How You Could Road Race—and Win—From Your Living Room
Dave McGillivray is an improbable advocate of virtual exercise. The race director of the Boston Marathon for 30 years, McGillivray estimates he’s logged more than 150,000 miles in his lifetime, the overwhelming majority of them outside, and a formidable number of those in Forrest-Gumpian feats of endurance. In 1978, he ran from Medford, Oregon to Medford, Massachusetts—a distance of 3,452 miles—for charity. In 2004, he did it again. And just this month, at the age of 63, he conquered the World Marathon Challenge by completing seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
“It was a little bit of an insane thing to do,” McGillivray says, “but I was able to get through it OK.”
You might be surprised to learn that a man willing to commit to intercontinental travel in pursuit of multiple marathons also sits on the advisory board of a company that wants to make it possible for athletes to experience and even compete in races around the world—all from the comfort of their home treadmills.
That company is Outside Interactive, the Massachusetts-based developer of an app called Virtual Runner. And no, this is not the cheesy, lo-fi run simulator you’ve seen on the ellipticals at your gym. OI’s program synchronizes high-quality steadicam footage of more than 60 scenic running routes and race courses from around the world with the speed and angle of a runner’s treadmill. Users can run up and down Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park; chug up Heartbreak Hill on the Boston Marathon’s 20th mile; skirt the coast of Cape Cod in the iconic Falmouth Road Race; or jog through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Newer treadmills will communicate with the app and automatically adjust their incline to mirror the grade of the course; and if the user increases her speed, the video feed—which users can view on a tablet or TV screen—quickens to match it.
The result is an experience that’s more immersive, dynamic, and—mercifully—distracting than a traditional treadmill workout. “I was throwing a hail Mary pass to the future when I started developing this thing,” says Outside Interactive CEO Gary McNamee, who first conceived of the Virtual Runner app before treadmills could communicate with tablets and laptops. Back then, he says, he wasn’t trying to spin a company out of the idea; “I was just trying to make treadmill running suck less. That’s our internal motto: Making treadmill running suck less since 2011.”
Virtual Runner isn’t the only app striving to improve human hamster-wheeling. It belongs to a vanguard of games and training programs designed to enliven indoor workouts and enable remote race participation through simulated environments and sensor-laden exercise machines. For most of them it’s early days; Outside Interactive has only about a dozen race partners, only four of which let people compete in their events virtually. But even if tele-racing has yet to take off, virtual activities are already transforming the way athletes train and compete.
Consider Zwift, the massively multiplayer—and massively popular—online fitness platform. The game simulates cycling by coupling the pedal strokes of users on stationary trainers to the pedal strokes of on-screen avatars, which cruise their way through animated environments like the fictional Watopia archipelago. Zwift was released as a public beta at the beginning of 2015, but has grown in popularity as smart trainers—which can adjust resistance to simulate drafting, rumble to mimic gravel-riding, and even raise the front end of the bike to emulate ascending a hill—have become more accessible. Equipment setups have become a popular topic of conversation on Zwift forums, with members swapping photos of their “pain caves,” i.e. garages, living rooms, patios, etc. that they’ve outfitted with smart trainers, wide-screen televisions, and even box fans—ostensibly for air circulation, but it seems fair to speculate that at least some are for simulating a faceful of wind.
But Zwift’s allure extends well beyond kit-obsessed veloheads. When Australian pro cyclist Mathew Hayman broke his arm five weeks before the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, he turned to Zwift to prepare. One of cycling’s oldest races, “The Hell of the North,” as the Roubaix is also known, is infamous for its jaw-jarring, body-racking terrain; Hayman would need intact bones to compete. So he set up a smart trainer in his garage, propped his plaster-casted arm on a ladder, and spent the weeks leading up to the race cranking out hundreds of virtual miles. The results stunned everyone—Hayman included. On his previous 14 visits to Paris-Roubaix, he’d never so much as made the podium. This time, on the heels of weeks of virtual training, he wasn’t just fit enough to compete. He took first place.
