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Virtual Racing & the rise of the Time Trial

With races cancelled across the world, amateur athletes have turned to time trials and virtual races. We spoke to a selection of athletes about the way virtual races differ to real races, and how to get the most from yourself in a time trial.

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Mitch Baum

—Chicago, IL

Where should your running focus have been this spring?
The Chicago Marathon, Shamrock Shuffle, and I was considering bopping into the Cleveland Marathon

When did you get the urge to run a time trial?
Initially I held out hope for Boston until the fateful day that I finally got word of its postponement. I’ll be honest, I was pretty upset. As a High School Teacher, that’s also Coaching Track full-time and in Graduate School full-time, making the commitment to train for Boston through the cold and dark Chicago Lakefront was a big one that I committed fully to. I had been putting in a lot of early, early AM miles to double with our High School’s track practices in order to make my mileage. Plus I had been spending longer than ever before doing some big long runs above 20 miles. “My Own Marathon” was actually supposed to just be my biggest long run before I started tapering down for Boston, so using it as an actual “race” day was perfect because I was able to kind of hit the rest those previous weeks and take a break from focusing so hard on running.

How do time trials differ to racing?
If you’re like me, at the end of the day you’re doing this running thing for yourself. So if you’re mad about losing your race to prove it all to yourself, then make the damn day for yourself. I wouldn’t have found any peace with the training I put in all winter if I hadn’t woken up one morning and did the damn thing — so I did. If you’re in the same situation, pick your day, prepare for it, and go do the damn thing (but in a socially responsible, healthy, and distant way).

How are you staying on task through this extended period of social distancing?
I’m trying to practice what I preach to my students in that we need a routine still! It may just be me, but I don’t think everybody can thrive in chaos. Still have an alarm set, time to get a run in, time to work, and time to call it quits. That structure has always been important to me, and I think benefits most people in weird times like these!

Keira D’Amato

—Richmond, VA

How has your attitude to training through lockdown changed since we first spoke?
To be honest, it hasn’t really changed. There have been some good days, some not-so-good days, but such is life. With everything going on in the world, running has been a really positive outlet for me. It's given me something to focus on, sometime to help structure a chaotic day, and I've been rewarded with seeing progress. Races or not, I'm not going to stop pursuing my passion.

When did you get the urge to run a time trial? 
As soon as we heard spring/summer races were canceled, my coach immediately pivoted and said 'Ok, a time trial then - this doesn't change our plans.' He didn't even miss a step. It's important for your mentality to see hints of progress and what all the training is equating to. Usually this happens during a race, but if there isn't a race, a hard effort! Find a way.

How did it go?
It. Went. Awesome. 
I was super fortunate to have an awesome pacer, Silas Franz. We just locked into 72/73s quarters and I was able to relax the mind and get comfortable in the pace. I got so relaxed, I lost track of laps and as we were coming through 400 to go, I had to ask him, 'is this the last lap?' So then I realized I should probably start picking it up. I closed in 65, but afterwards I was kicking myself that I should have started my kick earlier. I didn't know I was that close to breaking 15. Ah well, next time! 

How does the feel of a time trial differ to racing? 
Dude, the great thing about running a 5k is that it's over a lot quicker than a marathon! Time trials are nice because you don't have to travel, you sleep in your own bed, stay on your same routine, and rock 'n roll on your own track. It's a controlled environment that you've gone through the routine hundreds of times before. That being said, time trials lack that extra excitement and you obviously don't have the competition factor. There are pros and cons of each. 

Any tips on how to get the most out yourself in a TT?
Yes - Set yourself up to win!! Pick a day where you won't be stressed, can get a good night of sleep, the weather is nice, the conditions are ideal - you set the rules, so give yourself every reason to succeed. Tell a buddy or a friend your goal to have someone hold you accountable. Also, you gotta make it FUN. That's the name of the game here. This isn't a punishment, it's a gift. 

Patrick Gregory

—Boston, MA

Where should your running focus have been this spring?
Coming off of mile and 3k PRs during indoors and a few decent performances on the road in the 10k and half marathon, I was looking forward to making at least one big trip out to Stanford or Portland for a shot at a big breakthrough performance in the 1500 or 5000.

