Facebook knows that I like to run. Recently it’s been bombarding me with ads for virtual running challenges. Facebook, listen up – I’m not interested. 

Call me cynical, but I don’t see ideas like this as the motivation tool the marketing would have you believe.  I see them as commercial ventures, where for the princely sum of a tenner or more, you can purchase a very nice, limited-edition medal or a compression top.  

I’m not saying you don’t have to put in a bit of effort – you do have to log the miles and provide some form of evidence. And I know that for some runners, running 25, 50, or 100 miles in a month represents a massive achievement of which they can be justifiably proud, but I’m more than a little uncomfortable with some of the wider issues.

Let’s go back to that medal. You’ve done your 100 miles, fitting it in despite shiftwork and childcare, foul weather and a niggly knee. You’ve shown grit and determination. You’ve shown you can do more than the majority. You’ve shown your kids that you’re no slouch. My question is whether you need to show off about it. Will you be wearing that medal to the office? Hanging it on the wall? What does that medal do other than give you bragging rights?  

We have become a society where we expect a reward for doing what gives us pleasure, and the pleasure should be reward enough. Most races routinely recognise the achievement of everyone who crosses the finish line, but recently I’ve seen posts on social media from disgruntled runners disappointed with their finishers’ goodies. I’ve done fell races where runners finish an event, enjoy a bit of banter, half a cup of soup and go home happy – it’s simple, but it’s brilliant. Now, however, as more runners venture off-road, they’re gutted to find they don’t get showered with T-shirts and tat. 

Don’t worry, I can hear your protests. This is a personal bugbear of mine, and I know that it’s easy to be dismissive of the things that motivate others, but if you need persuasion to get you running – for heaven’s sake – why are you doing it? Do something you do enjoy – play tennis, go fishing, stick to five-a-side.  

I know I’m guilty of simplifying things. These virtual challenges also offer the promise of community, with Facebook groups where you can talk about your progress towards the monthly goal and Twitter accounts to keep you on track and engaged. If the social aspect makes you happy, good. I know it's not always easy to find like-minded people to run with – you may not have a group nearby or be tied up working at weekends – and talking about running can definitely be inspiring and helpful. But I’d like to throw in a note of caution: the virtual world can become a place that’s so familiar and comforting that you lose the ability to thrive in the real one. Step off the treadmill, get out there, into our beautiful country and enjoy the thrill of a real event.

Talking of real events, I’ve noticed that some of these virtual challenges use the words event or race to describe what they do. As far as I’m aware, an event is a planned public or social occasion and a race is a competition to see who is the fastest in covering a set course. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re taking part in something. You’re not. You’re running – which hopefully, you’d be doing anyway – and you’re buying a medal.

Yes, you’re keeping someone in business. Yes, you’re supporting the trophy, medal and sports clothing industries. Yes, you’re adding to your medal tally, but I can’t help thinking that the money you’re spending could be used for something better – like supporting the charitable fundraising efforts of someone taking part in a real event. 

That’s it. Rant over. I’ll step off my soapbox. 

Kate Woodward

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