1. Health

In step with oneself

It took three days, but Alberta Dalke finished the Florida Halloween Halfathon.

She didn't need all 72 hours, just enough to do two 5-mile walks and one 5K to round it out.

"I have arthritis in my knees from being severely overweight for so long," said the 65-year-old full-time caregiver from St. Petersburg. "I'm not able to run, so to finish a half marathon I have to break it up into parts."

That's why Dalke signed up for the Florida Halloween Halfathon Virtual Race — a newer trend in racing that allows runners to sign up, run wherever they want during a 14- to 16-day window, and receive the same medal or T-shirt that other race finishers get.

"Once I started researching it, it was a no-brainer for me," said Chris Lauber, the race director of Florida Road Races, which holds the Halloween Half. "We get to dedicate more money to local charities and give people who can't do the race on the day for whatever reason, be it health or scheduling, a chance to complete it and stay active and healthy."

For virtual races, most are done on the honor system. After you pay your registration, many directors do not require proof of running before they mail you your medal. The races that do require proof of running don't accept or record official times from virtual runners.

Laubner said adding the virtual component also helped him avoid one of the greatest fears of all race directors. "You never want to run out of medals at a race, you know? But you lose a lot of money of dated materials if you order too many," he said. "The virtual race allows me to over-order, and then if there are extras after race day, mail those off to the virtual participants."

That's why it makes a difference when you register for virtual race that is attached to a physical run. The earlier registrants will get their medals within weeks of the race. Later entrants may get theirs after a reorder, which could take months.

Then there are the businesses that strictly operate virtual races like Will Run For Bling and Charity, based in Atlanta.

"People honestly love our medals," said Regina Jackson, who co-owns with her husband, Dwight. "We work really hard on the designs to try and make them something I would want to have."

Since joining Facebook in May 2013, the Jacksons have hosted 24 virtual races and amassed 22,000 likes.

Medals featuring fighter planes for the Top Gun Run or zombie-filled coffins that actually open and close for The Running Dead are the pride of the company and the main appeal.

"Some local races don't even give medals, so people will register with us and then run that race to receive our medals instead," Jackson said.

Will Run for Bling and Charity makes reporting after registration optional, and it does not keep any official records or statistics. Jackson, a runner herself, said she is aware that some of her customers may be just buying her medals and not running, but that is something she can't control.

Even for virtual runs that require reporting, there are ways to game the system. Verification such as photos of a runner in stride with a race number do not guarantee that the runner ran the prescribed distance. And tracking devices like Garmin watches and Nike Plus apps can easily be handed off to another person who will actually run the distance.

Jackson said the ones who game the system are cheating themselves. "Shame on them, I say," she laughed.


Skepticism is rampant in the running community.

"I just don't get it," said Debbie Voiles, leader of Run Tampa running group and author of After Your First 5K. "The fascination with getting a medal for finishing a race isn't a big motivator for me. I've done more than 200 races."

Voiles said it's great that race directors can use the extra funds for charity, but it's also a shame that people who did not achieve the goal that many worked for through vigorous training get some of the same benefits.

"Some people are all about the bling," Voiles said.

Tia Pettygrue loves medals but only when someone places them over her head at the finish line of a race.

"I did one virtual race for leukemia and lymphoma, and getting the medal in the mail a few weeks later was just anticlimatic," said Pettygrue, 46, a Tampa financial rep and an ambassador for the Tampa Bay chapter of national running group Black Girls Run. "It's just not the same."

Pettygrue said she prefers the half-marathon distance to all others and running that far alone isn't ideal.

"There's just something about the camraderie of a race surrounded by people all doing the same thing you're doing pushing you to go faster and get to the finish," she said.

And living in the Tampa Bay area, where a person could find a road race every weekend if they were so inclined, really removes a lot of obstacles people often refer to when explaining why they can't just get out and run, Pettygrue said.

However, the flexible scheduling of a virtual race is appealing to the runner with a unusual work schedule who wants to feel like he or she is accomplishing something during their regular longs runs, said Allison Nielsen, who has run a virtual 5K before.

"It was this spring and the race was based in Las Vegas," said the 24-year-old political reporter from Tampa. "If I'm going to run anyway, might as well get something out of it."

Traditional races begin in the early morning hours on weekends when Nielsen, whose job regularly keeps her up until near dawn, would be trying to catch up on some rest.

"I'd register for a lot more virtual races if I could just remember to do it," she laughed.

Dalke has run several virtual races since she began the process of losing almost 200 pounds and has even graduated to walking actual 5K races. Her daughter, who is a runner, motivated her to get out of the house and shoot for races as a goal.

"I'm still pretty slow," she said. "Last year I came in third place in my age group, but only three of us registered. This year I was eighth out of eight."

But she continues to walk and collect her bling. She keeps all her race numbers, T-shirts and anything associated with her accomplishments. For the Florida Halloween Halfathon, she walked the 5K and got her reward right at the finish line. A few weeks later, she'll get a pumpkin-shaped medal with a golden running starfish to account for the 10 miles she walked before her Oct. 26 race.

"I don't think I will ever be able to run," she said. "But I can do this."