‘I felt the emotion of an event’: Virtual New York City Marathon has been far from normal

‘I felt the emotion of an event’: Virtual New York City Marathon has been far from normal

10/29/2020

The 2020 New York City Marathon began shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday night, on a chilly, dark evening in southern England.

The starting line was right outside Scott Kishere's front door.

Kishere, a 37-year-old police officer and indie filmmaker, stood in front of his house wearing a bib that he had printed out himself. He pulled up an app that would track his own personal marathon route, and heard ambient noise from a past race through his headphones — complete with the sound of the starting gun. Then, he took off.

"I felt the emotion of an event," Kishere said, "when in actual fact, from anyone seeing me out on the street, I was just some guy on his own going for a run."

The New York City Marathon is the largest race of its kind in the world, typically drawing more than 50,000 participants to a course that weaves through the city's five boroughs. In a normal year, it would have been run Sunday morning.

But this year, of course, has been far from normal. The coronavirus pandemic has flattened economies, interrupted social gatherings and infected more than 44 million people. So when the 2020 New York City Marathon was canceled in June, organizers pivoted to make the race virtual instead — inviting runners to participate from anywhere in the world, from laps around Central Park to laps around a backyard in Melbourne, Australia.

Because the 2020 New York City Marathon is a virtual event, it won't have the usual 50,000 participants running through the city's five boroughs. (Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, AP)

New York Road Runners, which organizes and operates the race, said this year's event is expected to have roughly half as many participants as a normal year, with about 27,000 people registered as of last week. But the diversity of the field has grown; Nearly half of the participants are international runners, representing 130 countries.

"There’s some people around the world that might not ever get the opportunity to come and run it in person," said Michael Capiraso, the president and CEO of New York Road Runners. "But doing it virtually, they can share in some aspect of being a part of this great event."

The virtual nature of the New York City Marathon has given runners a unique degree of flexibility, similar to other major road races that have been held so far in the United States and around the world. Participants have been able to map their own routes, and run their 26.2 miles at any point in a 16-day window, between Oct. 17 and Sunday.

Kishere, for instance, initially planned to run his virtual marathon Thursday but made a last-minute switch because of the weather forecast. Instead, he ran his race Monday evening, cruising through the rural suburbs surrounding his home and to a nearby harbor.

Some onlookers noticed his bib and cheered him on. Others gave him strange looks. When he reached a massive hill at Mile 22, he might have usually wondered why the race organizer decided to make this final stretch so challenging. But this time, he was the race organizer. 

"I got to the top and was like 'what am I doing?'" he said with a laugh.

Kishere said his wife, sister, mother and two nieces helped cheer him on along the route and held up a ribbon for him to run through at the finish line.

This marathon, his fourth, certainly didn't feel like the others — including the usual New York City Marathon, which he ran in 2018. But he said it was still an incredible moment, in its own way.

"There was no one telling me to do this. There was no crowd to draw support from," said Kishere, who raised money for a local charity ahead as part of his run. "It was pure self-motivation."

Capiraso said New York Road Runners has sponsored virtual races for a number of years now, but COVID-19 prompted it to expand those efforts. The organization has also recently hosted a few smaller in-person races, with sparse crowds and staggered waves at the starting line.

It's unclear when it will be safe to once again stage these mega-marathons. Boston Marathon organizers recently announced that they will move their 2021 race from the spring to the fall, with hopes of holding the event in-person. Capiraso expects that the 2021 New York City Marathon will be in the same boat.

"We’re hopeful," he said, "and we look forward to being side-by-side again out there on the streets of New York City with 50,000 people at some point here in the future."

In the meantime, virtual races will have to do. Kishere said it's a far cry from the electricity of running down the streets of Manhattan, with thousands of people cheering you on. But it's a solution to the problem at hand.

"It shows people that there is a way around things," Kishere said. "OK, this virus sucks, but this is what we’ve got. None of us know what’s going to happen, so let’s embrace change, not fight it."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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