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Runners race in first ever virtual Boston Marathon

The 2020 Boston Marathon has transformed into a virtual event after the annual tradition — which normally brings together crowds of observers alongside runners — was canceled in the wake of coronavirus concerns.

A runner at the 2017 Boston Marathon. For the first time since 1897, the Boston Marathon will not take place in person and will instead take on a virtual mode this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO BY MADDIE MALHOTRA/DFP FILE PHOTO

This is the first year without an in-person marathon since the inaugural race kicked off in 1897. 

Participants can run their virtual marathon anytime between Sept. 7 and Sept. 14. They must run the 26.2-mile race continuously, within the same day and must submit proof of timing to the Boston Athletic Association. 

Only those signed up for the original event, which was set to take place April 20, can participate in the virtual race. These runners were also offered a full refund of their initial entry fee, according to the BAA.

Participants may choose to run from anywhere in the world, even from a treadmill, but the BAA has discouraged running with an organized group along the typical route. The Association urged runners to adhere to physical distancing measures. 

31-year-old Kaitlyn Kiernan Bartolone, an alum of Boston University, ran the virtual Boston Marathon on Saturday. She said this was her second time completing the Marathon, which she first ran in 2016, and her 10th marathon overall.

Kiernan Bartolone said she decided to run the Boston Marathon in 2020 because she wanted to have a better experience than she did four years ago: it was a hot day, and she said she felt “so disappointed” by the time she neared the finish line.

“It’s so great to have all these enthusiastic, maybe drunk college students cheering for you,” Kiernan Bartolone said. “I had always imagined going down that stretch of the route triumphantly, but that did not happen.”

She had hoped this year would be her “revenge,” Kiernan Bartolone said. Then, however, the pandemic struck, and the race went virtual.

“But, I still had to do it, even just because I am a stubborn person and I love having something to train for,” Kiernan Bartolone said, “even though it wasn’t in-person and wasn’t what I was hoping for.” 

Kiernan Bartolone, who lives in New York City, ran the Marathon in Saddle River County Park in northern New Jersey. She said she started running at 5:45 a.m. and finished just before 9 a.m. 

“I wanted to go somewhere that was outside the heat dome of New York City,” Kiernan Bartolone said. “Just going out there, it was like four degrees cooler than it was the same day in New York.” 

Kiernan Bartolone mapped out her route in advance, careful to avoid street crossings and areas that were too hilly or flat. 

“It was tough trying to figure out how to plan my own route,” Kiernan Bartolone said. “It’s much easier when someone else sets up the start and finish line for you and you don’t have to remember where to turn.” 

Aside from planning the route, Kiernan Bartolone said one of the main challenges was keeping mental discipline while not having the usual distractions that accompany the Boston Marathon, such as recognizable landmarks, changing scenery and cheering crowds. 

“I was on pace to run a personal best until the final three miles, and those final three miles when there was no crowd support, no one else you’re running with to chase or to help motivate you,” Kiernan Bartolone said, “it was just the most mentally difficult experience I’ve ever had while running a race.”

Kiernan Bartolone finished her virtual Marathon at three hours, seven minutes and 13 seconds — 49 seconds over her personal best. 

32-year-old Joe Tucker-Vickström, who has been running since 2018, will run his first Boston Marathon on Sunday. Tucker-Vickström, who works for Brooklyn Running Company, is planning to run in the Rockaways and said he was motivated to participate in the virtual marathon by a friend who has never finished a marathon in less than three hours. 

“A bunch of people on the Brooklyn Running Company staff have agreed to come out and to crew it for us,” Tucker-Vickström said, “so we’ve got an aid station set up.” 

He said he expects the lack of the kind of support system that normally comes with a marathon event to be a major challenge.

“Those last five, six miles of any marathon are absolutely grueling,” Tucker-Vickström said. “It’s going to be sort of scary to not have that support every mile like you do in a normal marathon.” 

Elena Riecke, 25, ran the virtual Marathon on Labor Day, starting in Riverside Park along the Hudson River in New York City and ending in Central Park. She started running more seriously after graduating college in 2016. 

Monday marked her first time running the Boston Marathon and her fourth marathon overall. 

Riecke ran the first 16 miles of the Marathon with her dad. She said they’ve undergone all their long training runs together.

“It was just really, really special to have him with me throughout that entire first stretch, but especially because even with a virtual marathon, I get really nervous, even though there’s no reason to be,” Riecke said. “It was really grounding and relaxing and special to have him.” 

Riecke said that dodging traffic or other people was an obstacle she faced while running the virtual Marathon, especially in Central Park. 

“Central Park gets pretty crowded after 8 a.m., especially on holidays,” Riecke said. “A couple of my friends from my running group were running slightly ahead of me and basically clearing my path during the entire time in the park, just like ‘she’s running a marathon, get out of her way.’”

Due to an injury she had in the spring, Riecke said she couldn’t train much for the Marathon. 

“I was pretty happy with my time but I ran it probably about 40 minutes slower than I would normally run a marathon,” Riecke said. 

Riecke said that despite the Marathon being virtual, she still felt a sense of community. 

“There’s definitely a component of wanting to be part of something historical,” Riecke said, “and knowing that this is something that runners are going to talk about for a long time.”

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