Virtual Races: How the Boston Marathon and Head of the Charles will Permanently Change


As the Boston & New York City marathons and The Head of the Charles Regatta cancel their in-person format due to COVID-19, their virtual substitute creates new opportunities for greater participation and broader appeal. But can they give athletes and weekend warriors just as rewarding an experience as “real” events do? Argueably the virtual complement of these events are already proving their worth as an additional way for organizers to expand their event’s reach and improve accessibility.

Major Races Go Virtual

The Olympics and the Euro 2020 (the European Soccer Championship) have been postponed to 2021, the Tokyo and the Berlin marathons have been canceled – will this be the dullest year for sports fans around the world? Perhaps not for all sports...

The organizers of the New York Marathon announced that they will replace the live event with virtual race and the Head of The Charles will be hosted as a “global remote event”. Recently even Spartan organized virtual races and so far the company was able to engage over 3 million participants worldwide. Finally, Zwift is allowing riders around the world to participate in Virtual Tour de France.

These are just examples: 5k-races, marathons, cycling races - "virtual racing" has started to play a significant role in the world of sports. And even when COVID is eventually contained, the virtual complement of these major sporting events will probably remain a permanent part. Just like live radio broadcasting brought events to people worldwide, virtual formats now enable participation that otherwise was unimaginable. Aside from improving the diversity of the participating field and ultimately raising the competitive bar, race organizers can also raise money from new global sponsors and sign content distribution deals.

How do virtual races differ from real life?

Fortunately a lot of technology already exists that race organizers can use to organize, host, and run a virtual event. Sign-ups and enrollment are managed as in the past, but for running the actual event, most races are requiring participants to use fitness trackers (Fitbit, iWatch, Whoop) and data logging services (Strava) to record their race along a route and location of their choosing within a set time limit (usually a week). Results are consolidated onto a digital leaderboard or collected via email by the race organizers. Medals and other rewards will be shipped to the participants or delivered virtually.

For certain races, like running, biking or rowing, indoor machines can be used to simulate the actual event. This provides users a mechanism for completing the race in a controlled environment at their convenience, but also offers race organizers greater accuracy and validity of the results. For example, the HOCR is requiring use of an erg for submitting times.

What are the pros and cons of virtual races?

Can these remote events replace the excitement of live events? Probably not. However, they can offer people a more inclusive, accessible sports event.


  • Broader Participation - Physical boundaries don't exist in the virtual world, so people from around the globe can join an event. For participants, this increases the level of competition and opens events that were previously inaccessible.

  • Race Expansion - This creates unique opportunities for event organizers to create more racing categories, appeal to new audiences and draw bigger sponsors. Participation is no longer constrained to the physical location's capacity for people.

  • More Events - Off-season or additional race formats can be easily created and rolled out. This offers greater variety for participants and creative options for event organizers.

  • Better Performance Tracking - Virtual races are tech-driven by design, which means greater opportunity to capture data and utilize metrics. Individual results can be more detailed and offer trend analysis across races.


  • No Real Environment - An obvious drawback is not being able to experience the unique environment of the race course. Increasingly exercise machines are adding features like automatic terrain adjustment to better simulate the physical route.

  • Lack of People Presence - A lot of what drives race participants is the in-person energy of the crowd and their competition. To improve on that, many virtual options offer real-time data connections with other participants and use avatars to simulate their presence. While not perfect, the mere fact that others are visible in the experience (via metrics or avatars) does improve on the competitive dynamic.

  • Early Stages - We are in the early stages of this format's evolution, so many of the experiences will be choppy or sub-standard. But because they still serve to bring people together and offer a comparable challenge to the their real-life version, we should expect to see innovation flourish and improve the experience.

Where can I find Virtual Races?

Most running races have gone virtual, so check Runner's World for the latest on the major ones. Other destination events that went virtual like Disney have set up their own sites and calendars of events, as did many of the larger charity run events like St. Jude Hospital. For rowing, RegattaCentral is the best resource for finding erg-based virtual races which many have converted to this year. For triathlons, check out Triathlete Magazine's online calendar. And finally for cycling, it appears Zwift is the leading virtual racing platform for most major events.

How Regatta Supports Virtual Racing

Regatta is a digital-born company with the mission of inspiring people around the world to connect and socialize through virtual live classes. Our platform is meeting the right need at the right time. For example, we are able to support Head of the Charles participants by offering a live experience for them to race with others, to include a real-time leaderboard and live-streamed coach from our studio to help set a pace and offer encouragement. Our app captures all performance data directly from the rowing machine for use as an official race result.

Even before the actual races, our live or on-demand classes will allow our members to compete with each other or to work out at their own pace as they prepare for an upcoming event. And while rowing is one format we can support very well, our platform extends to other machine brands and types to similarly enable live, in-person virtual races across multiple modalities.

"The Regatta app is a total game-changer.  As a runner, these workouts keep me injury-free and strong.  With the New England weather, I'm glad to have a cardio option in the comfort of my own home".

Kate, Boston MA

Join classes featuring world-class instructors who guide and inspire you through our indoor, machine-based workouts. Our portable iOS app combines a live-streamed coach, real-time data connection to machines, and a competitive tracking board.

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