When gatherings of panting runners and walkers flocking down streets and trails got stopped in their tracks early last spring, Zack Loggins got concerned about his business. In a normal year, Race Works, based at Runners Fit in Flowery Branch, helps run about 165 events a year, from 5Ks and 10Ks to half marathons, cross country competitions, and bicycle races. Before the coronavirus hit, Loggins and staff packed up digital clocks and laptops to document finish times at about five races per weekend all over the Southeast. “This year, we were lucky to do five a month,” he said.

The challenges spawned innovations that not only kept Race Works working, but also got a lot of folks out of the house for physical activity. Virtual races took off. Loggins said that all of the 25 events he helped produce from July through mid-October offered participants a virtual option, meaning racers didn’t have to actually line up at a starting line. This month, turkey trots and gobble jogs will still burn up holiday calories, but not everyone will be strutting together unless they want to. All but one Lake Lanier area Thanksgiving-themed race offers participants a virtual option.

Loggins explained how virtual races work. Participants register for their chosen race online and download the Racejoy app on their phone. With their phone in tow, they select “start” and traverse the race distance. The app uses GPS to measure distance and stops the clock once they have covered the race distance. It automatically sends the finish time to Race Works.

Participants “can run (or walk) whenever or wherever they want. Whatever fits their fancy,” he said. Race Works collects the finish times and lists the results. “It’s a competitive event, albeit virtual,” Loggins said.

Virtual racing helps motivate individual runners and keeps them connected with their communities, plus it allows local charities a platform to publicize their cause and raise funds. Virtual races offer “a good option for charities to still have a presence, get their message out and fundraise,” Loggins said.

Some race organizers mail t-shirts and awards to finishers. Others require in-person racing to qualify for awards.

Loggins and staff work hard to assure integrity in races where they man the finish line. But it’s no sure thing in virtual races. The app cannot discern whether someone rides in a car or hops on a bike to cover a race distance. But impossible finish times would certainly raise suspicions among serious competitors and Loggins, who created Race Works out of his own running experience. The Hall County athlete ran cross country and track for West Hall High School and North Georgia College (now University of North Georgia). He still runs when he’s not timing races.

Some popular races have drawn large numbers of participants in virtual races. “It’s been very impressive,” Loggins said. In a Mississippi event Race Works helped produce, 1,900 participants raced virtually. The organizer mailed t-shirts and awards. Locally, between 50 to 400 participants per virtual race have run or walked on their own and submitted times.

Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race, postponed from its traditional July 4 running, is among those offering only a virtual race and will accept 10K times from registered runners Nov. 26-29. Loggins said the shutdown also jump-started virtual challenges, such as his brainchild Peach State Challenge. More than 1,100 participants signed up for the June 21-Sept. 21 virtual event in which people chose a distance corresponding with a Georgia interstate. Runners and walkers footed it anywhere they wanted, any time they wanted, and logged their mileage for three months. A results page showed where they were, virtually, on I-75, I-85, or I-285 and provided a live leaderboard for them to see how they placed among other participants.

“It was incredible,” Loggins said. In all, participants covered a quarter-million miles. Race Works sent out t-shirts and awards.

Several local organizations are also planning virtual challenges. Loggins mentioned the America Runs on Kindness challenge, based in Cumming, and the South Hall Rotary Club’s “Run Run Rudolph” Run around the World. He added that a Forsyth County Board of Education challenge allowing participants to log any kind of activity by minutes – running, walking, hiking, dancing, skateboarding – got more than 1,800 participants moving.

Trot off holiday calories in popular Thanksgiving-themed events

In-person running/walking and bicycling events are making a comeback with socially distanced starts and without award celebrations at the finish. Among those are popular Thanksgiving-themed events below. All but one offer virtual options. Check the event race website for up-to-date information.

Get Basted Turkey Trot, Cumming. 5K 8 a.m. Nov. 22, North Forsyth Middle School, 3645 Coal Mountain Dr. Virtual 5K/10K/Half Marathon available. $17. www.fivestarntp.com

Gobble Wobble 5K/Kids Fun Run, Cumming. 8:30/9:30 a.m. Nov. 26, Thanksgiving Day. See website for location. Virtual option available. $20-$35. www.runnersfit.com.

Five Star Turkey Trot, Johns Creek. 5K 8 a.m. Nov.26, 3835 Johns Creek Pkwy. Virtual 5K/10K/Half Marathon available. $17. www.fivestarntp.com.

Limestone Turkey Trot 5K/10K/Half Marathon, Gainesville. 8 a.m. Nov. 26, American Legion, Riverside Dr. Virtual option available. $35-$50. Donation of three canned goods appreciated for Georgia Mountain Food Bank. www.runnersfit.com.

Turkey Can Run 5K, Jefferson. 8 a.m. Nov. 26, Thanksgiving Day, First Baptist Church, 248 Washington St. $12-$25. Canned food donation appreciated. www.runnersfit.com.

-compiled by Jane Harrison