While most events have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hattiesburg Half Marathon will be taking a different race path.
For its ninth annual race, instead of hosting its annual race day, runners will be competing in a virtual race.
"When we knew that we were going to have to cancel the event due to the COVID-19 virus, we were looking for an option for our runners since they had been training for several months for this," Rhonda Hayden, development director for the Pinebelt Foundation, said. "We decided to go ahead and do a virtual race for those participants. The participants who didn't want to do it still had the option to defer their registration until next year."
According to Hayden, completely canceling the half marathon was never an option. The race itself is one of the Pinebelt Foundation's most significant fundraiser events in the year and takes roughly 10 months to plan out.
"We put in a good 10 months to bring the city together and get this event organized for our runners," Hayden said. "On the flip side, we are working with donors and the community and sponsors and things like that. Plus, we have runners who have trained for six months."
In a virtual race, runners will run their respective distances that they registered for and submit their time. From there, the results will be tallied and calculated to decide the winners.
"We still wanted to do the event, so we came up with the virtual idea, which we did not invent," Hayden said. "Runners have been doing (virtual races) for a decade now, but this is the first time that we have offered that for the Hattiesburg Half Marathon."
The half marathon, which has Forrest General as the title sponsor, is also in partnership with 14 nonprofit organizations from the Pine Belt region. Typically, nonprofits would decorate miles to raise awareness, recruit sponsors and have charity runners.
However, with this year's race becoming virtual, the nonprofits will rely on charity runners to raise and spread awareness through social media.
Before the pandemic, the half marathon was on pace to surpass its previous total of participants and was projected to have between 1,200 and 1,500 runners. As of now, the race has just over 1,000 participants, which is equal to last year’s total that helped raise over $205,000.
Helping increase numbers for this year's competition was the addition of the Trifecta challenge.
"If any of the virtual runners within a 15-day period can compete a 5K, a 10K and a half marathon, then we send a medal for each distance," Hayden said. "That got more people excited and more motivated. We switched the event over to a virtual event three weeks before race day, and we had two weeks where nobody was registering. (But) then we added that Trifecta challenge and we got 30-something more runners to register."
The race will include age group and overall winners with runners receiving their medals in the mail. The overall male and female winners will receive a painting from Thomas Jackson while the age group winners will receive a print of his artwork.
"We are also having runners email us a whole-body photograph of themselves when they finish their race," Hayden said. "We have a backdrop on race day that runners can go to and take a selfie. Runners are sending us their full-body pictures over email, and we're taking those pictures and putting them in Photoshop and creating their own finisher's photos."
Runners will have until April 15 to both register and complete the race.
According to Hayden, the half marathon has seen a surprising amount of attention and enthusiasm through social media.
"It's unbelievable. People are looking for stuff to do right now. It's giving people an outlet of something to do ... to be physical and be outside and not feel so cooped up with their family," Hayden said. "We just felt like if we canceled it then we would be giving up and not allowing people to exceed the goals and expectations that they have laid out for themselves."