“Being forced to complete 20 hours a week on Zwift was a huge blessing in disguise,” says Kevin Poulton, Hayman’s coach. “We now realize that with the work Mat had completed on the road before his injury, he was ready to benefit from indoor work.”
Now, Poulton says, he incorporates Zwift sessions into all his athletes’ training regimens—and because the rides are engrossing, the athletes actually look forward to performing them. Cyclists have been training indoors for decades, but they’ve mostly endured hours of mindless spinning as a last resort. Now, Poulton says, athletes ask if they can complete sessions indoors rather than going outside. “There’s been an incredible change in mindset.”
The game’s unprecedented appeal—and training benefits—are likely rooted in its strong social elements. At any time of day, you’ll find thousands of people from around the world logged into Zwift, participating in group rides, workouts, and races. Coaches often speak of the benefits of training in groups, pushing each other harder and holding one another accountable. Sports psychologists call this phenomenon social facilitation, which has its origins in psychologist Norman Triplett’s seminal 1898 study of—conveniently enough—cycling performance. His analysis of “over 2,000 racing wheelmen” revealed that cyclists tended to post faster times while competing against other cyclists. By enabling athletes to vie and train with people from around the world, Zwift presumably confers a similar benefit over spinning sweaty and alone in your pain cave.
The upsides aren’t just psychological. With a smart trainer, an athlete can perform workouts they never could on the open road, either for lack of appropriate terrain or the complexity of their training session. (“It’s hard to complete sets of micro intervals out on the road, having to change power every 15 seconds, while concentrating on staying safe,” Poulton says.) Coaches, meanwhile, can accommodate the demands of individual races. If an athlete knows he needs to traverse a section of the Roubaix at a certain power and cadence to produce a given crank torque, his coach can pre-program those conditions exactly.
And the fact that Zwift training takes place online means coaches can provide their athletes feedback in real time, from anywhere in the world. “I quite often watch an athlete complete their Zwift session from the comfort of my lounge in Australia, while they are on the other side of the world in their garage,” Poulton says.
But Poulton’s intercontinental coaching methods, however slick, highlight an ironic problem: In their ideal form, virtual athletics would enable anyone anywhere to train and compete with people around the world—but their biggest drawback, for now, is a lack of accessibility. Virtual Runner, Zwift, and other simulators require a computer or tablet to operate. Smart bike trainers—the kind that can make you feel like you’re pedaling over hills—start at around $500; and smart treadmills can easily run into the thousands of dollars.
Accessibility is why some organizations have been slow to warm to simulated sports. New York Road Runners, the largest community running organization in the US, beta-launched its own “virtual” race series earlier this year. Virtual appears in quotes there because participants simply upload GPS data from a recent run—regardless of where they ran it. Not as sexy as competing on an intelligent treadmill, but that’s not the point. “I think you’ll see some version of simulated running with grade-changes from us in the future, but right now, we think this is the best way to impact a lot of people without needing a bunch of extra equipment,” says Michael Capiraso, NYRR’s president and CEO. Indeed, the first race of the series saw participants from every state in the US and more than 80 countries around the world.
McGillivray says it’s up to apps like Virtual Runner to prove to athletic associations like NYRR that truly simulated racing—treadmills and all—can attract real interest from the running community. (Notably absent from Outside Interactive’s list of virtual race partners is the Boston Marathon, “but I’m not the one that makes that decision,” McGillivray says.)
Of course the runners, too, could be a difficult sell. Every year, on his birthday, McGillivray runs his age in miles (this August he’ll go for 64). I ask if he’d ever consider completing one of these runs on a simulator. “As much as I advocate for Virtual Runner, and as much as I believe in it, I personally tend to do the majority of my running outdoors, no matter what the conditions are,” he says. “But if there was some reason why I couldn’t do it outside, and the alternative was to do it inside, then I would do it, to get the job done.”