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How the world’s largest half marathon became digital

Since 1980, the Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon has been a major festival for runners in Gothenburg. This year, however, it was replaced by a virtual race, where runners from 24 different countries ran the race from home – an example of how a global crisis has accelerated the development of digital services.

Suldan Hassan, Ullevi FK, during his vitrual race at Hällered outside Borås. Photo: Dino Soldin och Polestar.

For Annika Knutsson, the race director of the Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon, March 11 was a day on which everything was turned upside down. It was then that the decision was made to cancel this year’s race. The event, which each year attracts 80,000 runners who participate in at least one of the races during the week, as well as hundreds of thousands of spectators, usually fills the streets of Gothenburg.

“This event means so much, both for the runners and for the city, so it was a really tough decision to make. At the same time, however, we had already begun planning to organise virtual races – this just sped up the process”, explains Annika Knutsson.

In Gothenburg’s role as European Capital of Smart Tourism, digitalisation has been a priority area. For this reason, there has been great interest in the development of virtual events, concerts and other cultural experiences. Another example is El Sistema’s Side by Side music camp, which last year attracted more than 2,000 participants to Gothenburg from all around the world. This, too, will be held digitally this year.

With regard to virtual races, Europe currently lags behind USA, where these have become relatively common in recent years. Göteborgsvarvet Virtual Race 21k was one of the first large-scale such events to be held on this continent.

As always, the distance was 21.1 kilometres, and the registered participants had to run this distance during the weekend of May 15–17. With the help of a downloaded app, the distance run was registered on the runners’ mobile phones or GPS watches.

A total of 3,336 runners, from 24 different countries, completed the race. Together, they ran a combined distance of 70,643 kilometres, and the fastest times were 1:10:30 for men and 1:19:24 for women.

Annika Knutsson, race director.

“It worked really well – particularly considering that this was the first time. We will continue to arrange virtual races at various points in the future, and with different distances. This is something we believe the runners will want to be involved in”, says Annika Knutsson.

The hope is that the Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon will return in 2021, once again filling the streets of Gothenburg with runners and spectators over the course of an intensive week in May. “Yes, we really hope this will be possible. The virtual race is a good complement, and is good both for public health and for the race, but it cannot replace running together in front of a large crowd of spectators. In 2021, Gothenburg will be celebrating its 400th anniversary, so we will be arranging both the regular Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon and a special full-length marathon in September, for which several thousand runners have already registered.”