Running a Virtual Marathon? Plan Your Course with Tips from 2018's TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M Finishers

A man running alone with a city skyline behind him

Every marathon is an accomplishment. But a virtual marathon, run without throngs of supporters or carefully mapped-out aid stations, adds a unique challenge to reaching that milestone. But it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience, especially if you do the TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M with New York Road Runners, which can earn you guaranteed entry into the following year’s TCS New York City Marathon.

The NYRR blog team reached out to runners who completed last year’s TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M, and who will run through New York City streets for real this November 3, to find out what they learned from their virtual marathon experiences. For one thing, they advised prospective virtual runners to. . .

Have Fun with It

While you are responsible for recording your own virtual race result, it certainly doesn’t mean you have to go the distance alone. Jiang Zhang of Garden City, NY, was able to make his virtual marathon a pleasant social experience.“I ran with two other virtual runners on a slow pace and kept conversations going. It was great,” he said.

Scott and Lisa Berliner of New Albany, OH, ran virtual marathons as part of a group as well. Friends sang the national anthem to them before they started the race.

And when you are your own race director, you can customize your race however you like. Jill Zalewski of Morrisville, NC, gave her virtual marathon a hot dog theme and referred to it as the “Wienerthon.” She even had a friend lay out hot dog costumes near the finish line for her and her friends to put on before crossing the finish. The costume change probably added to her overall finish time, but it also made for a memorable finish-line photo opp.

But a virtual marathon is not all fun and games. Be smart when you are . . .

Planning the Course

A screenshot of the popular fitness app Strava opened up on an iPhone

It’s all up to you to decide where to run, but your course does need to go 26.2 miles (and probably a little extra distance, just to be safe).

“I think it’s important to have clear directions for your route and to map it out ahead of time to make sure it covers the distance,” said Zalewski. “My route had me go a tad over just in case, and a backup plan of extra mileage.”

When mapping your course, try also to pick a route that will give you some extra motivation.

Joseph Lippold of Minneapolis, MN, planned out a rather nostalgic course—and took care of some unfinished business on the way.

“My idea was to run my childhood, from my parents’ house, to my elementary school and the football field where the mile was run every year in gym class,” he said.

Lippold explained the reasoning behind his route:“I had never completed the mile in elementary school, so at the age of 36, I ran around the football field four times and completed a challenge that I never had before. I was very proud and honored to share my love of the marathon and pride of my hometown on that day.”

A virtual marathon course can also be a good way to practice for a course you are hoping to run in the future –one, perhaps, that runs through all five boroughs of New York City.

Theresa Winterhalter of Clearwater, FL, planned her course to take her across three bridges, in an effort to prepare for the five bridge crossings she’ll face at the TCS New York City Marathon.

When planning a virtual marathon course, it’s also important to keep in mind how you're . . .

Staying Fueled

Winterhalter, for instance, said she kept part of her virtual marathon course along her normal running route, where she knew where the water fountains (and bathrooms) would be.

And when the Berliners ran their virtual marathon, they planned a course with “two points for nutrition and bathrooms on each lap.”

Still, most runners said that they brought their own hydration and fuel packs, as well as cash so that they could stop in a convenience stop or near a vending machine to pick up more water and food if needed.

Zalewski took care to plan when she would be eating and drinking during her run. “Every time I checked off a mile, I took a sip of water,” she said. “This was important, since I didn’t have the water stops to remind me like I would during a race.”

Now you have plans for your route and for fuel. But for a virtual marathon, you might also need a plan for . . .

Staying Motivated

A woman running alone through a wooded trail

“Music, music, music,” said Winterhalter, when asked how she kept her spirit up during her virtual marathon.

“Plus I listened to Les Brown motivational speeches before and when I hit a rough patch around mile 22.”

Lippold shared a similar idea. “I cued up playlists that made me feel at home. Music that reminded me of my family, music from the 90s that brought me back to high school, and some acoustic piano and guitar playlists that helped me focus for the long miles,” he said.

With that said, since your virtual marathon will not be on a closed roadway, if you are listening to music, be careful and make sure to stay aware of your surroundings.

Having good social support during a virtual marathon is a big help as well. “I ran with others and I can’t imagine not having support, whether it’s people joining you for sections, people cheering, or people being a fuel stop,” said Zalewski.

Zhang agreed that being able to run and converse with fellow virtual marathoners helped keep him motivated.

And the Berliners had runners join up with them for portions of their run as well. They credit their finish in part to having “lots of people to run with and a different variety depending on the lap,” adding, “Without the support from our many friends, it would have made for a long morning.”

If you need one last spark to reach the finish line, think about how you're going to . . .


A virtual marathon may not come with all the pomp and circumstance of a mass-participation race, but it is still an incredible accomplishment and should be commemorated accordingly.

In fact, Winterhalder said, looking back, “I think I would’ve shouted it out a bit more. Doing this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

One thing you can do is give your finish line a celebratory atmosphere. Both the Berliners and Jill Zalewski had rope at the finish line to break as they ran across. Zalewski also received a trophy from her friends and wrapped herself in the American flag, like professional runners do when they win a major marathon.

“Even if it’s just some chalk you setup at your house, writing “Finish,” having a sign or even some ribbon to run through can really motivate you to want to finish, and make it feel less like a training run and more like a race,” Zalewski said.

If you’re inspired to take on 26.2 on your own this fall, you still can! Sign up for the TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M via the Run for the Medal or Run for the Love of Running tiers, and complete your virtual race anytime between October 31 and November 3.

A runner on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise


Brandon Wiggins

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