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‘Virtual marathons’ see a spike as runners crave a fix and organizers fight to keep them engaged

October 17, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Over the next two weeks, some 25,000 runners will line up to run the New York City Marathon—hearing Sinatra croon “New York, New York” before the boom of the cannon and listening to the race director’s final instructions that herald the start of the 26.2 mile race—as they have for almost every year since 1976.

But in 2020, the year of COVID, these runners will be scattered all over the world, running separately at a time of their choosing within a two-week window ending Nov. 1, instead of being gathered at the foot of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island. They will be connected via an app, supported by TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) and available as of Saturday. The app uses augmented reality and tracks runners, feeding them information such as a description of the course as they progress. (Think “On your left is the entrance to the 59th Street Bridge!” when they near mile 15, regardless of where in the world they really are. Or “Half a mile more and you’ll be entering Central Park!” soon after they’ve run their 23rd mile).

As every major marathon, from Berlin to Chicago to New York, along with the vast majority of small local ones, has grappled with cancellations since March, and no guarantees that 2021 will be better, runners and event organizers alike have turned to virtual events to fill the void. Runners need their fix, and organizers like New York Road Runners (NYRR) want to avoid athletes drifting away while the pandemic halts in-person events. “The primary benefit for NYRR is providing runners with motivation and ways to stay engaged,” says Christine Burke, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and runner products at NYRR. While NYRR, the largest amateur road racing organization in the U.S. with revenue of $113 million last year, started offering virtual races in 2018 to get a jump on a new trend, many other organizers didn’t jump in until they had to.

That includes Boston Marathon organizer, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which in early September offered a virtual version of its legendary footrace. “In 2019, race organizers realized they should have virtual experiences,” says Jeff Matlow, president of the board of Running USA, an industry group. “Then we get a global pandemic, and nobody has any choice anymore.”

In a development akin to how e-commerce has emerged as a big part of shopping without replacing in-store shopping, the pandemic is speeding up adoption of virtual races, as more runners come around to the idea. In a Running USA poll last year, only 7% of runners saw virtual races as being on par with in-person events. But in the absence of much choice, runners are taking to it. NYRR for one says that as of early October, there had been 96,000 finishers in its virtual races in 2020, almost twice the tally at the same time last year.

Boston has added a series of virtual races this autumn, building on the success of its virtual marathon in which 18,000 runners participated. The BAA limited participation to those who’d been registered for the canceled in-person race and still got more than half to take part. “You can’t replicate it, but you provide the accoutrements to people who trained hard,” says BAA CEO Tom Grilk.

That includes goodies to entice runners such as medals and a shirt, swag runners of the in-person race also get. At $50 a pop, the virtual New York and Boston race registration fees are at best a small financial consolation prize for the two organizers, which normally rake in tens of millions of dollars from their marquee marathons.

But on top of making sure people don’t lose interest in their events during the hiatus, lest they not come back when the pandemic recedes, the virtual marathons are key to offering corporate sponsors something too during the downtime. “It’s also a way to offer sponsors value,” says Burke. So New Balance, a major NYRR sponsor, for instance, can still promote its new shoes to runners in the interim, or Honey Stinger can push a new food item.

Even if big-scale races resume next year, we might not be heading to events with 50,000-plus runners for a while. So as technology gets better, as Burke says it already has, big marathons might mitigate some of that pain by eventually having thousands of runners take part remotely in a race at the same time as the athletes competing in person. The marathon industry’s leaders expect virtual events to become a fixture of the racing calendar well after COVID has receded. “There will always be folks who want the experience of the finish line at the location of the race, and folks that can stay challenged by virtual events,” says Tim Hadzima, executive director of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a group that works for six of the biggest marathons. “It can all live together.”

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