lululemon’s SeaWheeze goes virtual: the future of road races

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all major in-person sporting events, the running community saw no exception. This year, some major races, like lululemon’s SeaWheeze, are going virtual instead.

In its ninth year, SeaWheeze is a half-marathon that winds its way along the seawall in Vancouver, B.C., drawing 10,000 participants from various countries annually.

Normally, runners would cruise along 11km of the Pacific Ocean’s coast and through a handful of Vancouver neighbourhoods, including Gastown, Kitsalano, and Chinatown. Amidst the course, lululemon sets up a series of on-course activities to keep runners engaged, like a high five-wall and a series of cheerleaders on spin bikes in mermaid costumes.

Apart from the race, SeaWheeze is a weekend-long event, with yoga practices, guided meditations, and even a sunset festival, complete with DJs and dancing.

In previous years, the event used a lottery system to decide which runners can participate, but last year, lululemon added a virtual option to better accommodate the overwhelming demand to race in the event from would-be-runners.

This year, responding to the forced cancellation of the in-person event due to COVID-19 restrictions, the organizers moved the party completely online, offering both a half marathon and a 10km race. After signing up for the event, runners can join the lululemon SeaWheeze Run Club on Strava, a social media platform that tracks workouts.

In an email correspondence, lululemon told The Pigeon that this year’s entries won’t be ranked. Runners will have one week—Aug. 15 to 23—to log their run on Strava. As of yesterday, the Run Club has over 40,500 members.

Along with the virtual transition, lululemon released training programs for both distances, designed by Rob Watson, lululemon ambassador and Canadian marathon champion. Originally from London, Ont., he now calls Vancouver home.

In a Zoom interview with The Pigeon, Watson said SeaWheeze is a unique event in the run space. Many of the events he’s attended are more competitive, whereas SeaWheeze has a more “festive” attitude.

Watson himself comes from a world of “fairly high performance.” He was the Canadian marathon champion in 2013, the Canadian 10km champion in 2010, and broke the SeaWheeze course record last year with a time of 1:09:47.

“SeaWheeze is just a celebration of sport and movement and empowerment,” he said. “It just has these people from all over North America, all over the world that come together.”

Instead of being intimidating, SeaWheeze is welcoming. “It can be such a nice, really, really positive first experience for races, where the performance doesn’t matter as much as the race itself,” Watson said. 

“People have their goals—absolutely people have their goal—but there’s so much more to it,” he said. “They want to experience the sessions where they’re doing the yoga and the mindfulness and also the really cool gear and the sunset fest.”

Plus, as a Vancouverite, Watson loves how the event showcases the city.

“I take a lot of pride in having people in my city seeing how kick-ass it is.”

Watson’s now retired from professional running, but was a marathoner—competing in 42km-long races.

Generally, coaches advise runners not run more than 37km until race day, because the event is so gruelling. Watson said that after that distance, you go to a place physically, and mentally, that you don’t want to go.

“It’s hard to recover from, so you want to [train in] little bits and pieces, so that when you are there you have the tools to manage that,” he said.

“Within the training process, there’s so many opportunities to learn, and so many opportunities to grow and so many opportunities to better.”

The run club where he coaches, Mile 2 Marathon, offered virtual races—either 5km or 10km—in June, giving their athletes to have something to circle on their calendar.

“People wanted to keep training. Running was their connection to normal, running was a routine, running was a release,” he said. “Within everyone’s day-to-day, running serves a purpose, but also, it’s nice to have a long-term goal.”

“That was something that got taken away, so we created it just to give people something to strive towards.”

Of course, racing online has some drawbacks—like running alone, to start. Without the crowd, it can be harder to maintain the energy required to make it through a longer event. 

 “One of the most positive places in the world is the start line of a mass race, and second most positive place in the world is the finish line of a mass race,” Watson said. “The energy and the connectivity of our communities, it’s fantastic, so that’s really hard to mimic on a virtual race.”

On the other hand, racing online allows runners to be in control of the day ahead of them. Watson said that, as a coach, you tell athletes to “control the controllable.”

“If you’re doing a virtual race, you pick the day you want to do it on; if you wake up one day and you don’t feel so well, you don’t have to do it that day, you can do it the next day. You control all of the little elements, which can sometimes be stress-inducing on an actual race day.”

This year, Watson will continue to show his leadership through these virtual events.

