I've got a confession. I don't play online multiplayer games.
Sure, a few Nintendo DS matches of Tetris DS and Mario Kart here and there. But even though I've owned an Xbox 360 since technically-before-the-launch-date, and I have an Xbox Live Gold subscription, I've not yet played a single game on Xbox Live. Not one deathmatch, not one race, not even a game of good ol' Uno. (I have, however, sent a few Xbox Live voicemail messages to friends where I'm all 'bluu bluu bluuuuu beep boop bleep bloop baaa-la-la-la kit kit kit' for six minutes. That's pretty fun. And as a side note, when you don't really play online games, the Xbox 360 kind-of sucks. Anyway.)
I've done some soul searching to try to figure out why I fear the online. And as best as I can figure it out, when I've got a big ol' stack of single-player, story-based videogames I want to play through sitting around the ol' Sasserpartment, there's simply no space in my brain for "play around, online". My gaming time is precious, and I like stories, accomplishment, and "endings" — both conquering a game in triumph, and getting to move on to a new one. It's a one-two punch of joy straight to the face. Who can play online when there's so much yet to do offline?
Despite all of this, and all three mighty paragraphs of setup, I recently had a small epiphany. I've found myself totally enraptured by a new kind of online gaming experience, one that's got excitement, thrilling rivalries, stats and achievements, mind-blowing graphics, and seriously perfect music. And sweat. Ridiculous amounts of sweat.
My online game of the year? Jogging on the streets of Portland with the Nike+ iPod kit. ...zing!
Deprogramming Gym ClassI know, right? Jogging. Doesn't really sound like a good time, does it? Have I gone crazy?
Let me explain. The Nike+ running kit ($29) uses a special shoe-based sensor, coupled with a special receiver for the iPod nano, to track your pace and distance as you run. Once you're done and you dock, it uploads all sorts of cool statistics to a very game-like Flash website, where you can track your progress, set goals, challenge your friends, and more.
In reality, Apple and Nike have invented a system that perfectly connects two sides of my brain that had previously only given each other occasional awkward glances across the fleshy halls of my skull: the nerdy, video gaming part of me, and the part of me that actually kind-of likes (and feels good about) exercise.
To date, I'd never really remotely been interested in "running" — it seemed slow, exhausting, and probably painful. It doesn't help that I'm not particularly an "athlete", more of a small-man walkabout, although I do love a good bike ride. I didn't really do sports in high school (I was instead probably screwing around at some BBS meet at Round Table Pizza — lord that was hard to type), P.E. was a mixed bag (although I loved "capture the flag"), and I used to honestly dread track and field day with every ounce of my body, for a horn-of-plentysworth of reasons.
To get into running, the first thing that had to go for me was the gym class barrier — all those track and field memories. Surprisingly, I found that simply running down the streets of Portland was nothing like the well-remembered monotone of a dusty cinder track. The city is always changing, dynamic, and fun. Not only that, but I was pretty much by myself, in blissful musical solitude: soaking in the scenery without any competitive stress from, well, athletes. It didn't take much time at all for me to realize that running — when you're not being expected to do so — is really rather pleasant.
I was off.
My first few weeks of running (pre-Nike+, getting ready) were pretty shaky and slow going. I started extremely mellow and, as per Google's all-knowing jogging advice, I walked when I needed to, which was frequent. Even 10 blocks or so of continuous running was enough to transform me into Sir Sweatington The Third. But despite all of this, it still felt pretty good — because it felt like it would get easier.
Not Me. It Is, However, Our Office (3rd Floor)
Not Me. It Is, However, Our Office (3rd Floor)
When the shoes arrived, my routine started in earnest, and I gradually increased my distance and started running regularly, every other day, for about 30 minutes a day.
The awesome thing about the human body — and I guess, the most inspiring part of this process for me — was that things change, the body improves, and you don't really even notice. All of the sudden, about two weeks later, I was able to run my standard route — 3 miles in NW Portland including two monstrous hills — without stopping to break. I could hardly believe it once I realized it. This isn't meant to be bragging, but rather be inspiring — it had nothing to do with me, rather it was the amazing capabilities we all share as owners of the ultimate in human interface design: humans. Whoah. Heavy.
The GameThe second best part about the Nike+ running — the cool, video-game like part — is that you not only run, but you also get points for running. Your score ever-increases. Better still, if you set goals for yourself, you even get awesome virtual trophies and ribbons, resplendent in their vector beauty. Just like Pac-Man got to eat the occasional delicious (albeit high-sodium) pretzel treat in-between hundreds of dots, the Nike+ runner gets the occasional trophy treat in between the miles. As I understand it, a lot of people run for so-called "exercise", but let me tell you: points are way cooler.
And the coolest part about Nike+ running? Like any good online game, you can challenge your friends. First to 100 miles? Fastest 5-mile time? Your call. These challenges wind up being incredibly inspiring — running against good friend and athletic powerhouse J. John Afryl kept me on my toes (maybe a bit too much as you'll read later) — and they're also incredibly fun. Logging in after a long run, uploading your data, and seeing where you are in the standings, is a pretty awesome way to wrap up your exercise. And more importantly, sitting around the house, wondering what to do, thinking about jogging, and then realizing that if you don't go jogging tonight you're going to lose points and slip in the standings — now that's true, videogame motivation.
