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Volume 23 No. 29
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NYRR gets up to speed with virtual marathon

With marathon space maxed out, NYRR is seeking other ways to reach runners.
Photo: Getty Images

The TCS New York City Marathon is already the world’s largest marathon with more than 50,000 runners, and tens of thousands more enter a drawing each year but aren’t accepted.

Race organizer New York Road Runners would like to grow, but there’s only so much space on New York’s streets. This year, they’ve turned to Strava, the fitness activity app, to help power a virtual race.

In an experiment in race-consumer behavior, 500 runners will join NYRR’s first virtual marathon next week. They paid $100 each, instead of the $255 fee for the real thing, and will have to complete a 26.2-mile run anywhere in the world between Nov. 1-4, and upload the results via the Strava tracker within three days to count.

Where the “virtual race” concept ultimately leads NYRR’s business is unclear, and executives consider this year’s Virtual Racing series a beta test. In the short term, it’s adding new revenue and impressions for a marathon that’s at capacity.

“We’ve talked about this for a number of years: How do you grow your impact on race day and get more people around the world engaged?” said NYRR CEO Michael Capiraso. “All of it came together with the virtual racing platform, and we’re excited to see how it plays out.”

The ultimate market demand for virtual road races is hard to discern at this point. This year’s sign-up was incentivized by offering guaranteed entry to the real race in 2019 for virtual finishers.

On one hand, virtual participants won’t experience what most New Yorkers would call the race’s most compelling feature: the communal experience of running past thousands of cheering fans through famous neighborhoods and finishing in Central Park. On the other hand, Capiraso said, Strava enables runners to do what they like most: talk about running, with the New York City Marathon as a focal point.

“I don’t know if we have a good handle on [demand for virtual racing] for sure,” he said. “We’re absolutely committed to doing it again at this point, and we’ll figure out how to evolve it” based on response.

The marathon and a separate virtual 5K race this week will be the eighth and ninth virtual races NYRR has done as part of its Strava relationship, mostly focusing on lower-profile races like the New Year’s Eve Resolution Run or the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile. So far, about 26,104 entrants from 110 countries have participated.

The Strava deal, which also includes marketing rights and a “strategic partner” designation, runs through 2020.