Natural Selection

Simulated trail running takes stride.

Montana trail runners get a pretty raw deal: after months of slipping around on icy, snow-packed roads and town trails, or suffering through endless miles on a treadmill listening to Joe Rogan podcasts (both of which have been known to cause side effects like herniated-brain syndrome, eye-gouging, and plantar fasciitis of the soul), spring finally arrives… and things get worse. Shoe-sucking mud replaces deep snow and ice. Layering becomes impossible as temperatures swing drunkenly between extremes. The first snow-free trails become crowded, ad-hoc havens for all those people too impatient to keep skiing: runners, mountain bikers, dog-poop-curators—and that fascinating trail subculture who materialize each spring to shame Very Serious Bozeman Recreationists by wearing wallet chains, smoking cigarettes, and being shirtless despite frigid temperatures in order to proudly display prison-quality tattoos. Until now, the only option for runners has been to endure. No more.

Now there is another path (pun intended) for discerning athletes who want the benefits and challenges of a realistic on-trail experience, without the inconvenience, danger, or discomfort of actually being on a trail: Interactive Running Simulation (IRS). Think of it as an environmental treadmill, with realistic running surfaces, terrain changes, obstacles, and even wildlife.

IRS was developed by Bozeman runners Terri Nimble and Chad Steel, who got fed up with Montana winters and the spring mud season. “We both moved to Montana a few years ago from SoCal, and love running the trails all summer and fall, but just couldn’t handle the rest of the year,” Nimble says. “Treadmills are awful, and running around a tiny indoor track isn’t much better. And we’re rich, and have nothing better to do with our time. So, we built IRS.”

Housed in a room the size of a garage, IRS is, in fact, a giant treadmill. The difference is that the entire running surface changes pitch on multiple axes; the surface includes realistic rocks, roots, and dirt (but never mud or dog poop); and the “scenery” is programmable to mimic actual trail runs and projected on all four walls in HD. “Want to run Baldy in late March?” Steel asks. “No problem. IRS uses the actual elevation profile and previously recorded 3D video to produce a realistic in-house simulation—complete with loose rock, switchbacks, logs, and even pine scent and birdsong.” Nimble adds, “It’s so realistic, I actually broke my ankle one time. It’s that awesome.” Users control the temperature, humidity, and light to maximize enjoyment. Want every day to be a perfect, sunny, 68-degree day? No problem. Want to experience the subtle moodiness of a rainy day without the rain or loss of traction? There’s a simulation for that, too.

For purists, who are determined to get the most realistic indoor-outdoor experience possible, IRS has partnered with Wildlife of Montana. Runners can dodge live squirrels, badgers, deer, hawks, and other animals for a premium fee. Some simulated trails even include de-fanged rattlesnakes and a live grizzly encounter (a $2,500 option, including inert bear spray and a behind-the-scenes handler to ensure safety and what Steel calls “neo-faux-realism”). “It’s great for people who want to find out how they’d react to encountering dangerous game in the wild,” Steel explains. “And there’s a petting session afterward!”

Critics of the system call it a glorified rat-wheel, and PETA has filed an official complaint after a confused raccoon tried to escape into the “forest” and was mangled by rotating machinery. But wealthy, weather-phobic runners are lining up to try the IRS. “Why go all the way to the mountains for an awkward, uncomfortable experience?” Nimble asks. “At IRS, your trail run is perfect every time—just how nature intended.”