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Lucas Bruchet, who came in second place, leads the pack of runners in the male elite category at the the start of the 2021 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 10K event, in Toronto on Oct. 17, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

When the Toronto Waterfront Marathon returns in the fall for the first time in three years, runners are in for a few surprises.

On Tuesday, the marathon said that IT company Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) will replace Scotiabank as its new title sponsor through November, 2026. The partnership will give participants access to the TCS marathon app, which allows runners to race with augmented reality, share their on-course location with spectators in real time, help them calculate their environmental impact as they run and travel, and enjoy an improved virtual offering if they choose to race from home. The Toronto Waterfront Marathon is the first road race in Canada to adopt the technology, following in the footsteps of other major races such as the New York City and London marathons.

“We really want to offer our runners and spectators an enhanced digital experience,” said Charlotte Brookes, event director of Canada Running Series, the organization behind the Toronto Waterfront Marathon and several other large road races in the country.

“The [TCS] app provides an opportunity for people to feel connected to the event experience.”

Supporters will also be able to create a digital cheer card that will flash on screens as specific runners pass. In addition, the app will enable racers to track their environmental impact throughout the weekend, and offset it with a suggested donation to an environmental charity of their choice.

Virtual racers, meanwhile, will have access to many of the same features, and may also get to download an audio track that mimics sounds of the Toronto course as runners reach certain milestones. Upon completing their race, those runners will unlock a virtual medal and a usable backsplash of Toronto’s finishing area to reproduce an end-of-race photo.

“As technologies evolve, we’re adapting to the needs of the new world,” said Michelle Taylor, global head of sports sponsorships at TCS, “and hybrid racing and events is where we’re at and we do see things staying here.

“The goal is to replicate the experience of the city no matter where you are,” she added. “If someone chooses to run in the virtual race, they can do so in a way that still gives them a taste of Canada, a taste of Toronto wherever they are in the world.”

Toronto follows other major marathons in digitizing its event; a trend accelerated by the pandemic and its travel and health restrictions. The London Marathon used the TCS marathon app for the first time this year, and now gets runners to wear Restrata tags, which use GPS technology to contact trace for COVID-19. The New York City Marathon, meanwhile, offers a 3-D interactive race map that provides in-depth looks around the start area on Staten Island, highlights landmarks along the course, and shows its elevation changes.

Those features are a long way ahead of some of Canada’s early pandemic iterations of virtual races, such as comparing time trials among training partners online, 900-kilometre relay runs across Newfoundland, and countless versions of Instagram “end-of-run-selfie-tag.” But continuing lockdowns and case surges, as well as varying comfort level of racers, has made it worthwhile for races to bolster a world-class hybrid race offering.

Brookes said the appetite for virtual racing is slowing among Canada Running Series participants. She predicted only 10 per cent of the series’ registrants to race from home in 2022, down from what felt more like a 50-50 split last year. But even if the pandemic wanes, she said, the inclusion of a virtual-race option might give more people who live far away, and more people who do not want to pay the in-person fee, a chance to partake.

“I think hybrid racing is a new standard, it makes it more inclusive,” she said. “Having world-class in-person and virtual options is an added way of reaching out to the new wave of runners that the pandemic created.” New research shows that nearly 30 per cent of current runners started after the beginning of COVID-19, and Strava, a fitness-tracking app used by runners and cyclists, said its average monthly growth rate doubled throughout the pandemic.

The Toronto marathon is the first race in Canada to adopt the TCS app, but other races are not far behind in bolstering their digital offerings. Kirsten Fleming, executive director at Run Calgary, said the first few virtual races her road-racing organization offered were primitive, and operated on the honours system: runners timed themselves, took a picture of their result, and uploaded it. Now, Run Calgary uses the Runkeeper app, which facilitates registration and timing, and provides audio cues for virtual racers.

“People like to be connected digitally, that’s a must for races now,” said Fleming, who said all nine of Run Calgary’s races will be delivered in a hybrid capacity this year. “Virtual racing isn’t going anywhere.”

Still, like Brookes, Fleming expects that a majority of runners will prefer in-person races in the wake of lockdowns. A Running USA study of 4,500 runners had shown that up to 86 per cent of respondents wanted to go back to in-person racing in 2021. Quinton Jacobs, a marathon runner from Woodbridge, Ont., partook in both virtual and in-person races last year. He said that good tracking technology and virtual offerings helps to connect more people to the sport, but that nothing beats the in-person experience.

“Having an app like this one is exciting, but no matter what you do to spice up virtual races, it just can’t compare to the energy that comes with pushing yourself with someone who is struggling just as much as you are,” he said.

“I can’t wait to toe that line in Toronto in person this fall.”