Is this the year 'virtual races' gain traction?

Organizers of the #Run3rd 5K in Mesa, Ariz., in April have organized a "virtual race" for out-of-state participants to join them in helping raise money for school fitness programs. So far, people have signed up from 17 states, including South Carolina, and Canada.

Like it or not - not! - we increasingly live in a virtual world.

First, there was virtual reality. Then virtual money and even virtual girlfriends. And now, for better or worse, virtual races, as in 5Ks and half marathons.

Virtual races can be run (or walked, skipped or crawled) at any location, outdoors or even on a dreaded treadmill, within a certain time frame. You don't even have to drag yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to make the 8 a.m. start.

OK, so maybe the idea isn't so horrible.

Virtual races are not new. In their present form, they started about eight years ago. Still, many are just now starting to hear about them, including yours truly.

I think 2015 will be a year that virtual races will gain traction because of confluence of several forces and trends.

Increasingly more people, typically sedentary people, are heeding the call of disease prevention and are getting and using fitness trackers and other wearable technology. Also, real races not only are intimidating but getting more expensive and/or more crowded. Registration for this year's Cooper River Bridge Run goes up to a whopping $55 on Jan. 15.

Like the Bridge Run or an out-of-town half marathon, virtual races give people, such as busy moms, an opportunity to have a fitness goal for more reasonable fees, such as $25. No travel expenses. No crowds and corrals. No using a smelly portable toilet in the dark.

In return, participants can print out a race bib, receive a T-shirt and usually a finisher's medal, and even submit their times, though that is often "optional," for race results (no cheating, OK?). Many virtual races also say they support national charities.

"It is a way for people who cannot afford to travel to races to participate in something that is meaningful," says Kristy Nichols Cooper of Charleston. "Most of the races have medals and many have shirts . It allows runners from all over the world to connect, either for a good cause or just for the love of the sport."

As expected, entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity and created web sites for virtual racing: Fit, Fab & Lean, Fit 4 Life and Will Run for Bling.

Virtual running also is going beyond the virtual race. Run the Edge has a year-long virtual running challenge - for people to sign up to run 2,015 miles in 2015, either solo or as teams of two or three.

Jennifer Hartig of Johns Island did a virtual race, the Hug a Runner 10K, on the treadmill last fall because it supported the nonprofit Girls On The Run and fit into her training schedule for the Kiawah Island Half Marathon.

"Some people ordered shirts and medals. I thought that was a bit much," says Hartig. "Everyone was encouraged to post pics of themselves running. It was neat to feel part of something bigger, and for such a good cause."

Friends Kristy Nichols Cooper and Heather "Collins" Varner of Charleston rallied about 50 locals to participate in The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training's Run With Your Heart virtual 5K, held July 17-31, 2014.

They created a Facebook page for the virtual run where people posted photographs of doing the race. Two posted pics doing the 5K on a stair climber. Two used the Cooper River bridge. One young man incorporated the virtual run into a real run, the Isle of Palms Beach Run 5K.

Jennifer Tyson, a Charleston-based coach with Gaia Fit, ran a virtual race with her Walt Disney World Radio Run Team in November and is about to do another one based in Arizona.

"I loved the first and already signed up for the second. It's an easy way to connect with running friends across the country, raise money for a good cause, and earn some bling," says Tyson.

"Facebook really makes this possible. Everyone posted pics out on their run and we tallied how many total miles were run," says Tyson.

Like it or not, the world is expanding to offer more people more choices in finding their way to a healthier life.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.