Variety is a quality that no runner would associate with a treadmill—until now. Inventor Sid Raman’s XPRience immersive VR treadmill offers runners more variety than they could find almost anywhere else: the library of courses among which they can choose lets them move from a track to a road to a forest to the Moon—and back again—all in a half-hour workout, if that’s the time they have. More courses are available, and more still are in the works. The variety becomes near-limitless because each course can literally be explored, especially in “Free Run” mode, in which the runner chooses the route by changing direction at will.
Here are some brief descriptions of the places that a runner can go at Roam149, the world’s first metaverse gym.
Roam149’s track option is a great choice for a first run on the XPRience. As with a real track, one hopes that there’s no incline or decline anywhere—and there isn’t: the gym offers the beginning user a flat, realistic 400-meter track to run speed workouts on—and a place to warm up for the hilly and more challenging courses. The distance is true-to-life, too: if you run in Lane 1, you will indeed run 400 meters (almost exactly a quarter-mile). For some extra verisimilitude, besides the cheering spectators, there’s a single, possibly abandoned football tackling sled near the starting line. (I haven’t tested what happens if the user runs into it.)
Next in difficulty after the 400-meter track is probably Branch Brook Park. We find ourselves on a gently curving asphalt road, and we’re apparently in a race; spectators give enthusiastic support to runners who take on these gentle gradients through a winding, picturesque, tree-lined course. No steep hills here; it would be a good 5K time-trial choice. Some spectators—or racers?—seem to have parked their cars to the right of the road; I think I saw a Porsche, but I didn’t try to drive it—I’d be afraid that Sid Raman’s treadmill would rev up to 120 mikes per hour.
The meadow course is a good introduction to the trails, which were Mr. Raman’s inspiration for the XPRience treadmill. The hills here will surprise the newcomer, because they’re as steep on the treadmill’s belt as they look in the scene that the runner cruises through. Most surprising at first are the downhills, which aren’t as steep as the climbs (maximum downhill grade is six degrees), but which come as a bit of a shock after decades of treadmill-running on machines which never slope downward (and which change angle upward only very gradually). The gradients here can shift as fast as they do out in the hills, and the runner’s course starts on a rough dirt road (with some railroad ties half-buried to prevent virtual erosion) that rolls fairly gently, but from which the course then diverges into a true off-road environment over rocks and bumps, down into valleys, and steeply up hillsides through occasionally thick forest. Runners training for hilly races, or who are just looking for challenging terrain, will find what they’re looking for in the meadow.
This trail is so tough that it builds agility as much as fitness. At its natural gradients (which can be pre-set lower, as always), hiking would seem the natural way to approach it. (To quote Wayne World, it’s not just a clever name.) Running is possible, but it’s literally not for the faint of heart: the miles are hard-earned as you negotiate vertiginous cliff edges, serpentine ridge crests, and the occasional narrow footbridge. (Some boards were missing on one bridge over a chasm when I went through there; I crossed a bit nervously.) The scenery is spectacular, and most of the footing is on an inviting wood-chip trail—aptly approximated by the XPRience’s famously forgiving belt surface.
The Forest Hike is the fullest realization of Sid Raman’s dream: that the experience of hiking or running up and down steep, twisting trails can be provided indoors. Concentration is required, as are surefootedness and balance. The longest guided loop course, just over a 1.1 miles, provides a complete workout: the uphills make runners lift their knees and drive with their arms; the downhills demand quadricep strength and shortened, careful strides.
In short: the changes in the terrain are as challenging—and as exhilarating—as their models in nature. This unlikely claim shouldn’t be made lightly, but the XPRience backs it up.
Van Cortlandt Park
Like Branch Brook Park, this is a real place. It’s also the site of “the Vannie,” New York City’s famously tough, internationally known cross-country course, where races from high school meets to the National Championships have been contested for more than a century. (The Nationals were last held here in 2006.) On the XPRience, runners see the actual video-recorded course, while the hills are precisely replicated beneath their feet—unless, of course, they’d like to build up to those fierce inclines more gradually, in which case the incline can be set at a lower limit—say 4 degrees (which would equate to Cat Hill in Central Park), or even to zero. On the other side of that coin, the incline limit can be increased to 19 degrees, which is more of a mountain climb than a run.