When did you get the urge to run a time trial? How did it go?
In the early stages of quarantine when I was trying to figure out how running would look for me, a series of virtual races kept the pressure on me to stay ready to compete. I raced a 10K, a mile, a 5K, and then a half marathon. The mile time trial I ran was probably the most interesting: I ran 4:02 on the tempo loop at Harvard. I was actually dreading it going in, but once I saw David Melly’s and Lou Serafini’s results from earlier in the morning, I had some coffee and got myself prepared to run hard. I still wanted to “win,” whatever that looked like. Their performances, even from afar, motivated me to get out the door and run an all-out race.

How do time trials differ to racing? How do they compare to normal training efforts?

They are kind of like a combination of a training effort and a race. In a lot of workouts, it’s a really bad idea to give a 100% effort, whether it’s on the last interval or over the course of the entire thing, even though sometimes I have a real urge to do so. The time trial is kind of like a training effort where you’re allowed to go all-out, and it’s a bit of a game to guess where your fitness is and how hard you can go: “Can I run 4:45 pace or am I short-changing myself? Maybe I could hold 4:43s, but will I be able to make it to the finish?” That kind of thing. The experience of trying to optimize a performance without others to compete against is a little odd. There aren’t any surges to be made to drop a group, and there’s no letting off the gas because you have a big enough gap on the field. The concept of doing your best actually means optimizing the speed over the distance and holding it the entire way; it’s not really racing at all. You can win a race without a 100% effort if you’re good enough, but in a time trial “all-out” is the only way to do it.

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Madison Yerke

—Boston, MA

How has your attitude to training through lockdown changed since we first spoke?
At the beginning of lockdown I was pretty motivated by the amount of time and sheer reason that now there was no excuse to do anything but train hard. The first month or so I really went all in, simply because with working from home and everything being shut down, there was nothing else to do. I built my mileage up and actually started working on the little things (strength, core, flexibility, etc). Over the course of the lockdown and as the state of public health progressed, I started to loosen the reins a bit and go with the flow. If I felt like doing a workout or hard long run I would, other days I'd jog 20 minutes and call it a day. I actually took a few weeks off at the end of May just to reprioritize and reset my training, so now the goal is a very slow build-up to any resemblance of fitness and am looking towards the fall for (hopefully) some races. 

When did you get the urge to run a time trial? 
As soon as I heard about the Run Free Grand Prix series I wanted in. Especially since all the distances were different, it'd let me try to push myself solo at distances I'd never run before or had been planning on racing this spring. I'd been rocking the solo workouts I was doing so it felt like the appropriate way to go to test my fitness. It took a teammate of mine to text me about doing the time trial series as a virtual team before I fully committed to it, but of course I'm happy I did! 

How did it go?
SO GREAT. The first was a 10k in April and I was feeling pretty lowkey about it. I'd never even raced a 10k before so I was going to go into it treating it like a tempo and see how it would go. Turns out at the halfway mark I was within 10 seconds of my 5k PR and quickly changed my mindset to grind-mode to see what I could do the last 5k in. I ended up absolutely dominating it! A month later I ran a 5k time trial. Coming off my 10k 'race' I was feeling pretty confident about it; the goal was to go in and try to PR or at least tie it. I went out a bit too hot in the first mile, but once I found a rhythm I ended up crushing it and PRing by 20 seconds. 

How does the feel of a time trial differ to racing? How do they compare to normal training efforts?
Once you start doing the time trial you quickly realize you're truly in it all for yourself. It takes a lot of the pressure off racing away, but it also makes you ask yourself why do a hard effort by yourself in the midst of a pandemic. In a time trial your only competitor is the clock, and that gives a bit more of an edge to your running compared to doing a typical workout. It's something to look forward to and challenge yourself with, without getting the pre-race nerves but still feeling a bit of adrenaline as you start your watch. 

I like to stay in a routine. So I think where time trials compare is that I more or less treat time trials as a race rather than a workout, so I try my best to get myself into the same mindset and do my race day routine going into the effort.

