During the extreme winter of 2009-10, Gary McNamee relied on his treadmill to train for the Boston Marathon. McNamee lives in Hopkinton, where the race starts, but the weather stymied his attempts to go out for a long run.
“I’m in my basement thinking, ‘Jeez, the course is right up the road. I can go out there and film it and watch it while I was on the treadmill,’ ” McNamee said.
So he did – and realized that he could market a video simulation of the famed course to other runners.
Thus he began Outside Interactive, a company that, along with others, is merging fitness with high-definition virtual technology.
Runners log in to the Outside Interactive app and pay for videos of routes, which they watch on their iPad or Android tablet or on an HD television. While running, they can manually select the pace or sync their tracking device to the app. The video will speed up and slow down as the runners change speed. In a bit of surreality, the crowds and fellow racers in the video will run and cheer in proportion to the speed of the real runners.
Taking it a stride further, RunSocial, a company based in Singapore that launched its running app last year, uses augmented reality technology, where the app overlays the runner’s virtual presence via an avatar with a video of a real-world route (a la Pokémon Go). The avatar’s speed is determined by the company’s TreadTracker foot pod or can be set manually.
“We had this idea of a mixed-reality concept, where basically we wanted to run real-world routes but didn’t want computer graphics, but also would love to see others in these routes while we run,” said Marc Hardy, RunSocial’s co-founder and chief executive.
Hardy, who describes himself as a regular runner, saw an opportunity for treadmill users who struggle with boredom and motivation to enhance their running experience.
Although RunSocial’s main products are virtual running apps for indoors, Hardy said the company is focusing more on the sociability factor. Both the virtual running app and RunSocial GPS, an outdoor tracking system that the company just launched, feature ways for participants to race one another, complete with a countdown clock and a leader board.
“Everybody, everywhere can run together, virtually,” Hardy said.
Both Outside Interactive and RunSocial offer what McNamee calls the “holy grail” – the ability to sync with smart treadmills to adjust the incline levels to match the flat and hilly sections of each of the recorded courses.
Some real-life races are working with Outside Interactive and RunSocial to expand and enhance their own efforts.
Earlier this year, RunSocial launched a digital version of the Prague Marathon and also offered a digital version of the Virgin Money London Marathon for a second year. The digital London Marathon featured astronaut Tim Peake, who ran the course on a treadmill aboard the International Space Station. Hardy said RunSocial is looking to make inroads in the U.S. market with future partnerships and more U.S.-based video routes.
In 2015, Outside Interactive collaborated with the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, a 7-mile course on Cape Cod, Mass. Jennifer Edwards, Falmouth’s general manager, said the race organizers were hesitant at first when they heard McNamee’s pitch but saw the opportunity to give those who couldn’t run the live race – because of scheduling or geography – a chance to participate.
Edwards said Falmouth’s goal was “not to add to the race day experience but add another opportunity to be a part of the experience.”
Edwards said 40 finishers completed the virtual race, which was held at the same time as the actual race. Each was given a bib and a finisher’s certificate, as well as guaranteed entry to the 2016 Falmouth. Edwards said the field included competitors from as far away as California, Florida, Texas and Oregon.
It also included Kara Salvagno, a longtime Connecticut resident who relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., last year. She has competed in the Falmouth Road Race almost every year since 1993.
“I thought, ‘This is fabulous! I have so many friends who still run the race, but I can’t do it this year,’ ” she said.
Salvagno said she made the virtual run a full event. She asked her home gym to open at 6 a.m. so she could start racing at the same time the race began on Cape Cod.
She also FaceTimed with a friend who was running 7 miles at their favorite running spot in Connecticut at the same time Salvagno ran the virtual Falmouth.
“It was a waltz down memory lane, really,” Salvagno said. “We just laughed the entire time. It didn’t feel like we were running.”
The Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, the world’s biggest 10K race with more than 60,000 participants, allowed Outside Interactive to film its course this past Fourth of July before the actual race.
Rich Kenah, the president of the Atlanta Track Club, which operates the race, said the success of the Falmouth led his team to use the app as a way to promote the Peachtree Race. That event usually draws 90 percent of its participants from Georgia.
“As we look toward the future of the race, we want to attract more people from out of state. So this partnership gives us the opportunity to showcase the race to those unfamiliar with Atlanta, Peachtree Road and what the race looks like and feels like,” Kenah said.
Outside Interactive and RunSocial hope that interest eventually will match the opportunity.
“Can you imagine in the future a million people literally running, walking or crawling the virtual Boston Marathon on a global scale? I mean, it’s kind of a mind-blower,” McNamee said.
For now, McNamee and Hardy said their goal is to find pioneers who are technologically savvy and receptive to the concept. Although questions remain about the value of virtual racing, McNamee said that the app isn’t meant to replace an actual race.
Hardy said that although he is invested in what the next level of virtual technology will bring, he is more intrigued by the shifting definitions of shared experiences.
“When you’re doing an event, you’re not having a chat with everyone, right? But you are sharing an experience together, and that’s more motivating than a regular run on your own. That doesn’t mean you want to talk to everyone, but you’re still sharing an experience together, and that’s interesting.”
Both apps are free, and users pay per video, starting at $3.99. Real-life races such as Falmouth incorporate the price of the video route into the overall race package, which can include a bib, swag and a finisher’s certificate. Visit runsocial.com or outsideinteractive.com.