The Perks of Trail Running in a Virtual World
Running my treadmill's interactive courses taught me a new way to think about the sport
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
There’s a hazard to learning to run in Los Angeles, a place where the sport does not ask that you muster a great deal of anything. Over the span of my first hundred miles in L.A., the weather was beautiful every single day. Anywhere I parked my car was just three or four miles from some runnable vista—a view of the city, or the desert, or the beach. I ran around the Rose Bowl, up the trails in Griffith Park, and down through the woods of Chavez Ravine. The density of nature easily subsumed the pain of any learning curve. By the time I found the trailhead, caught an easy pace, chose between the forks in the road, avoided the dog poop, looked at the trees, and waved to the better-looking oncoming runners, my workout was over. This was an easy kind of running for someone who did not really like running.
Now, after 14 months out west, I’m back at my normal home in New York City, where the pleasure of running is no longer tied to a casually transcendent experience in nature. Some people here run outside in winter, but I’m not yet constitutionally equipped. My local YMCA is well-heated and offers 11 premium Life Fitness treadmills furnished with personal LCD screens. There, on these hyperreal hamster wheels, I’m learning to run for a second time—without the help of the great outdoors.
Treadmill running is identical to trail running in the way that shaking a carton of orange juice is identical to giving your lover a hand job—the gesture is the same, but the outcome is different. The treadmill twists a sport into a riddle: How can you run forever without moving or uphill for miles without ever going down? If an old-fashioned treadmill simulates running, then the Life Fitness model goes above and beyond to simulate all the facets of human life. The rotating urethane belt works my legs while the built-in Netflix hones my film connoisseurship. Six different stations of TV news cultivate a mind for civic engagement. The experience is all-encompassing—more than just physical, but somehow still exceedingly boring. Plugging my headphones into the port, I sometimes imagine I’m an alien from space, training myself for first contact with Earth.
Games like these make treadmill running better. While trail running passively quiets my brain, treadmill running tests the extent to which I can quiet my brain by force. On the easiest days, I can shove my conscious mind though a very tiny hole and forget all about the resultant wisp of thought. Days like those are the exception to the rule. On harder days, I look around at the people in the gym and imagine them all as my enemies from high school. Could today be the day that I prove them all wrong? I undertake a study of the numbers on the clock, dividing the hour into minutes and seconds until my run is finally over.
The experience is all-encompassing—more than just physical, but somehow still exceedingly boring. Plugging my headphones into the port, I sometimes imagine I’m an alien from space, training myself for first contact with Earth.
The simulation artists at Life Fitness seem to understand my hunger for distraction. The most novel of the treadmill people’s inventions is a feature they call the Interactive Course. Shot at chest height with a Steadicam rig, these video loops allow a user to “run” through scenic destinations all over the world, from the mountains of Tibet to Sequoia National Forest. (The production process seems like a workout in itself.) The simulated runs include realistic touches, like swerving past crowds of disorderly tourists or cutting a more direct route across the grass. The feature approximates outdoor running well enough, but I find its failures most compelling. For my first 20 indoor runs in New York, I could only figure out how to run the premade demo: a mashup route of several cities across New Zealand. Hyphenated Wellington-Auckland is the type of concrete business district I would never choose to run in my nonvirtual life, likely for reasons of crowdedness and boredom. In treadmill life, its streets are always empty. The only human face is on a bus shelter ad: a photo of actress Zooey Deschanel, promoting a bygone season of New Girl.
Other interactive courses offer better human contact. Germany Run condenses the entire nation into a breezy hour-long trot. As I run through Altstadt and Englischer Garten, the crowds of busy German commuters never seemed to notice I was only passing through. If the treadmill alone feels like a bleak future dystopia, then interactive courses feel like something from The Jetsons—high-tech for reasons of humor more than function. There was something interesting, if not actually fun, about sweating in this partial reality. RunSocial, the firm that produces these courses for Life Fitness, knows this psychic break is part of their potential. “The wonderful thing about video is that you can cherry-pick the best parts and blend them into a single continuous run,” RunSocial co-founder Marc Hardy tells me over email. “Whereas in the real world, sometimes you have to run through dull bits to get to the nice bits.”
Sometimes when I run on these Interactive Courses, I wonder why RunSocial and Life Fitness don’t give up on reality altogether. The complaint about treadmills has always been how they fail to sufficiently mimic reality. Maybe this bug is their only real feature. Inside the gym at my YMCA, running the rim of the virtual Grand Canyon, I thought of all the places I’d rather be: the tombs of ancient Egypt, the airspace above Manhattan, the halls of an abandoned 1980s shopping mall. The real Grand Canyon is indeed possible to run. For now, these fantasy places are not.