If Sid Raman, the owner of the new Roam149 gym and the inventor of the very unusual treadmills that can be found there, had been aware of my attitude toward high-tech gadgetry, he probably wouldn’t have wanted me to write about his gym.
One of my favorite things about running is the lack of equipment: no racquet, skis, bike, basket, or ball; just your body, the ground, and some decent shoes. Whenever someone tries to convince me that a “smart watch,” a water-filled backpack, or a music-playing earpiece is indispensable to my sport, I typically say “I’ll just run, thanks.”
Perhaps predictably, I’ve also never been a video-game player. When my son was about 14, he made me nervous by living mostly in the Fortnite world for months, and I was very relieved when he quit cold-turkey one day. (Now he studies philosophy, so I can’t complain.) And when the whole Strava thing started, putting my workouts on a public forum didn’t interest me. If it’s true that “if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen,” then I’ve never run at all.
As for treadmills, although they’re very useful if there’s ice on the ground or a thunderstorm outside or you’re in a hotel in a new city at night, they’ve always been a last-resort option for me. But when my friend Roberto, an Olympic 1500-meter runner who’s placed twice in the World Trail-Running Championships, told me that a new treadmill could precisely replicate any running course on earth, well, I went and tried it out, of course.
It’s All Downhill from There
When I’d absorbed the rudiments of how Sid’s invention worked and what it made possible, I was amazed at the achievement. But I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to train on a “VR” machine, even if I could pretend I was on the Moon or the Great Wall of China.
My conversion began when I found myself running downhill on a treadmill. I’ve been bothered by that gap in the technology for literally 40 years. Most gym members probably don’t want to make their workouts easier, but serious runners often want to train for downhills. I’ve been asked many times if it was possible to prop up the back of a treadmill to practice the first half of the Boston Marathon, which is 90% downhill. It seemed that my answer could now be “No need for that; I know just the place.”
Then I tried out a course called “the Temple Run,” and I was fully converted.
Into Thin Air
The course starts underwater, which is a bit disorienting. I ran through waving fronds of sea vegetation, passed some leisurely dolphins, and broke the surface. I was in “Free Run” mode, which let me choose my own path by holding an arm out like a turn signal. As I ran on the beach toward some sand dunes, the incline steepened under my feet. I could have turned to avoid the hills, but I decided to take the challenge of reaching the eponymous yet elusive temple, which was rumored to be up in the mountains above the forest that I was now running through.
And that’s the key: I felt like I was running through it. I almost forgot that I was on a treadmill as I changed direction and skirted or climbed hills to see the mountains more clearly. I got a glimpse of the temple, but it disappeared again behind the evergreens as I climbed higher. The grade reached a truly challenging 18 degrees, and I was reduced to a speed 15 minutes per mile, sweating through my shirt despite the cool, filtered air, my heart rate around 170. The temple reappeared, and I became as determined to reach it as I was typically determined to finish a tough interval workout or a 20-mile run during marathon training.
I was running very hard, on a steeper incline than I’d ever seen on a treadmill, and I was enjoying it. I wasn’t immune to the attractions of virtual reality, after all.
As I trudged up the final approach to the temple, I felt like I was finishing the Pike’s Peak Half-Marathon. I came over the final rise, climbed some wide golden steps, and entered a long, elaborately decorated hallway. At its far end I reached a hanging gong, which boomed to announce that my pilgrimage was at an end.
I staggered off and walked around to recover, and I realized that this wasn’t just a treadmill, or just a fun game. It was a truly new kind of training, and one that a non-runner, a gamer, or an athlete preparing for the Fifth Avenue Mile could all benefit from and enjoy. Sid Raman calls his invention is “the XPRience immersive VR treadmill.” It’s an accurate description.
An odd part of my immersive experience was that I had no idea how far I’d run. I’d been too focused on the trail to look at an odometer. But I did know that I’d be back.