Van Cortlandt’s infamous hills don’t start right away. The 5000-meter course beguiles the first-time visitor with almost a mile on the vast grass expanse known as The Flats. Just before the mile mark, though, the runner veers off to the right on a trail into the Back Hills, which make up the next 1.5 miles and which, at their natural angles, can be daunting even for serious athletes. Under a canopy of lofty foliage, runners ascend six major climbs through the Back Hills until they complete a loop and return to The Flats for their final 600 meters. Beside the finish line is a beloved statue of the Tortoise and the Hare, the latter of whom is hurdling the former. After Roam149 visitors cross that finish line at 3.11 miles, they’ll pay a visit to these two longtime competitors, who seem frozen in a dead heat (at least for now).
Mile on Fifth Avenue
It’s a famous stretch of road, and there’s a famous and fast race on it—but it’s filled with traffic, and the sidewalks are hexagonal paving stones. How can a runner train for the tricky course, with its downhill first quarter, uphill second quarter, and downhill-to-flat second half? At Roam149, of course.
The full race is replicated on the XPRience, without the traffic, the bus stops, the cross-streets, or the pedestrians, but with every uphill and downhill true to life. Would a time trial on the course—or two, or three—help you decide on a time goal, and on how fast to run that flying downhill start? The answer is yes.
An even better-known and much longer race course can be run in its 26.22-mile entirety on the XPRience. Starting with a one-mile ascent on the Verrazano Bridge and a commensurate descent into Brooklyn, continuing through Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, and culminating in a world-renowned finish in Central Park, the five-borough marathon has been called “the greatest spectacle in sports.” If you’re among the 50,000 people who will run the race this year (or if you have plans for next year or beyond), you can preview what’s ahead—the bridges, the landmarks, the undulating hills in the last three miles—in purified 64° air despite the wilting 90° weather outside. But you don’t have to run 26.22 miles at Roam149. Preview your favorite miles of the course (or the last 10), practice the toughest hills (or avoid them), or rehearse your finishing sprint, any time you like. You’ll be accompanied by “competitors”: pacer avatars whose race numbers are actually the paces they’re running. Hang with them or chase them down for some extra inspiration and fun.
Perhaps the most disconcerting start of a Roam149 course is this one, which isn’t quite on an island. The runner—or diver?—begins underwater, but quickly finds that normal buoyancy and oxygen are still available as she runs on the ocean floor among dolphins, fish, and waving fronds of sea vegetation. The uphill is quite apparent as the runner emerges—via a truly stunning waterline-breaking transition—from the sea-bed to the beach. The views are panoramic along a sweeping shoreline, and the runner climbs gradually toward a pristine forest; no signs of previous human visitors are obvious, just tall trees with pine-needle paths between them. If the runner uses the Guided mode, she’ll enter the forest and curve upward toward a towering volcano—luckily well to the right of a river of flowing lava—and then start a serious ascent toward proof that explorers have indeed been to the island: on the mountainside far above the treeline, an edifice comes into view. As the hardworking climber gets closer, she can see that she’s approaching a temple, with a gateway that is reached only by the truly devoted: this hill nearly touches the clouds. But the reward is worth the effort: the runner completes the course at the end of a grand hall through the temple, where a gong booms to announce her arrival.
The gravity only seems to change. As the astronaut-explorer in Roam149’s signature course emerges from a Moon station onto the lunar surface, the vast expanses of arid rock under countless constellations create a true sense of the otherworldly. The visitor runs past an Apollo 11–era Lunar Excursion Module, and after that, even the sky isn’t the limit. This course lends itself especially well to Free Run mode, in which the user changes direction by extending an arm out to the right or left to turn to that side. In this format, a runner can make limitlessly sweeping turns—through 360 degrees if desired—and will find the Earth somewhere on the lunar horizon. Hills are frequent, both up and down, and a hill workout is almost inevitable unless ascent/descent limits are set up in advance. But the runner almost doesn’t notice them: the term “immersive” has never been as fully applicable as it is to this XPRience trip, during which a visitor can forget completely that he’s in a building in New York City and instead can marvel at the far reaches of the universe. (Perhaps “the met metaverse” is more appropriate.)
The Moon course is excellent for multi-player use: for a simple race over the Sea of Tranquility (less tranquil on certain ascents), or for gaming opportunities involving extra features of the XPRience’s design, such as pulling or pushing against the treadmill’s belt to move an on-screen object, holding the handrails and “vaulting” over an obstacle, and collecting fuel cells throughout the moonscape and returning to the starting point to power the spaceship (that is, if you really want to stop running on the Moon).