OTTAWA -- Thousands of runners are lacing up their sneakers for the start of the virtual Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.

Runners were set to take over the streets of Ottawa and Gatineau this weekend for Canada’s largest running festival, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the in-person races.

Instead, 18,000 participants have been invited to take part in a virtual Kids Marathon, 2K, 5K, 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon races.

Executive Director Ian Fraser tells CTV News Ottawa the response to the virtual race weekend has been “shockingly amazing, much to our wonderful surprise.”

“People are embracing the virtual.”

Since organizers cancelled Tamarack Ottawa Race weekend on March 30, 1,175 people have registered for the virtual event. Runners can compete in the virtual race weekend between May 15 and September 7.

All runners will receive a medal, t-shirt, other gifts, plus a 50 per cent off discount code for the 2021 Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.  Runners can also upload their times to Sportstats to record their results.

As of Friday morning, 500 people had already completed their races for the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.

Some people were upset that Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend did not offer refunds for the cancelled events, but Fraser says they have had a chance to explain the situation.

“We tried to go through that question and answer process really patiently with our participants because it’s not obvious often how an organization of our size runs,” said Fraser on Friday morning.

“Things that we don’t get, as much or any public funding unlike some of the other festivals around that do get Ontario grant money - we don't get any of that. We patiently tried to explain how the organization worked, the fact that we are here effectively to put this event on as a not-for-profit.”

Fraser says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Ottawa is a community, and the running group is a community.

“I think people are embracing that. They are sharing their stories - not just about running, but about COVID life in general and how running is a metaphor for better mental health, for physical distancing and getting outside.”

It is unclear when the COVID-19 restrictions will be relaxed and everyone can gather for large-scale events, but Fraser says they are already looking ahead to the 2021 Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.

“We’re not exactly sure what that’s going to look like, but we are for sure,” Fraser said with a laugh, adding his first year as executive director for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend has been a memorable one.

Fraser notes the virtual Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend has opened up the event to runners around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there’s always going to be a place for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend to offer a virtual piece to that event so that some of the people who couldn’t join us from around the world can do it virtually and share in that experience.”

Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend will begin mailing out the packages for runners, including the medals and t-shirts, next week.

You can still register for the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend virtual races.