Don’t write that epitaph on the virtual race tombstone just yet. While many expected virtual races to die a quick death as live events returned and the COVID-19 pandemic waned, virtual races nevertheless remain a lively part of the American racing landscape here in 2022.
To wit, virtual race registrations at Houston-based Medal Dash, one of the globe’s largest virtual race companies, are up 25 percent through the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period last year, Medal Dash co-founder Adam Levinson reports. And that’s after 2021 virtual event registrations at Medal Dash climbed five percent over 2020’s record-breaking mark.
Running Insight caught up with Levinson to talk about Medal Dash’s entry into virtual events, the pandemic-era surge in registrations and why the events continue to resonate even amid the return of live races.
Medal Dash began rolling out virtual races in 2018 to complement its existing live event business. The rationale was two-fold, Levinson says. First, it allowed Medal Dash to expand its customer base far beyond the live events it hosted around Texas. Second, Medal Dash leadership – Levinson as well as co-founder Tim Herr – witnessed rising consumer appetite for convenience and flexibility. “We saw the opportunity with virtual races. We just needed to figure out how to execute it because virtual races aren’t simply a replica of live events. There’s much more e-commerce, digital marketing and postage involved on the virtual side.”
Into 2020, Levinson terms virtual races “an ancillary part” of the Medal Dash business — between 1000-1500 individuals sign up for its virtual races each month. “Pre-pandemic, virtual wasn’t in people’s vocabulary the way it is today, so there was a matter of educating people — and having them not feel weird about running a race on their own.”
Everything changed when the pandemic hit in March 2020. As live events evaporated, Medal Dash leveraged its existing infrastructure for virtual races and went all in on the events. Within weeks, in fact, Medal Dash unveiled #CrushCorona, a virtual event highlighted by a race T-shirt and participant’s medal featuring a running shoe stomping on a virus. “Instead of getting 1000-1500 registrations a month, we were seeing that same output in a day.”
While virtual race registrations slowed from their early pandemic peak, Medal Dash still captured a steady stream of sign-ups for its various virtual events throughout 2021 and into 2022. This despite rising competition in the virtual event space and the return of in-person racing. “The thinking was the pandemic ends and virtual races vanish. That just hasn’t happened.” Medal Dash boasts participants – two-thirds of whom are women – from all 50 states and 15 different countries.
So, why are virtual races still here? More broadly, Levinson says virtual races remain present – even beyond his expectations – because virtual has become baked into our daily lives. There are people who cannot or do not want to make it to the starting line at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday and others wary of a crowded environment. “The pandemic conditioned people to the mindset of doing things on their own schedule and at their own comfort level.”
Even as Medal Dash returns to its regular slate of in-person events, the company will continue to offer a virtual race option for participants as well. “That will largely be to appease a certain segment of runners who are not prepared to come back to live events.”
Levinson credits licensing agreements for driving the company’s ongoing success with virtual events. Feeling the virtual race surge would end as in-person racing returned, Medal Dash began inking deals with brands like Peanuts, Coca-Cola and Peeps. Last winter, for example, more than 15,000 registered for A Charlie Brown Christmas 5K/10K/13.1. “The licensed events are most responsible for our growth in 2022 because there’s an emotional connection there pulling on people’s heartstrings.”
In contrast, Levinson says Medal Dash’s “more generic” virtual runs, such as the Independence Day-themed All-American event and a St. Patrick’s Day-themed event in the spring, have reverted to 2019 numbers. “It’s proof you have to be strategic and intentional and seek that emotional tie-in to get people excited and involved.” Medal Dash is now bringing those insights to its live events. This December, in fact, Medal Dash is debuting A Charlie Brown Christmas runs in Houston and Dallas.
No, virtual races are not dead, Levinson asserts. “Not by a long shot.”
In fact, Levinson predicts virtual races will remain relevant well into the future. “Just the same way people will continue to work from home, continue to have groceries delivered or use their Peloton instead of going to the gym, our space will still be carved out in this industry. While it might decline from where it is today, we still expect it to be many multiples higher than it was in 2019.”