Over the course of a couple of months, I've developed a few personal "cheat codes" (if you will, in a strained metaphor) that I want to share with you, most of them obvious. NIGHT_RIDER is a good one — basically, and I know this is going to surprise you, it's running at night. HAVE I GONE NUTS sure it's probably not for everybody, but I love it. It's cooler, it's mellow, it's relaxing. Of course, you need to be cautious and visible and careful. But running at night is, for me, significantly easier than trying to go during the day, and with this cheat code you'll do more for less! RUN_WITH_NICOLE is also a really important performance booster code — make sure to replace "NICOLE" with the name of your own personal running partner/significant other/athletic ghost friend who haunts your gym shorts. Having somebody to run along with — and talk to, or listen to music with, or keep pace with — takes the "u(gh)" out of "run". Thanks, Nicole.
My favorite cheat code, though?
STEALTH_MODE. Powerful. Deadly.Herein lies my greatest Nike+ triumph. But beware: this cheat code is dangerous and cursed, and was also responsible for my greatest downfall.
So, I became obsessed with being the first runner to hit 100 miles. Why? While we were at WWDC, I ran a few times around San Francisco, and John and I were literally neck-and-neck in the "Month One" distance standings. On Thursday night, we were maybe .3 miles apart. Then came Friday — a day filled with the Panic crew walking all around San Francisco, much time spent in airports, etc. In short, I didn't have a single chance to run on Friday. Little did I know that the "month one" challenge ended that Friday night, and John, who undoubtedly saw the stats and realized we were neck-and-neck, blazed ahead, putting in an impressive amount of miles and taking home the trophy. I didn't stand a chance. It was on.
I knew I had to do two things. I had to run like crazy. And I had to, somehow, not let on that I was running like crazy. This would hopefully make John let his guard down thinking I was lounging about the veranda, maybe take one or two days off or not push himself knowing exactly how much to push, and allow me to make it happen, surprise style.
And thus, STEALTH_MODE was born. Basically, don't upload your data. Ever.
Don't even think about plugging your iPod into your computer after you run. As you continue to run, the data will accumulate on your iPod, but you don't want to tip your hand and post it for everyone to see. Charge your iPod via a wall charger, or maybe plug-in to a random power-giving USB port on some other device — but don't let the iPod mount and the dreaded iTunes launch and auto-upload. (Pro Tip: You'll want to make sure you have enough music before attempting this cheat code.)
While engaged in STEALTH_MODE, everyone will think you're a lazy pile, but you're racking up another mile! (TM © 2006 CS)
Finally, once you've accomplished your goal, whatever it may be, plug your iPod in, sit back, and enjoy as a shocking number of miles get uploaded in one gigantic megablast of running ludicrosity.
This is how I uploaded 36 miles in one shot...
...and became the first guy in our group to hit 100 miles.
Which, really, felt awesome. A little tricky, but still awesome.
It was all downhill from there.
Critical Bug: My Controllers Are BrokenHere's the thing about not being a runner: I don't know crap all about running. To hit the 100 mile mark, I had to run a lot. I mean, a lot — once, 3 times in one day. At distances I had never even thought possible — well, for me — like 10 miles. (Shut up, professionals.) And it all felt great, until one fateful morning when I got out of bed, and my legs kind-of crumpled into themselves.
My legs weren't in pain per se, but it was clear they were unhappy. Like teamsters at the Moscone center, they didn't really feel like doing their job and weren't afraid to say so.
My retardological conclusion was that my legs were just "tired" from the run and needed a little pep up. So I ran again that night, about 6 miles. And the next morning it was much worse. So I gave it a couple of days rest. And then ran 4 miles after that, despite it being one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. And, way-hey!, guess what? The next morning it was worse still. Yeah, I'm a total genius. A limping, totally stupid looking genius.
And that's the story of why I'm currently taking a week (or more) off of running. (And, in the meantime, John is sprinting past me, demolishing any hope of me winning this month's distance trophy. The price for my trickery has been duly paid.)
What did I do to myself? I don't know. Pull a muscle? What does that even mean? I have no idea. The good news is that my legs have been getting better every day and I'm not limping anymore. I'll probably be back in normal regular peppy form by Monday. But it's important to point out this potential cheat code bug — let this be a cautionary beginning runner tale. You can break your controllers easily. Don't push it, mister. Ramp it up, especially if you're starting from zero. You can beat your rival next month. I promise. Or, in my case, you probably can't. But still, be good.
It Is The FutureI can think of a million ideas that would add more video-game-like awesomeness to Nike+ and, yes, by extension, exercise in general. What if the iPod sensor, which works over a proprietary 802.11 protocol — could also detect other shoe sensors in the vicinity? I'd really enjoy running along the Eastbank Esplanade, passing a runner, and, assuming they had the (optional) preference turned on, immediately hear their best time mile announced over my headphones and have them added as a "rival" that I could then track via the website. Of course, adding additional technology to the iPod part — like a GPS receiver, dare I dream — could create even more amazing, city-wide games of running tag with my friends. Now that's a multiplayer game I'd love to play every weekend.
That said, I guess my ultimate point of all of this is pretty simple. This "game" surprised me, and that's saying something. Everyone can play this game. You should play this game. Run, walk, skip, who cares: you get points, you get exercise, you get to try to kick the ass of your stupid friends (who you love) or suffer bitter defeat, you get to explore your neighborhood and you get some fresh air and you see some funny things. You get to overhear insane conversations in hilarious tiny fragments. You get to buy weird new clothes, and hopefully even wear ridiculous headbands that, somehow, don't bother you one bit. And while you'll wonder what you're going to do when winter hits, or if you can keep it up forever, you'll give it a shot. Because you get to run into the world and accomplish something, however small, offline and online all at once.
And isn't everything better when it's a game?
Maybe now I'll play some Xbox Live...