Most recreational basketball players are not facing off against Steph Curry; all but the very best gymnasts in the world can only dream of sharing a balance beam with Simone Biles. But a non-elite runner races on the same course, at the same time, as his or her elite heroes.
Participants in NYRR’s Virtual Racing Powered by Strava races, though, are completing their courses largely alone, with some support from family or friends, perhaps, but without formal hydration or fuel stops or throngs of cheering spectators. Virtual running is often about delayed gratification—many who participate in our virtual races will get the opportunity to participate in a physical race after logging their time and effort with us. The dream of running into elites who have finished the same course will have to wait.
Unless, of course, you are Jennifer Pyun. Pyun, who lives in Manhattan and works in finance, ran the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon. She had a great race, she said, but planned to skip marathon training this year, work on her form and speed, and cheer for friends in the 2019 race who had cheered for her. She began setting PRs in shorter distances, including the NYRR New York Mini 10K and the NYRR Queens 10K. “I’ve never been a very disciplined runner,” Pyun said, until she trained for a marathon. “This year, I’ve been PR’ing everything,” she said. Then, once her friends’ 2019 marathon acceptances started arriving, she said, “I got FOMO. I thought, maybe I can work on my form and run a marathon too.”
When the TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M opened for registration in the summer, Pyun signed up. (She is pictured above holding her virtual marathon bib.) She had participated in NYRR virtual races before, and became an active member of the NYRR Virtual Racing Facebook community after completing the NYRR Virtual Pride Run 5K in June. She later completed the NYRR Virtual Halfway There 13.1M in September.
Pyun ran her virtual marathon on October 31 along the OG New York City Marathon course: four loops of Central Park, finishing by Tavern on the Green. In the lead-up to her 2018 run, Pyun said, she "really nerded out” on New York City Marathon trivia. She learned that until 1976, the marathon was entirely in Central Park, and decided that was the course on which she wanted to race her virtual marathon (her own map is pictured below). She downloaded topography maps of the course and studied the hills.
It poured rain as Pyun ran her first loop, and she considered giving up. Then she got lost near the 72nd Street Transverse in the park and ended up running two miles out of her way. It all worked out, she said, because she needed those extra two miles in addition to the four loops on the park drive and hadn’t been certain how she’d add them on. “Because I got lost, that ended up helping me,” she said.
A friend jumped in with her for the second loop, and another five friends contributed miles along her third and fourth loops. By that fourth loop, looking for ways to distract herself, she and her friend sang “The Hills Are Alive” from “The Sound of Music.” “We started yodeling,” she said. “It was like a whole new loop.” In all, seven friends joined Pyun along her virtual marathon route, including two who took the day off work to lend support.
Who finished the TCS New York City Marathon - Virtual 26.2M! 🙋🏻♀️ Who finished AND PR’d! 🙋🏻♀️ Who was congratulated by Olympic Royalty! 🙋🏻♀️ (And I made Meb’s insta story!😍) ... I couldn’t have done it without the BEST crew - THANK YOU SO MUCH for supporting me, for running with me, for feeding me. And THANK YOU to everyone who supported me virtually. I ran the Vintage NYCM course- 4 loops in the park +2 miles. I finished sub-5:30 with a 12’43” PR! 5:18:23 ... #run #runner #running #furtherfasterstronger #runhappy #happyrunner #runners #girlswhorun #runnergirl #hshive #honeystinger #stingorbeestung #fuelmadesimple #sweetentheburn #NYRRVirtualRacing @nyflyers
“Medals are and PRs are addicting, but the friendships and post-race meals keep bringing me back,” she said. (Speaking of those meals, Pyun feasted at a pre-marathon pasta dinner hosted by her running club, the New York Flyers, after she completed her virtual race.
On her second loop, Pyun and her friend had spied Des Linden doing an interval workout near Engineers’ Gate in Central Park. And in Pyun’s final 200 yards, a woman running next to her asked if she was training for the marathon too, and Pyun said, “I’m running one right now! I’m about to finish!”
When Pyun reviewed the photos of her run with her friends, she discovered that she ran those final yards alongside eventual marathon champion Joyciline Jepkosgei, who was completing a workout of her own near the finish line. “It was awesome to run next to her,” Pyun said.
And as Pyun prepared to finish her race, NYRR was setting up in Central Park for Night of Champions, a gala awards ceremony held at Tavern on the Green with many professional athletes in attendance. The 2019 finish line was being built, and Pyun was able to finish her race on it. She PR’d, finishing in 5:18:23 and besting her 2018 TCS New York City Marathon time by nearly 13 minutes. “I was elated,” Pyun said of her mood after her finish. “I was on a PR high.”
After Pyun crossed the finish line surrounded by her friends and was exiting Central Park, she saw Meb Keflezighi, dressed in a suit for the Night of Champions ceremony. “He was all dressed up, and here I am in shorts and a baseball cap,” she said; she was also wrapped in her heat sheet from the 2018 marathon, which her friends had brought to her. But Pyun called out to him, and when he came over to shake her hand, she told them what she had just accomplished. “I said, I just ran a marathon on the original NYC course, and he said, that’s great,” Pyun recalled. Keflezighi’s brother Merhawi took their photo and put it on Meb’s Instagram story.
Pyun next saw Jared Ward, also suited up for the gala. He gave her a hug, congratulated her on her feat, and added a photo with Pyun to his own Instagram story. They chatted about their shared roles as Honey Stinger ambassadors.
“I'm grateful Jennifer and I could meet!” Ward said when asked about the encounter. “In a marathon, it's you versus the marathon. So every finisher, of any marathon, is a champion. Giving Jennifer a hug was me hugging a champion.”
For her part, Pyun recapped her race on the NYRR Virtual Racing Facebook group, garnering hundreds of likes from her fellow virtual runners. “Who was greeted by Olympic royalty?” she asked.
Pyun ended the New York City Marathon weekend by running the Abbott Dash to the Finish Line 5K on November 2 “as a recovery run” before, as promised, cheering on her friends in the marathon on November 3. Next up for Pyun is the Tokyo Marathon on March 1, 2020. She will then race in New York again for the 50th anniversary of the TCS New York City Marathon on November 1, 2020. But the virtual marathon, she said, remains “the best experience I’ve ever had.”
And she will carry with her quite a support squad in Ward. “Congratulations, Jennifer, and all the other marathon champions out there!” he said. “The biggest marathon in the world welcomes a lot of champions each year, but there can be new champions every day—champions like Jennifer."
All photos courtesy of Jennifer Pyun.