What it is and how to run one ...

Have you heard of these before? Virtual races? Honestly, they've been cramping my style. I love going online to look up the next race I should run (preferably one that's not too far away and has pretty good swag ... *free beer*...), but lately, I'll find one that sounds cool, then notice that the link says something like "This is a virtual race." Disappointed, I'll sigh and move on.

But don't knock it till you try it, right?

So what's this all about? Do you hop on a treadmill in front of a webcam and run? Weird. Do you watch a video that shows a virtual course as you jog in place? Not likely. Do  you hit the road with all these other runners with a GoPro strapped to your chest? Too high-tech.

Here's what you actually do: you sign up, you run the distance on a given day, you time yourself, you upload your time, and then wait for your finisher's medal in the mail. It's that simple.

A cynical runner may ask how we keep the runners honest about their time. Well, we don't. The virtual race is an altruistic event, which actually makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside instead of skeptical. And, honestly, I think it probably works -- especially in a sport where you can overhear a young runner talking to his team about "the integrity of the race" and no one follows that up with an eye-roll or a laugh. Especially in a sport where what's known as "sandbagging" is not illegal, but extremely looked down upon. Runners are generally pretty dedicated to doing their best and being honest about it.

So back to the virtual race. Once you register, you can run the race anywhere: on the treadmill at your gym, around your neighborhood, or along that hiking trail you've always wanted to try out. You can run with a friend, or you can run solo. Like running at night instead of at the crack of dawn? Go for it! Virtual races are great for the anxious runner. It takes the mystery out of it. You can run a tried-and-true path without worrying about crowds or whether or not you'll have time to wait in that porta-potty line before the start gun. Some runners even view the virtual race as a supplement to their training program.

Want to run in a race, but it's too far or expensive to travel to? Many races offer virtual options. The swag is the same, but the cost of entry is usually discounted.

But if you're a social runner and you like the experience of getting out on an unusual course, seeing people you don't normally see, and making small talk at the starting line, the virtual race may not be for you. Do you need the motivation of other runners around you to get going or run your fastest? Again, then maybe a virtual race isn't for you. Many virtual races offer online communities where you can post your results and share your stories so you can still experience the social aspect of racing, but honestly, it's just not the same.

Will the virtual race replace traditional races? Probably not. The two experiences seem too different to be interchangeable. But virtual races are getting more and more popular, and it's hard not to see why. They provide flexibility and increase inclusivity in the sporting world.

So what do you think? Will you ever try a virtual race? Let us know in the comments.

The Run-Around is a weekly feature, focusing on fitness in and around Annapolis, MD.