Susan Mitchell started virtual running before it was the coronavirus-friendly thing to do.
With social-distancing measures in place across the nation, traditional races have become sidelined by the current pandemic, and a sport known for community has had to find it elsewhere. Virtual races allow runners to create their own courses, often with their back yards as starting points. And to mimic the feel of a true race day, some events still send out bib numbers and swag like medals and T-shirts.
Mitchell, a 69-year-old, has been running consistently for nearly 11 years. But in 2014, she wanted her running to mean something more than personal achievement.
She signed up for the “I Run 4” program, an organization that pairs up runners and people with special needs. To date, the club has more than 17,000 matches.
“It’s a very unique and wonderful organization,” Mitchell said.
But Mitchell’s regular running schedule faced a hurdle early in 2015 when she was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, cancer in the cells lining the walls of blood vessels. She went on a medical hold from March to August while undergoing chemotherapy and “was a little bit discouraged by that.”
Then Mitchell noticed that even though her stamina had changed, she was still able to run, despite doctors advising her otherwise. At least initially.
She found an “I Run 4” match with Colorado’s Pete Bannister II, a then-12-year-old diagnosed with cerebral palsy, neonatal lupus and scoliosis.
Mitchell and Bannister message each other frequently, sending letters and packages, too. Mitchell estimates that since she and Bannister first connected, she has sent him more than 80 medals from her races.
“Some race directors give me two medals and T-shirts, so I have one for me and one for Pete,” she said. “ … We’ve all become really close. I really do think (it was all meant to be). It’s worked out for us really well.”
Mitchell will typically write her name, time and finish on the backs of the medals to add to Bannister’s experience. And he proudly displays them at home.
“Real close to the ceiling, (his mom) went around the room and hung all of his medals,” Mitchell said. “I was amazed … at all of those medals hanging there.”
Last year she completed 36 races, 12 virtual and the rest standard. This year, she has already run nine virtual — including five in five days last week — and three normal races.
“(Virtual racing) works for me because I’ve always been kind of a solo runner,” Mitchell said.
She added that with her chemotherapy, virtual running gave her the option to still compete on her own schedule. Unlike traditional races that are held on a set day, virtual ones extend over weeks and sometimes months.
While some virtual races are held on an honor system, where participants can get their gear ahead of actually finishing the race, Mitchell prefers accountability, submitting her time-based finish off of her Garmin running watch.
“It does kind of motivate me when they ask for a proof of time,” she said.
In normal circumstances, she nannies by day. She’ll try to fit in running three times each week (ranging from 9 to 24 miles in that frame), and when she doesn’t run, she’ll find time to bike.
Her most recent virtual run was last Thursday’s Hot Chocolate 5K. She ran it in her neighborhood, planning out her course using an interactive map online.
“It was a good run,” Mitchell said.