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Sam Duggan

—London, UK

Where should your running focus have been this spring?
This spring I had planned to be running the London Marathon at the end of April. I had just met the championship entry time at the Abingdon Marathon in 2:44 in October 2019 and was coming off a good run of fitness. Training and motivation to get marathon fit had progressed slowly off the last block in Autumn but by early March I had got into decent shape again and had a goal time of slipping into The 2:3X’s.

How have you coped with the uncertainty of training through lockdown?
It has been challenging due to logistical issues but not due to my motivation. Working full time and having a young child at home has meant getting the runs in whenever I can rather than when I want to. My training volume has reduced significantly and I’m not worried about sessions or weekly mileage anymore. Running has been my alone time, head space and time to process what’s going on in my life and the wider world right now. Recently, being able to run with friends has been even better and only increased my love for running in its most pure form.

When did you get the urge to run a time trial? How did it go?
I run with a club, Victoria Park Harriers, and they organised some TT’s and virtual races against other clubs. Initially I wasn’t very keen on the idea as I was happy having no structure to my running, but have actually done four in the last two months. I’ve been surprised how motivated I have been to get my head into ‘racing mode’ and how easy it’s been to flip the switch to really push myself over different distances from 3km to 5miles. It’s been fun seeing friends across the club log their times on Strava and setting benchmarks to aim for.

How do time trials differ to racing? How do they compare to normal training efforts?
Time trials are much more mental than racing in my opinion. There are no crowds or competitors, so you have to get your head into racing mode alone. I’ve been surprised that this hasn’t been difficult for me but I could see for others that they may need more external stimuli to draw the best performance out of themselves. I have been able to dig much deeper than I would in normal training and recently hit a goal for 3km on the road that I have .had in my head for some time.

David Westenberg

—Boston, MA

How has your attitude to training through lockdown changed?
My attitude really hasn't changed. As an older runner, I’m acutely aware of lost opportunities with the passage of time. I’ve tried to stay in racing shape so I can jump right back in when races resume. Lockdown has required some adjustments. I only run alone, and almost entirely on roads since I’ve had almost no access to tracks. The result has been less speed work and more distance work than I ordinarily would be doing.

When did you get the urge to run a time trial? 
I keep a calendar of planned track meets and other races that goes out a year (even longer for the masters national and world championships). As scheduled events are cancelled, I cross them off. When the number of cancellations hit double-digits, I realized I would lose my sharpness if I didn't find some way to race, so I began entering virtual competitions. The first was the Run Free Grand Prix - a series of four races on virtual teams with one race held every two weeks (10K, mile, 5K and half marathon). This series was organized by some Tracksmith guys.

After that, the age 60+ runners on my team (Greater Lowell Road Runners) were challenged to a 5K virtual race by our age peers at Atlanta Track Club, which then led to an ongoing series of virtual races for age 60+ teams around the country put together by the Boulder Road Racers. This competition was written up by The Running Professor.

Finally, since the mile is my first running love, I’ve run three more virtual road miles: the Somerville Road Runners 26 x 1 mile relay, the Brooklyn Mile and the downhill Spring Street Mile, where I managed my first sub-5:00 mile in 42 years!

How did it go? 
Overall, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed the flexibility of picking my own course and scheduling the race time. It’s been great to maintain team camaraderie for the team competitions, even though we can’t train or race together. And virtual races have given me the opportunity to expand my racing range with less stress. Until the Run Free Grand Prix, I had raced only one 10K and had never run a half marathon, but it went surprisingly well. I’ve been able to run strong times in most of the races, with age-grades ranging up to the low 90%'s.

How does the feel of a time trial differ to racing? How do they compare to normal training efforts?
Virtual races help scratch the competitive itch, but they aren’t perfect substitutes. I find it hard to push the pace when racing solo, especially as the distance gets longer. Start-time flexibility is nice but I’ve found it also makes it easy to procrastinate - stretching, walking around and sipping water to delay the start of the race. I treat virtual traces like real races, so they are definitely more rigorous than training runs. I taper for them like I would for a real race, and need to recover afterwards.

Any tips on how to get the most out of yourself in a TT?
Treat it like a real race. Follow your normal pre-race routine, starting the night before. Eat your normal pre-race foods. Wear a racing singlet and racing shoes. Warm up and cool down like you would for a real race. And tell yourself if it doesn't go well you can always try again, or pretend you never ran.