What? You’ve never heard of Zwift? Where have you been for the past 2 years? Zwift Running is the new module on the primarily cycling platform that is Zwift. I wanted to run a marathon on Zwift because no one else had done and I thought it might be fun. So I did.
Back in February 2015, I signed up for the beta version of Zwift, a cycling app which allows you to ride on your turbo trainer in a virtual environment with other real riders across the world. The original Zwift Island was a completely fictional creation, although the Strava map was plonked in a real place called Jarvis Island, which bore no geographic resemblance to the fictional creation. It was a 5km loop, with a small hill and a village to ride through.
As the years progressed, Zwift moved out of beta and the original island was retired. In its place is Watopia, a bigger, better and ever expanding fictional place. There are now also two other courses on which you can ride. Both the Richmond and London courses are virtual representations of their real equivalents in the USA and the UK, which hosted the Cycling World Championships in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Zwift has taken a chunk out of the well-liked Trainer Road workout platform, by introducing their own Workout Module. There is also a vibrant racing scene on Zwift, with lots of races and group rides every day in the Events Module. Zwift has really taken off around the world but particularly in the UK, the USA, Australia and Scandinavia. The thrill of cycling with or racing against other real riders from around the world is really something to experience.
Very recently Zwift introduced two new features. Firstly, the app is now available on ios devices. Now, rather than having to have an expensive computer set up, you can run the software on an iPhone or ipad. Secondly, Zwift has quietly introduced the Zwift Running Module. At the time of writing, it can only be accessed via a cheeky hack on an ios device. It’s well documented on the Zwift Runners Facebook page, so it’s not difficult to find.
I am not a fast cyclist and I am not a particularly fast runner. I am never going to win any races. But what I can do is slug it out. In August 2015 I became the first person to ride over 500km in one go on Zwift. I started at 5am. At 7am, and 53km in, the Zwift app crashed, so I had to start again. It took another 15 hours to ride 450 more kilometres. The Strava activities short one and long one are there for all to see. That distance record lasted about 48 hours before it was beaten by Frank Garcia. It has subsequently been topped many times. The current distance record is around 1600km.
So, with the arrival of Zwift running, I saw the opportunity for another first. I wanted to be the first person to run a marathon on Zwift. The running module only works on ios and you can only connect to it via a Bluetooth Smart footpod. Being a regular runner I do have a footpod which I pair with my Garmin watch. Unfortunately, these devices communicate using ANT+ technology and are therefore not compatible with Zwift on ios. There are devices which can convert ANT+ to Bluetooth, such as the 4iiii Viiiiva or CABLE, but I decided to get the Polar Stride Sensor. This transmits speed and cadence to Zwift. Next, I needed a compatible heart rate monitor. Happily, no purchase necessary here as I already have a version one Stryd chest strap which outputs Bluetooth heart rate. An HRM isn’t absolutely mandatory but it adds an extra level of authenticity to your activity in case your run or ride is called into question. Believe it or not, some people have been known to try and game the system.
I have an old battered treadmill in the shed at the bottom of the garden. It comes in useful if I need to run but can’t leave the house for whatever reason. I don’t mind treadmill running really. I know a lot of people find it mind-numbing. I do get a bit frustrated when I hear people saying, “I’d never run on a treadmill. I’d rather go out in the real world, on the hills or by the sea any day.” Well duh, yes of course, and I get plenty of time running outdoors thank you, but there are times when treadmill running is the only option. Furthermore, treadmill running can help you with pacing. It teaches you discipline and helps you to get to know what it feels like to keep a constant pace.
My plan was to run a marathon, on the treadmill, in my shed, whilst hooked up to Zwift on ios with my avatar running round a virtual London. Not only that but I planned to stream the run live on the internet. I am a regular streamer and streaming is becoming increasingly popular on Zwift. There is a vibrant streaming scene on Beam.pro with lots of cyclists broadcasting races as they ride. Nathan Guerra regularly commentates on races on his channel beam.pro/nathanguerra and there are riders like Zuzkana, Casey Shumn and Jesper Anker who regularly stream either on Beam or YouTube.
With various pieces of equipment set up in the shed, I set OBS streaming software rolling and fired up the treadmill. Having never run a marathon on a treadmill I was a little nervous as to how it would go. I felt that aiming for a 4-hour finish was realistic given that I can usually complete a flat road marathon comfortably in 3 hours 30 minutes. I set off running at 10km per hour. This is just shy of the pace I would need to run to finish in 4 hours. I have run 56 marathons and you would think by now I could work out the maths in my head to arrive at the correct pace. What I needed to be doing was 10.5km/hr but, in my head, I had decided it was 10.25km/hr. I set off slower with the intention of warming up and settling into the 10.25km/hr pace within a couple of kilometres.
It became clear quite early on that I was only barely comfortable at the pace I was doing and that any faster and I would tire too quickly. So by 10km in I had already allowed the 4 hour finish time to lapse. I settled on anything between 4 and 4 and a half hours! I was probably using quite a lot of energy talking to the camera and I noticed that my heart rate went up every time I started to chat. I had considered that I should at least try and make the live stream slightly more than an image of me just pounding away on a treadmill for 4 hours! If you really want to you can watch the entire nearly 5-hour stream here. But I suggest you watch the abridged version below.
