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Virtual races inspiring people to become more active from home

The Tutu Race raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Carrie Snyder1 / 2
Jim Parker and Amy Knight, who own Fit 4 Life Virtual Race Series, participated in the Tutu Race with others in September. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Carrie Snyder2 / 2

Tracy Frank | Forum News Service

Runners are taking to the streets and their treadmills to run virtual races.

Participants are actually running, but the races are organized online, and racers can complete them whenever and wherever they want.

Darcy Kasprick, 32, of Fargo says Fit 4 Life and the charities it supports help keep her motivated.

“It’s a great, supportive group,” she said. “Even when you’re feeling down, the rest of the group is there to pick you up.”

Jim Parker and Amy Knight of West Fargo started the Fit 4 Life Virtual Race Series as a way to motivate people to become more active. And it seems to be working. They’ve been in business for a little more than a year and have had more than 4,000 participants in all 50 states and 11 countries.

Fit 4 Life had more than 11,500 race registrations for 47 events over the past year, which ranged from 1-mile races to an ultra-marathon. There were also two fitness challenges where participants lost a combined 950 pounds. And 425 team members ran a combined total of more than 238,900 miles in a cumulative race to the moon.

Nancy Hecox, 57, of Selah, Wash., says participating in Fit 4 Life races has made an incredible difference for her.

She wanted to run half-marathons but said she was a “back of the pack” runner. She was ashamed she couldn’t keep up with the people with whom she trained. She also didn’t like getting on a bus at 2 a.m. or waiting in line with thousands of people to participate in live races.

At the same time, she said it would be nice to be able to medal for running 13 miles on her own.

Then she discovered Fit 4 Life virtual races. At first she worried it might be a scam, Hecox says, but she signed up anyway.

“This is a way for me to be in races without the things that plague me,” Hecox said. “It’s for folks like me who aren’t real athletes but we want to participate.”

Hecox has now run 14 half-marathons, some virtual and some real-time races. She says she never would have accomplished that without Fit 4 Life. She also participates in the group’s fitness challenges, goes to the gym and works out with a trainer. She’s lost more than 30 pounds since starting with Fit 4 Life, and she won the last fitness challenge.

“Everyone is so encouraging. It’s so awe-inspiring,” Hecox said. “That’s really touched me on this. I’ve gotten to be close friends with people I don’t even know. I feel so connected with people.”

About 85 percent of the Fit 4 Life participants are women. Many like the flexibility and privacy the race series offers. Parker says a few clients would not participate in regular races because they were afraid of coming in last or of not looking like runners. But participating in the virtual races motivates them to stay active.

Racers receive medals and racing bibs, which they say can be a fun motivation and reminder of what they’ve accomplished. They can also track their time, not to compete with each other, but as a way to continually improve.

Fit 4 Life racers also like the community and encouragement they receive from other racers on the Fit 4 Life Facebook page.

“Whether it’s your first step or you’re more advanced, we come together on all levels to help each other achieve our personal goals,” Kasprick said.

Parker and Knight say the camaraderie, encouragement and support they’ve seen is something they didn’t expect when they started the race series.

“It makes me feel very proud to be a part of the organization and to see people’s lives change so dramatically,” said Parker, 39, who also works as a personal trainer and is a retired Navy chief petty officer. “People are achieving success and achieving things that they never in their wildest dreams thought they could do.”

They also didn’t expect the race series to take off as it has.

“Our original concept was simply to organize a race and that was it,” said Knight, 34, who also works in an orthodontist office. “It’s not just a race for us, it’s the people that we’ve met and how we have all changed all of our lives. They may think that we’ve changed their lives, but they’ve changed our lives just as much.”

The races typically cost around $25 each, and part of the proceeds benefit various charities. One race was held to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and to encourage people to “Stop the Silence.”

Another race, “Fortune Cookies for Cystic Fibrosis,” is raising awareness and funds for the disease. Nikki Hahn of Casselton is a health coach for Fit 4 Life. Her 8-year-old daughter, Logan, has cystic fibrosis and is the 2013-2014 Cystic Fibrosis Association of North Dakota ambassador. Logan will be helping hand-write fortunes to put into the fortune cookie-shaped medals participants of this race will receive.

“She was really empowered this year,” Hahn said of Logan. “She has realized she can do more because of her disease than she ever would have before. That’s been our goal to teach her it’s not a disease to be embarrassed of or to be saddened by, it’s something to embrace and use to make a difference in the world.”

So far, Fit 4 Life has raised more than $30,000 for 45 charities. Parker says it’s important that his business gives back, not only through donations to charities, but also to his racers. He holds fitness competitions to let them earn free races. He gives away free races. He also gives away cash and other prizes for registering for races.

And many of the people who participate in his races have reached out to others as well. Some have donated money so others can participate in races or have given a race they’ve won to someone else.

“Our biggest surprise was how Fit 4 Life has evolved from an organization that puts on virtual events across the country to an organization where people come to pour their hearts out, where people come to talk about their day,” Parker said.

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