Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's Virtually Possible to Run in This Race

It’s no secret that the world is becoming more and more insular and “virtual.” Examples abound in all segments of society: Internet dating, “fantasy” sports leagues that focus more on the results of imaginary teams than real ones, and even “The Simms” a virtual society in which one lives through computer generated animation, rather than in real life flesh and blood. In a way, this escapism is understandable: the real world can be messy and troubled, while a virtual existence can be clean and well managed.

Now comes the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco. Well, it may not be in San Francisco, if you don’t want it to be. How’s that? As the web site explains, “A virtual half marathon, the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon is a 13.1 mile run that takes place on the same day as the San Francisco event (10/21/07), but in any town you want by using the Nike+ system!” The Nike+ system is an IPOD generated unit that calculates the total distance run, as well as the speed and elevation of the route, all displayed nicely on a computer screen.

While this concept may seem new, there is precedent. Back in the “old days,” competitions called “postal races” were held, in which one would run the required distance on the scheduled day and then mail in the results, to be tabulated by the organizer. Presumably, the results were also sent out by U.S. mail, or perhaps listed in publication at a later date.

On the face of it, the concept seems preposterous. I mean, racing involves interaction with other, living, breathing human beings. Everyone runs the same course on the same day in the same conditions. If it is a cold rain, it is a cold rain for everyone in the race. Some may handle the adversity a little better than others, but that’s what racing is all about. In addition, the camaraderie of experiencing the event alongside one’s fellow competitors is all part of the experience. What good would it be to run a race a continent away from the other competitors? Isn’t that just a glorified training run?

Than again, perhaps this kind of “racing” will open up a new avenue of competition. After all, not everyone can afford to travel to distant locations to compete. The expense of travel and lodging is not insignificant, nor is the time required. The ability to compete “virtually” alleviates those obstacles. And there is little doubt that pretty soon someone will create a computer program with an algorithm to factor in course elevation and weather, in order to come up with “location adjusted” times, so as to create equalized results.

I’ve run plenty of “virtual” races in my running career. However, they are better known in running vernacular as “time trials.” My opponent (or compatriot?) in those challenges has been my wristwatch. In many a run I have watched the seconds tick by as I struggled to complete a lap, a mile, or the final distance. The results of the those “races” never appeared in print or on a computer web page. No, the satisfaction (or disappointment, as the case may have been) was mine to experience alone. Most all of those time trials were in preparation for a real live race, complete with other runners, race bib numbers, and the attendant nervous anticipation. Will this kind of competition become yet another thing of the past, left behind in the unrelenting forward march of technology? I sure hope not.

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