. Ironman also introduced a five-week-long training plan that culminated in a virtual full-distance race during what would’ve been Kona week.

What The Future Brings

Hopefully, the world will eventually go back to some form of normalcy and regular race seasons can get underway. But that doesn’t necessarily mean virtual racing will disappear entirely. “I think some form of virtual racing is going to stay with us for the foreseeable future,” Messick said. It will continue to provide an opportunity for athletes to compete who don’t have access to in-person events nearby or whose in-person event sold out.

Virtual racing could also naturally become a part of athletes’ seasons as a way to build fitness before heading outdoors. “Once Zwift builds a seasonal structure, you might see pro athletes working that into their schedule a bit more,” Lieto said. “I think they are starting to realize it’s a small lift to make money and race against some of the best athletes in the world without leaving their house.” For age groupers, a virtual race could take the place of a “C” race intended to test current fitness—without the travel expense.

Outside of expanding current race offerings, both Ironman and Zwift see value on the training front too. From October through December, Zwift is offering triathlete-specific workouts to help users create their own training program. “We have a few things planned where you’ll be able to put yourself to the test with community racing,” said Craig Taylor, Zwift’s director of growth marketing for running and triathlon.

Ironman also wants to use technology to provide enhanced training programs. “There are all kinds of ways to augment courses with deep knowledge and to be able to create interesting prep tools,” Messick said. Picture something like a Malaysia-based athlete training for Kona who can virtually ride the bike course on the Rouvy platform and get specific tips from Ironman legend Paula Newby-Fraser along the way.

Although online races can never replace real-life excitement, virtual experiences will likely live on as a complement. “I will always miss that brief moment of crossing the finish line and feeling that sense of accomplishment,” said 60-year-old age grouper Jeff Krebs, who virtually qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. “But I’m going to cherish the medals from this year because it’s going to remind me of an interesting period of time in my life and in my racing career.”

OOPS: Tim O'Donnell hit the headlines back in April when he accidentally unplugged Mirinda Carfrae's trainer during a virtual race.

Tech ‘Mechanicals’

Racing in a virtual space has its tech downsides—as many of us have learned the hard way. James Cunnama’s wi-fi in South Africa went out during a Zwift race; Tim O’Donnell infamously disconnected Mirinda Carfrae’s trainer accidentally during an Ironman VR event.

The variety of devices and metrics can also make it tricky to create a truly level playing field. “I think that’s the biggest downfall of virtual racing—all power meters and trainers read differently, so even if you have a couple of data points, the watts can be completely different,” Brandon said.

For its age-group championship series—which offered slots to 70.3 Worlds—Ironman knew it needed to address those concerns for its hyper-competitive athletes. Their solution: Your run has to be outside with no net elevation loss, and your bike has to be on the Rouvy platform, in race mode, on an approved trainer. There’s still the matter, though, of reporting your own weight correctly, given that how fast you go in a virtual world depends on your power-to-weight ratio.

While the technology to regulate virtual racing is improving rapidly, at the end of the day it’s never going to be a 100% perfect process. “You just have to have a good attitude going into it and know that in reality we’re there to have fun and put in a good effort,” Brandon said.