How a Harry Potter-themed “virtual race” got me off my ass IRL

Guest post by Jennifer Engelland
Virtual Race medal hanger from the Hogwarts Running Club

Just about a year ago I had emergency surgery and spent a few days in the hospital. I then spent several weeks recovering at home. Since I wasn’t in what anyone could reasonably call “good shape” to begin with, by the time it was all said and done? I couldn’t even do a small grocery shopping trip without being winded and completely wiped out for the rest of the day.

I knew I had to do something to get myself back to at least being able to take care of my basic responsibilities, but I had no idea what to do. A gym membership was out of the question due to finances and a couple of bad experiences when I was younger.

After thinking about it off and on for a little while, I was browsing my favorite Harry Potter websites and ran across a mention of a virtual running club. My mind was blown. How in the hell could a running club or a race be virtual?

I looked into it a little more (let’s be real…I Googled the term “virtual race”) and was astounded at how many I found, and absolutely gobsmacked at how many of them had amazingly geeky themes.

So, I whipped out my credit card and ordered a treadmill (pink and white to match my flamingo themed living room, if anyone cares) and signed up for my first virtual race.

This is the coolest treadmill in existence.

It was a Professor Snape-themed one from the Hogwart’s Running Club and it raised money for pancreatic cancer research in honor of Alan Rickman — who had died just a few months previously. I’m a total Slytherin, so how could I pass that up?

I was a little nervous about how it all worked, but it was actually fairly simple. You just fill out a form, pay your money, walk or run your miles, and wait for the mailman to bring you your swag. Some virtual races require proof that you actually did the mileage, others are on the honor system. That proof could be something like a screenshot of a pedometer app on your phone, or maybe a picture of your treadmill display.

In my case, that first race was on the honor system, everyone that registered and paid received an awesome finisher’s medal a couple of weeks later. There was also an optional shirt available for purchase which also raised funds for the same charity.

I started out slow, just walking at whatever pace I could manage for ten minutes or so. Every day I would try to add a few minutes to my time and within a month I could walk a 5K (3.1 miles) in about 45 minutes without stopping.

That success, and my shiny medal hanging on the wall kept me motivated and I signed up for more races through various companies and organizations. I now have a Stargate medal, a Klingon bird of prey, a sugar skull with blinking eyes, a TARDIS, and a Spaceballs medal that raised funds for testicular cancer research.

I love the bling and proudly hang them from a hook on the wall so I can see them from my treadmill. The real accomplishment, though, became obvious about four months into this adventure. My husband took me to San Juan, Puerto Rico as a combination birthday and anniversary present.

We flew in, took a cab to the apartment we were staying in, and did not rent a car. We walked everywhere for a whole week. Sure, I got tired sometimes, but I was able to keep up and I never felt like I was going to die if I had to walk one more block. It was amazing and not something that I think I could have done even before my surgery had laid me so low.

This was the perfect combination of external motivation (shiny medals) and appealing to my sense of altruism (donating money to cancer research) to get me up off my ass and moving. I don’t think I’ll ever be a real exercise enthusiast, but I lost a few pounds, I can walk my dogs without problems, and I can do my shopping without feeling like it’s going to kill me. I’m calling it a win.

Comments on How a Harry Potter-themed “virtual race” got me off my ass IRL

  1. This is such a great story! I’m getting all emotional just reading it (which is making eating lunch a bit tricky).

    I’ve never liked gyms either but I’m a massive advocate of anything that makes exercise easier, cheaper and more fun. I’ve recently been telling lots of people about Pokemon Go (yes it’s still going, pun intended), iRecord, Geocaching and other apps/activities (I’m gonna start calling them apptivities) you participate in by wandering around and my dad introduced me to British Heart Foundations marathon in a month – where you walk or run 26 miles over the course of 30 days. Now I’ve got another one to add to the list!

    • Thank you! 🙂
      I actually earned that Spaceballs medal while taking my daughter out to catch Pokemon last summer. She’s not super interested in medals, but she’s all about some Pokemon.

