It's a Thursday night and I'm racing my bike up a gurgling volcano on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. My quads are screaming but I can't slow down. I'm in first place and there's a woman right on my heels. I push to the top of the climb, knowing that if I can crest it first, I'll be able to cinch the win on the descent.
And that's exactly what I do. After crossing the finish line -- ecstatic -- I gradually stop pedaling. My on-screen avatar does the same. I'm out of shape and have an expired racing license, but thanks to Zwift, a virtual training platform, I just completed my longest, hardest ride in months from the comfort of my home and I can't wait to do it again.
Virtual racing may sound like an oxymoron -- after all, so much of what you stand to gain by racing comes from literally going toe to toe with your competitors -- but it's hard to argue against racing remotely when the alternative choice is often not to race at all.
Competitive athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike seem to agree. Roughly 1 million runners and cyclists have used Zwift since it officially launched in 2015 and it's just one of many virtual racing companies that have sprung up in the past five years.
Whether you compete to win or are just looking for some extra motivation to stay fit, here's what you need to know before hitting the (virtual) starting line.
What is virtual racing?
Most virtual races function just like a traditional race: you pay a fee to complete a predetermined distance and if you're successful you (usually) earn some sort of reward. The difference lies in where you compete. Instead of traveling to a specific destination to race other people on a set course, you participate remotely.
How does virtual racing work?
There are a few different racing models offered across disciplines. Here are the two most common:
Real-time races: In this format, an event starts at a specific time and anyone with a tracking device -- like GPS running watch or smart stationary bike trainer -- and an internet connection can participate remotely.
An app or software program will show you where you are on the course and in relation to other competitors. Winners earn bragging rights or, in the case of Zwift, time in the saddle earns you points that unlock special features like new clothes for your avatar.
Flexible finishes: For these races, you pay a fee and sign up in advance -- some companies will even send you a race bib in the mail -- and then you complete the challenge as soon as you're able. Depending on the race, you may have the option to finish the distance in one go or break it up over the course of multiple sessions within a certain time frame (days, weeks, or months). When you finish, you submit your results.
Some companies require electronic training files, others accept photos of your smartwatch or screenshots of tracking apps and some rely solely on the honor system. Often, participants times are added to a leaderboard and everyone who completes the challenge is mailed a finisher's medal or race t-shirt. If you are at all into Star Wars, check out the Star Wars virtual half marathon.
What are the benefits of virtual racing?
First and foremost, virtual racing is super accessible. You don't have to travel anywhere or even leave your home. Can't handle hills? Choose a virtual race that lets you pick your own route.
Virtual races also offer more flexibility to people with busy schedules or unpredictable work hours. They also tend to be cheaper. In addition to saving on things like travel fees and childcare, some virtual racing platforms let you pay a monthly fee for access to unlimited races. Others charge around $15 to $30 per event.
Because virtual races allow you to compete solo, they're also great for intimidated beginners and people uncomfortable in crowds.
Lastly, like traditional races, virtual races can serve as a goal that keeps you motivated to train and, during the event, an opportunity to push yourself harder than you normally would.
What are the disadvantages of virtual racing?
There's a reason people love the Olympics: Traditional sporting events are exciting, intense and unpredictable. You lose a lot of that atmosphere with virtual races, especially if they're not live. It's also a lot easier to slack off or quit when there's no one watching.
And if it's results you're after, keep in mind that fair play is harder to enforce when every competitor is remote. While you don't want to think people would cheat, it's always a possibility.
The biggest disadvantage of virtual races, though, is probably the most obvious: You're paying to do something you could anyway for free.
How do you join a virtual race?
You can target a specific event or stick with one platform. Either way, here are a few popular options across a variety of sporting disciplines divided up between real-time races and flexible finishes.
Real-time virtual race platforms
If you're a cyclist or a runner, Zwift runs multiple races at a variety of distances every day. RowPro is the closest equivalent for rowers. Want to set up your own running race and invite people to participate? The RaceRunner app will help you make it happen.
Flexible finish virtual race platforms
Organizations like New York Road Runners and World Rowing have started holding running their own virtual events, but for more options (in terms of sports, distances, and deadlines), a less high-profile organizer may be a better bet.
The Yes.Fit app offers running, walking and cycling events spanning 20 to 120+ miles and can connect to 25 fitness trackers (Race at Your Pace and Virtual Pace Series are similar but completely web-based.) Swim the Distance gives you a month to complete the swimming challenge of your choice. And Tri to Triumph runs triathlons and duathlons.