In its eighth year, the Ferguson Twilight Run attracted 1,630 participants to its 5K, 10K and fun run. Most stuck around afterward to enjoy food, drink and good cheer supplied by businesses and organizations that are part of the city’s resilient spirit.

But about three dozen runners showed their support without even showing up. They took advantage of the run’s virtual option: paying $25 for a T-shirt and medal, running wherever they happened to be, and posting pictures and data on social media with the hashtag runwithferguson.

“It was a little extra work, but it was so worth it for people to participate and say, ‘I ran for Ferguson from Chicago’ or ‘I ran for Ferguson from Colorado,’” said race director Dwayne James, noting that runners also participated virtually in Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and even Dublin, Ireland.

Great for Beginners
Virtual races give control to the runner: You choose the event, and when and where you want to run. Alone, or with a hand-picked group. In a park, around the block, on a treadmill. No pre-dawn race day wake-up calls. No bumping, barging and jousting with a pack of sweaty strangers. No falling behind your training buddies who took the race a little (or a lot) more seriously than you.

Many virtual races allow you to break up longer distances into pieces. You log the miles, and poof! You get a medal. Or a T-shirt. Or both. You choose.

“Medals are really important for a large percentage of runners,” said Amanda Schaub, assistant race director for the Mo’ Cowbell Run­­. “They put in a lot of time and dedication and want something to commemorate it. They deserve it, no matter when they run or finish.”

Attempting to build brand loyalty, Mo’ Cowbell has commissioned a series of four medals to commemorate years seven through 10 of its race — marathon, half-marathon, half relay and 5K. Realizing that committing to the first Sunday in October for four consecutive years will be a tall order, organizers added a virtual option. Unlike the actual race, fees are the same for each virtual distance and stay the same, rather than increase, as race day draws near. A medal and bib cost $35; medal, T-shirt and bib are $55.

Virtual to Reality
Other events, locally and nationally, are entirely virtual. Virtualrunevents.com is attempting to monetize the solar eclipse August 21 with a Race to the Sun.  Virtualrunningclub.com has offered events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of “Star Wars” and the 107th birthday of Glacier National Park, for which 20 percent of the race fee could go to the National Park Foundation.

Charities seem especially drawn to the virtues of the virtual, including locally based Four Legged Running, which has hosted virtual-only races to raise money for non-profit animal rescues. You choose the distance: 5K, 10K, 15K, half and full marathon. The fee is the same for each, $40, half of which goes directly to the shelter. Add $5 and you can get a medal for your four-legged pal.

Since starting with a single race for a local shelter two years ago, Four Legged Running founder Angela Tedemann has expanded to eight partner shelters, some as far away as Nashville and New York.

“I have newbies to running and walkers that maybe are intimidated by races but really believe in the cause,” she said. Her races average less than 100 participants, most already devoted to the charity, and tapping into the larger running community has proven challenging. Tedemann promotes her virtual races at many area fitness expos, “But it can be hit or miss. First-timers love it. I have other animal lovers who are also runners that say, ‘No way. I want to get a medal because I show up and do my time.’”

Responding to feedback, Tiedemann is kicking it old school and staging her first actual race, the Four Legged Running Half Marathon and 5K on November 12 at Scheve Park in Mascoutah, Ill.

A virtual option is available.

The jury is out on whether virtual races will expand beyond a boutique market. Schaub says registration for the virtual Mo’ Cowbell has been “not as wildly popular as we thought at first,” but added that the virtual race would extend until December 31. “I think we’ll see the biggest spike after the race, when people see the race photos and think they’ve missed out but then realize they have a chance to catch up.”

James hopes to get more virtual runners for next year’s Ferguson run, May 19, 2018, but it will remain a sidelight. “We started the race as an opportunity for people to come to the city and support our businesses,” he said. “That’s still the first priority.”

Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine. She learned that endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts make the best storytellers through more than two decades as a sportswriter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.