Mark Armstrong: Why there's still a place for virtual marathons

Runners after finishing the Virgin Money London Marathon. Picture date: Sunday October 3, 2021.

Thousands took the streets of London for the marathon on Sunday - Credit: PA

Most of my Sunday was spent following a number of dots around the London Marathon app on my phone to see how my friends were progressing. 

Combined with the BBC coverage and regular messages from my wife, Alison, who was spectating, I felt like I gained enough of the marathon experience I wanted this year... running 26.2 miles can wait a while for me. 

It was still inspiring to see so many friends do their training justice with impressive times in the capital whilst there were also some great runs virtually. 

It got me thinking about the difference between running the actual event and doing it virtually. 

Given the choice, the majority of runners would love to run that famous route through London and of course there’s a lot more to running a marathon than just going for a time. 

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But being part of an occasion like London takes up a lot of emotional energy. Whilst the physical training takes months, you don’t want any of that let down by a small logistical detail that could impact upon your run. 

Organising somewhere to stay the night before, making sure you have an appropriate breakfast, planning your route to the start line or event village, and yes, worrying about whether you’re going to be able to visit the toilet three times (or more) before you start. 

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That really is just scratching the surface and you have to be mentally able to deal with all that, which of course a seasoned runner will be used to doing.

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However, anyone that’s chosen London as their first marathon is a really tough task. You can obviously get so much energy from the crowd, but it’s something you have to control as well, particularly if it makes you pick up the pace early on. That doesn’t end well (is there anything worse than someone telling you that you ‘look strong’ when you’re only just about staying upright). 

I think that whilst it won’t have all the razzmatazz of being in London there’s an argument that running a marathon virtually could lead to a more even, better performance. 

You get to sleep in your own bed the night before, have the exact breakfast you’re used to eating before your long runs, no queueing for the toilet just before you start... it sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? 

There’s no-one to get you too over excited early on and you can even plan in your own cheer squad or aid station when you know you’re going to need it. 

When I did the virtual marathon last year I really enjoyed the understated way of doing it. It’s not easier by any means... you’ve still got to run 26.2 miles but it certainly took less mental energy than when I ran Edinburgh or Manchester for example. 

I went just under four hours at both Manchester and the Virtual London Marathon last year and the latter was a far better, enjoyable experience. 

You can never replace that buzz of a big city marathon but it needs managed. If it’s all about completing the distance or getting a set time then it’s worth thinking about doing it virtually. 

It was so good to see another huge event back and it did whet the appetite of what I hope will be a more ‘normal’ running year in 2022. It’s getting towards that time when I start thinking what I’d like to do and fortunately I’m starting to feel on top of the injuries that have dogged a fair portion of 2021 for me. 

We’ve got used to making plans that are fluid but I know that one day I’d love to experience the London Marathon... we will just have to see what the ballot brings in February. 

I’ve got to give a shout out to my running buddy John Cracknell, who is tackling the Manchester Marathon this weekend. John and I started running together just after the first lockdown and we were at a pretty similar standard. 

However, through sheer hard work and training volume I’ve been reduced to just doing some easy runs with him over the last few months. He’s far too quick for me now on sessions!  

It’s been eye-opening to see where a consistent, sensible, committed approach to training can get you in a relatively short space of time. 

Good luck to him and anyone else running Manchester this weekend. 

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