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Brooke Smith is participating in virtual versions of races this spring and summer with the events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brooke runs past some of the closed down amenities in Sherwood Park in Toronto on Sunday.Melissa Tait

Canada’s most popular road races are coming back on May 4, but this time with a virtual look.

Canada Running Series (CRS), which organizes large road races across the country, is offering virtual versions of three of its five spring and summer races that were cancelled or postponed. The 10,000 runners who were registered for those three events have the option to run the race distance alone, from anywhere they choose, as many times as they like, up to a deadline.

For their best result to count, runners must track their run on a GPS device (such as a Fitbit, running watch or phone) and upload their race data on a results website, Sportstats.ca. Each finisher will be mailed a race bib, T-shirt, medal and a photoshopped picture of them crossing the finish line. Because of verification limitations, there is no prize money.

“Even if you’re not at the race in person, it’s still a race. It’s still something to work toward,” said Brooke Smith, a runner from Toronto who has used virtual running to keep fit and motivated amid the pandemic. “Virtual races remind us that we are all in this together.”

Keeping the running community motivated and in touch until in-person events start again is the goal of CRS race director Alan Brookes.

“These are difficult times,” Brookes told hundreds of listeners on the CRS Facebook Live channel last week. “I think virtual races will be a great means of connectivity and structure …. we need that more than ever right now.”

It has been a difficult month for his company, an organization completely reliant on in-person events comprising thousands of people. Some of its employees had to take pay cuts, despite working overtime to come up with a fair reimbursement system for the runners whose race registrations are now void.

CRS has given these racers the option of a full refund or a voucher for a future CRS event. However, Mr. Brookes encourages runners to go for the third, virtual option, which also includes a $15 donation to a CRS charity of their choice and a $15 voucher for a future race.

Lee McCarron, the head coach of the Halifax Road Hammers, a running group of more than 200, thinks virtual races will be popular and keep motivations high, at least for now.

“You can do a virtual race anywhere, the social-media aspect of running excites people, and it makes you feel like you are working toward something,” he said.

Some athletes in his group, however, believe a virtual race cannot replace the experience of live racing. Greg and Maura Wieczorek of Halifax had planned to race in the Banque Scotia 21K de Montréal last month. The event has been rescheduled for late September, but they are not sure whether they will defer their registration to then, next year, or take the full reimbursement option.

“I don’t know if I’ll do the virtual race,” Maura said. “Running is a part of my routine, but the thrill of doing a big race like [Montreal] is being there … where the course is fast and they completely close the streets.”

“I was looking forward to seeing running friends from across the country,” Greg said. “That’s a main draw of those races for me … that won’t be possible without in-person races.”

For elite runners such as Dayna Pidhoresky, a virtual race cannot compare to the real thing, because there is no monetary incentive.

“CRS races are usually at the forefront of my race schedule," she said. “It’s one of the best opportunities for athletes to try to make a living by winning races. Without them, athletes may struggle.” Pidhoresky won the 2019 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which earned her future sponsorships and $13,000 in prize money.

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon weekend is CRS’s marquee event, and regularly attracts 25,000 runners from around the world. This year’s edition is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 18. Last year the marathon doubled as the Canadian championship, and a win in Toronto meant immediate qualification to Team Canada and the Tokyo Olympics.

Brookes and his team cannot predict whether this year’s event will take place, but they do not plan to cancel it as long as other world marathons, such as London and Boston, are still scheduled for the fall. The Berlin marathon, which was scheduled for Sept. 27, has been cancelled. Brookes said he thinks getting back to traditional racing might take time.

“Runners are responsible people, and will likely be cautious when going back to normal. … I trust when the time is right, they will get out there in full force.”