  2. OOh, what a neat idea! I never heard of such a thing! I do go to a small studio to work out with a trainer a couple times a week, but I also need to step up my game (pun intended) if I want to lose more weight. Plus my pups desperately need walks and my hubs has been laid up with gout issues that make walking long distances difficult at best. This might be a great way to get me out and getting some fresh air (for all of us) this summer 🙂

  3. I, too, joined HRC partly because of my love for Harry Potter and partly because I need to get off my butt and do something. I can now do a 10K race without problems and have lost some weight and inches. There are so many virtual race site, but HRC is more of a family than “just a website”.

    • HRC really is wonderful. I love that there are sub-group common rooms that make it easier to get to know people and make friends. I love my sneks down in the dungeon (Slytherin Common Room).

  4. I only heard about virtual races this year and like Jennifer it was a themed medal that took my fancy. The site I’m using – Virtual Runner UK – has a Mermaid challenge in June, and when a friend from my Mermaid class shared it on Facebook I thought “I want that medal!”.

    On this site there are two types of competition (as far as I can see), there are Races (set distance as fast as possible) and Challenges (far as possible over a set time). Some are running only, others allow run, walk, cycle and/or swim. Everyone who enters, pays the fee and submits their evidence in time receives a medal, and the fastest and furthest get on a leaderboard on the site. Some of the admission fee goes to charity too.

    I’m really looking forward to starting my challenge in June, and (let’s be honest) getting the Mer-medal at the end!

  5. Stories like yours are exactly why Hogwarts Running Club (and it’s sister clubs Whovian Running Club and Chilton Running Club for you Gilmore Girls fans) exist. Thanks so much for sharing your story!
    (Currently googling pink treadmills.)

    • Thanks!
      There are a surprising number of pink treadmills available out there. I didn’t actually care what color I wound up with, but all other things being equal…who could resist?

  6. Jennifer, I legit think you just changed my life. Thank you so much for posting this! I’m definitely joining the HRC, but can you recommend other geeky themed running clubs/websites that you have gone through?

    • Thank you for saying that. I agonized over whether or not to submit this post, so I’m glad that people seem to be getting something out of it. My Stargate medal came from Virtual Gray Runs ( and they had an X Files medal at that time, too. The Spaceballs, Doctor Who, and Klingon Bird of Prey medals came from Moon Joggers ( if I remember correctly. Also, the Hogwarts Running Club has sister clubs that are Doctor Who and Gilmore Girls themed ( and

    • I think my previous reply may have gotten rejected because of too many links, so let’s try this way: Google Moon Joggers, Virtual Gray Runs, Whovian Running Club, and Chilton Running Club. There are lots more, but I have used these or at least know people that have used them. Good luck.

  7. If this floats your boat you might also enjoy the forums at Nerd Fitness – lots of geeks supporting each other in getting fit whatever way works for them (plus lots of help ‘levelling up’.

  8. I’d never heard of virtual races. Thanks so much for sharing! I bought myself a fitbit about a month ago to try to encourage myself to be more active in an attempt to attain better post-baby fitness. Since then I’ve discovered that I am highly motivated by their system of virtual badges and daily goal trackers. I’ve even started to see some results on the scale which has been pretty encouraging. Now you’re telling me I can get real-life medals for doing exactly what I’ve been doing?! This is the best news I’ve heard all week!

  9. This is great. I’m in completely God-awful shape for my age (29). Like, awful to the point that painting my dining room for two hours left me so sore I could barely get out of bed the next day. I need to step up my non-existent exercise game. Maybe this is the motivation I need!

    • I think the only thing that is harder work than painting walls is painting ceilings. You should give a virtual race a try, those shiny medals are super motivating. 🙂

      • That is exactly why I hired someone to paint the ceilings!! Some shiny metals would look totally awesome hanging on my freshly painted walls 🙂

    • The Hogwarts Running Club events are all on the honor system, so how you do your miles is entirely up to you. As for specific cycling events, try looking at Virtual Pace Series and Yes Fit. I believe that both of those allow cycling or might have cycling specific medals.

      Good luck!

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