But the running is purely optional. For that matter, participants need not get out of bed.
The Internet-borne spectacle is “a way to get all that superiority of running without any of that pesky effort,” according to its creator, Kyle Scheele.
In a TikTok video in January, Scheele, a speaker and author with nearly 2 million followers on the video app, pitched a fake marathon where everyone could pretend they competed. In a month, at least 33,000 people have since signed up — more than the Boston Marathon’s 30,000 athletes. Registration is free, and the email updates, a printable race bib and other classic marathon accoutrements make for perfect props for Instagram-worthy gloating at a time when many are socializing mainly online.
“You upload those pictures to social media, and bada boom bada bing, you’re a runner,” said Scheele, 34, of Springfield, Mo.
People who sign up can run the day of the “marathon,” but their placement in the race results won’t reflect it: Run times are assigned by when participants registered.
Scheele and others involved said the real sport is playing along with the inside joke — something that Scheele isn’t trying to hide.
“This is basically like a big group project in a time when we can’t have big group projects,” Scheele told The Washington Post. “This is a way that’s completely safe, by yourself, socially distanced, at home, and at the same time you get to be a part of this bigger thing.”
Scheele told his followers the idea came from talking with a runner friend who bragged about being able to say he ran in marathons. Scheele said he could say he ran in marathons, too — if he lied.
After that conversation, Scheele realized he could pull off the fib with the help of friends online. They just needed to create a race that appeared authentic.
In 2013, they organized a fake marathon and called it Run Free — “because it was free of running,” Scheele said. More than 1,000 people signed up from 24 countries, he said.
This year, after the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay home, Scheele decided to host the online race again. He created authentic-looking greenscreen backgrounds and more to help those who sign up fool their loved ones “because the best kind of running is not running at all,” according to the registration website.
“Get ready for the most fun you’ve ever pretended to have,” an introductory email promises to those who register.
People have used the marathon hashtag in social media posts about them preparing for the marathon: lifting the TV remote, stretching across the couch and downing a bottle of wine.
“They say it’s fake, but it’s not fake,” one TikTok user says in a video about the marathon. “It’s just not real.”
The virtual stunt has been a break from the seriousness of the pandemic, political chaos and financial strain. TikTok users have created a musical based on Disney Pixar’s “Ratatouille” and revived sea shanties. The marathon offers people a chance to be a part of a community when being with others is not ideal.
For Emily DeAno, the timing was “impeccable.”
“Everyone has been kind of down and out in their spirits about the pandemic,” the 34-year-old said. “People are missing out on socialization with their friends and even family. A lot of people didn’t even get to see their families over the holidays, so I was inspired by the fun of coming together virtually and kind of making light of the situation we’re all going through.”
Asked whether she planned to run on Feb. 20, DeAno said, “Heck no, that would defeat the purpose.”
During a particularly breezy day in her hometown of Fort Worth, DeAno, the manager of an ice cream truck company, posted a TikTok “wind training” before panning the camera to a pile of mail she retrieved from her mailbox.
Her husband, 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son are in on the joke, she said. On the day of the marathon, the family will “post funny TikTok videos to show our lack of running,” she said.
The race is different from a traditional marathon in another major aspect: While most marathons are sponsored by major brands, this event is brought to you by Julie Zachwieja, a doctor in Ubly, Mich., and one of Scheele’s followers.
After Scheele set up an auction to find a sponsor willing to donate to charity in exchange for name placement on the marathon merchandise, Zachwieja decided she wanted to bid.
She said she identified with the topical humor and charity that benefited: DonorsChoose. The $5,000 she contributed will go to the nonprofit organization, which allows people to donate directly to classrooms to help teachers subsidize the cost of supplies that many pay for out of pocket.
In exchange for her donation, the race’s swag says “celebrating Mrs. Tobianski and teachers like her,” in honor of Romana Tobianski, Zachwieja’s mother-in-law and a retired Catholic school principal. When Zachwieja first told her mother-in-law that she had sponsored a marathon in her honor, Tobianski was confused.
“When it settled in, she was touched,” Zachwieja said. “I think, in a way, many teachers don’t realize what they’ve done for others.”
Zachwieja plans to run on the day of the marathon, pausing to post a video each mile about a teacher who affected her along the way, including her fifth-grade math teacher who went to her dance recital and her seventh-grade teacher who coached her for the Science Olympiad.
Zachwieja said she has received thankful messages from teachers and others who saw Scheele mention her donation.
Scheele said TikTok, an app that has inspired creative pranks, hacks, stories and more, has cultivated a community that he credits for the marathon’s success. Since the start of the pandemic, millions of users have joined the social media network as a form of entertainment.
Scheele, who has gained Internet fame before from projects like publishing a book of 99 shades of gray or setting a Viking ship made of cardboard aflame, said the marathon, like his other viral ideas, will hopefully offer a spot of brightness in someone’s day.
“It’s not political,” he said of the bogus race. “There’s no real bad guy in this. It’s just a fun thing we’re all going to do together, and I think people need that right now.”
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