“I’m going to be honest, I would much rather be running out there with 10,000 people on a seawall at SeaWheeze than doing it by myself because it’s not the same, but we’re doing what we can.”

Also participating in this year’s virtual event will be Teah Domazet. This is the University of Toronto Master’s of Physiotherapy student’s first SeaWheeze experience.

Domazet has worked for lululemon and has a wealth of racing experience under her belt. She was part of the Varsity Track & Field Club for two years at Queen’s University, and has participated in a slew of other road races.

Among her past experiences is the lululemon Waterfront 10km in Toronto, which she said blew her away. Not only did Domazet enjoy the free perks for runners, like aromatherapy samples from company Saje and free yoga sessions, but she says the entire experience went above and beyond.

 “The whole thing was just so much better than any other 10km that I’ve ever done,” she recalled.

This year, Domazet thought about entering the SeaWheeze lottery, but when the event transitioned online, she knew it was going to be way more achievable.

While she acknowledged that you don’t get the fun of being in the crowd in Vancouver or access to the exclusive SeaWheeze gear—only available before the event—Domazet said it makes more sense.

Without having to figure out the logistics of getting herself to Vancouver, registering for the event was a “no-brainer,” and made running online even more enticing.

“A lot of people can’t afford to go to Vancouver, but there’s a lot of people that can afford to just go on a 10km around their neighbourhood,” Domazet said.

She has a point: flights to Vancouver are expensive, and when factoring in the cost of accommodation and transportation, the half-marathon can be a huge investment.

Racing online, however, is much more equitable. “You can run whatever route you want to run, however you want to do it, whoever you want to do it with.”

Unfortunately, running alone means that she can’t use the crowd as motivation—by focusing on passing other runners—but Domazet will be happy doing it alone.

Instead of running the half-marathon this summer, Domazet will be running the 10km, with her sights set on hitting the 21.1km mark in October.

“I would love to run the SeaWheeze half [in the future],” she added.

Unlike Domazet, Antoinette Taranets—who was also a lululemon employee, but now works in marketing—has run SeaWheeze twice.

“I’m not one of those runners that’s like, ‘I love running.’ I always say, ‘I love racing, and running is just the afterthought of that,’” Taranets explained. “So I have to run and train for it.”

Taranets, who never really considered herself a runner before, got into the sport because of a co-worker. She had competed in Cross-Country and Track and Field in high school but had never paid to register for a race.

“The most I had probably run before I actually started running was maybe 4km when I did cross country in high school,” she said, “So, for me, the thought of doing 21.1km seemed really absurd.” 

She decided to work her way up to the distance, participating in some shorter road races in Toronto, Ont.

“I decided after doing a 10km race and experiencing the thrill of it that I would actually enter the draw to get into SeaWheeze.”

In her first year of entry, Taranets was waitlisted, but eventually accepted into the race, which she did almost entirely alone—without any friends or running partner beside her.

Since then, Taranets has participated in several other half-marathons, and even ran the Chicago marathon last year. According to her, SeaWheeze is the most unique experience.

“They have a whole wall of high fives […] they had this cloud spritzer that can spray you with water,” Taranets listed. “They have these incredible mermaids at one point that are dressed up on the rocks along the seawall. They have so many unique elements that really add to [the races].”

This year, however, she won’t be participating in the SeaWheeze virtual race.

After running the annual Sporting Life 10km virtually, which raises money for Camp Ooch, she decided that she didn’t love the experience.

 “When you go for those really long races, what you’re kind of paying for is the course, you’re paying for the experience of having streets shut down, of having water prepared for you or having energy gels,” she said. “There’s also the experience of running with other people.”

“You just get this incredible energy and momentum from all those strangers cheering you on which is something you don’t get really anywhere else, unless you’re a professional athlete.”

As a self-described “extreme extrovert,” Taranets didn’t feel motivated to head out into the heat and clock the 21.1km without having other people’s energy to feed off.

With that said, Taranets was excited that others could have the opportunity to participate in the event remotely.

“In a time where so many milestones have been ripped from people, to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I ran a half marathon’ […] is an accomplishment, and that is so exciting. People who maybe wouldn’t have gone and put themselves forward for a traditional race [can actually] do that themselves.”

Editor’s note: The original version of the story listed both Domazet and Taranets as lululemon employees. While this is accurate, they were interviewed only as SeaWheeze participants, and not as spokespersons or representatives of lululemon as a company.

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