TAMPA, Fla. — Susan Mitchell started virtual running before it was the coronavirus-friendly thing to do.

With social-distancing measures in place across the nation, traditional races have become sidelined by the current pandemic, and a sport known for community has had to find it elsewhere. Virtual races allow runners to create their own courses, often with their back yards as starting points. And to mimic the feel of a true race day, some events still send out bib numbers and swag like medals and T-shirts.

Mitchell, a 69-year-old northwest Tampa resident, has been running consistently for nearly 11 years. But in 2014, she wanted her running to mean something more than personal achievement.

She signed up for the “I Run 4” program, an organization that pairs up runners and people with special needs. To date, the club has more than 17,000 matches.

“It’s a very unique and wonderful organization,” Mitchell said.

But Mitchell’s regular running schedule faced a hurdle early in 2015 when she was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, cancer in the cells lining the walls of blood vessels. She went on a medical hold from March to August while undergoing chemotherapy and “was a little bit discouraged by that.”

Then Mitchell noticed that even though her stamina had changed, she was still able to run, despite doctors advising her otherwise. At least initially.

She found an “I Run 4” match with Colorado’s Pete Bannister II, a then-12-year-old diagnosed with cerebral palsy, neonatal lupus and scoliosis.

Mitchell and Bannister message each other frequently, sending letters and packages, too. Mitchell estimates that since she and Bannister first connected, she has sent him more than 80 medals from her races.

“Some race directors give me two medals and T-shirts, so I have one for me and one for Pete,” she said. “ … We’ve all become really close. I really do think (it was all meant to be). It’s worked out for us really well.”

Mitchell will typically write her name, time and finish on the backs of the medals to add to Bannister’s experience. And he proudly displays them at home.

“Real close to the ceiling, (his mom) went around the room and hung all of his medals,” Mitchell said. “I was amazed … at all of those medals hanging there.”

Last year she completed 36 races, 12 virtual and the rest standard. This year, she has already run nine virtual — including five in five days last week — and three normal races.

“(Virtual racing) works for me because I’ve always been kind of a solo runner,” Mitchell said.

She added that with her chemotherapy, virtual running gave her the option to still compete on her own schedule. Unlike traditional races that are held on a set day, virtual ones extend over weeks and sometimes months.

While some virtual races are held on an honor system, where participants can get their gear ahead of actually finishing the race, Mitchell prefers accountability, submitting her time-based finish off of her Garmin running watch.

“It does kind of motivate me when they ask for a proof of time,” she said.

In normal circumstances, she nannies for a family in St. Petersburg by day. She’ll try to fit in running three times each week (ranging from 9 to 24 miles in that frame), and when she doesn’t run, she’ll find time to bike.

Her most recent virtual run was last Thursday’s Hot Chocolate 5K. She ran it in her neighborhood, planning out her course using an interactive map online.

“It was a good run,” Mitchell said.

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Barbie Lawless only got into virtual racing because of the pandemic. She has missed the community aspect of running, but has enjoyed a different type of “rush.”

This spring, she has completed a couple of virtual runs, her most recent the St. Pete Running Company’s sixth anniversary race.

She was signed up for a Star Wars-themed “Ran Solo” 5K, which started Monday (May the Fourth be with You) through the virtual pace series. It also includes a Millennium Falcon medal for the finishers who post their times.

Lawless believes that virtual racing is a good way for new runners to break into the sport because it removes some of the social pressures that come with a traditional race, worrying about times and where people are in the pack.

“I see that a lot,” she said. “It could be very good for people to have it in a no-pressure kind of atmosphere to see just what they’re able to do.”

Normally, the 39-year-old Riverview resident runs 15 miles each week, but her mileage has been lower thanks to stay-at-home orders.

And while Lawless has enjoyed some virtual outings during the pandemic, she is hoping the races rescheduled for this fall don’t overlap each other.

“I am going to be very, very busy this fall,” she joked, “if we’re able to have them.”

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James Shaw has started his own virtual races through his parenting podcast, Positively Dad.

He is looking at ways he can help make a difference and keep families moving so they don’t “gain their COVID-19.”

“The thing we have to do in a situation like this is figure out, where is the gift?” said the 42-year-old Safety Harbor resident. “Because in any time there is a shift like this, there’s a gift, too, we just have to look for it.”

Shaw’s first race kicked off April 18, bringing in about 30 to 40 people. Instead of a registration fee, he requested supporting a local charity or non-profit.

“People loved it,” Shaw said. “It was fun, so I said let’s do it again, and do it every month until we can run with people.”

He made T-shirts with his podcast’s logo on the front as a prize for participants, and he is hoping to partner with a local charity or non-profit for his May 23 race.

“This is a chance for us to get creative, and for us to get fit, and stay in shape and maybe support somebody,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there that need our help right now to keep their doors open.”

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The “Charge Running: Live Coaching” app helps Rachel Grannan of Seminole Heights stay on track during this time of social distancing.

The 39-year-old injured her shoulder and neck in 2013, and has spent the past four weeks using the app to ease back into running. This week, she’ll compete in her first race since in seven years — the “Girls on the Run Virtual 5K.”

She has enjoyed the app, which allows users to sign-up for live virtual runs or runs on demand. It also has pre-made musical playlists available in all genres.

Grannan said runners even live chat during their outings, sharing words of encouragement and posting updates about milestones.

“It pushes you,” she said. “It allows me to listen in to others and have that motivation going.”

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©2020 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

Visit the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) at www.tampabay.com

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