Running in the Metaverse

An unlikely convert

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 “smartwatch,” a water-filled backpack, or a music-playing earpiece is indispensable to my sport, I typically say “I’ll just run, thanks.”

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 all 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.

I was amazed

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.

The course starts underwater, which is a bit disorienting, but I simply ran past the dolphins and waving fronds of sea vegetation and up onto a beach.  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 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 elusive monastery that was rumored to be somewhere up in the mountains that loomed in the background of the scene that I was 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 finally got a glimpse of the temple, but it disappeared again behind pine trees as I climbed higher.  The grade reached a truly challenging 18 degrees, and I was reduced to four miles per hour, sweating through my shirt despite the cool, filtered air, and my heart rate was around 170.  The temple reappeared, and I realized that I was 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 into the temple.  At the end of it, I reached a hanging gong, which boomed to announce that my pilgrimage was at an end.

More than a treadmill

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 “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.

Stuart Calderwood

Calderwood has been coaching runners since 1977. He led the Orange Coast College (CA) men’s cross country team to the 1987 Empire Conference Championship and the Laguna Beach High School boys’ cross country team to the 1989 California State Championship. He was the head coach of New York Road Runners’ Group Training program from its inception in 2016 to 2020 and is the head coach of NYC’s Great Hill Track Club. Calderwood has coached several Olympic Trials and World Championships marathoners, more than 100 local age-group champions, and untold numbers of enthusiastic beginners from age 8 to age 80.