For pace comparison, I was wearing my Gamin Fenix 3 HR watch and Garmin footpod. I noticed that the pace on Zwift seemed to be a lot slower than the pace on my Garmin. However, I subsequently realised that my watch had not paired with the footpod as it usually does. Instead it was using its own accelerometer to calculate cadence and speed. That was rather frustrating because the Garmin footpod is really quite accurate and wrist-based cadence is notoriously inaccurate. As I clocked up the kilometres, the distance measured on my watch became more and more separated from the distance measured by Zwift. Now, I understand there may be algorithms at work within Zwift, as there are in cycling, which mean that distance and speed can never be the same as on my Fenix 3 HR, but the disparity so was great as to suggest there was more going on than me being virtually slowed down by a wind algorithm, for example. I covered the first half marathon in relative comfort. Just over 2 hours for 21 kilometres is a fairly average time in the real world but, on the treadmill, it felt a lot harder.
I had planned to manage my hydration and nutrition in generally the same way I do in a real world marathon. I don’t have very much at all for the first 10 miles as I can suffer from gastric problems. Usually, in real world marathons, there are aid stations where you either stop or slow down to take on water or whatever it might be. In this marathon, I had to specifically decide when I was going to slow down to take on fluids. I did so at the half marathon stage. I slowed the treadmill down to a walk and took on three different liquids. Water, Coke and Huel. What is Huel you ask? It’s a powder that is essentially a meal in a drink. It’s not specifically designed for athletes, but I like it and it seems to help. I drink Coke because it is the fastest way I know to get glycogen into my muscles. I can’t stomach gels at all.
The Zwift running experience is great. But it could be better. This is not the fault of Zwift however. It’s just that because the running module is only available on iOS, I had to use my iPhone to display the Zwift environment. This is fine for short periods but after some time I felt like I wasn’t fully immersed in the virtual world. I need a huge screen in front of me to really feel like I am running round the streets of London, or at least running in a virtual world. As it was, I was well aware that I was simply in my shed at the bottom of the garden on a treadmill. Having a huge screen is relatively easy to achieve. I could hook up the iPhone to a TV using a cable or Apple TV over WiFi. It would however, be a massive pain to set up each time, lugging a TV down to the shed. I certainly couldn’t take it to the gym either!
As for running a marathon on Zwift, things were getting tough. At 27 kilometres I managed to knock one of my drinks all over the treadmill. I had to stop, pick the bottle up and clear up. Then I noticed that there was a problem with the broadcast screen. I had set up Zwift on my MacBoom Pro using my wife’s account. I had then set the app to follow me running. But when I stopped to clear up the spilled drink, the app had decided to stop following me and to watch other riders instead. (I didn’t encounter any other runners on the course during my run, although I know there were some others running). It took me a while to find myself on the course and click my name. So, unfortunately, on the live stream, for some time, any viewers there might have been, were watching the real me running in the top right corner, but someone else’s avatar in game, in the main part of the screen. In other news, I also kept banging my head on the ceiling of the shed. This was partly because of the position of my iPhone, I occasionally had to lean forward and to the right to read something on the tiny screen. As I came back up I would crack my head.
About 32 kilometres into the marathon, I had the same issue occur again with the stream. It was becoming annoying because I HAD to deal with it. I couldn’t ignore it and get on with running because part of the whole reason for doing the marathon was to stream it and record it. There was no point in having a live stream if it didn’t have my running avatar in it! It took a long time but eventually I found myself by Big Ben and was able to carry on…..until it happened a third and then a fourth time. Aaaaaarrrrgghhhhhh. Thankfully, I found myself quite speedily both times and managed to get going. I could not log on to Zwift as myself on the laptop because I was already logged on on the iPhone. I didn’t want to crash the system and lose my run. But, by 35kms, we were back on track and I didn’t have any further technical issues for the rest of the run.
All these problems had knocked my confidence though. As I explain on the video, when you are running a marathon you need to focus. Even if it’s just a bit of fun, like I was having. Any small interruption, distraction or problem can knock you out of your stride, can destabilise you mentally and cause you to falter. This definitely happened to me between 25 and 35 kilometres. By now, what with having to stop for various technical issues and spilled drinks, and because I was tiring, my pace had slowed and the marathon was going to take longer than 4 hours 30 minutes. My Garmin and Zwift had drifted so far apart that as far as my watch was concerned I was 2.5 kilometres further on in my marathon than Zwift had calculated.
As I approached the final few kilometres I had one final disaster. I had finished my water. I had finished one bottle of Coke, I had drunk most of the Huel and spilled the rest on the floor. I had one full bottle of Coke remaining. At 39km I decided to have a swig. As I put the bottle down, I knocked it and it too fell, and the entire contents spilled onto the floor of the shed. I had to run the final three kilometres with no fluids. Not that I really needed any, but at that stage of a marathon drinking becomes a bit of a crux and you reach for a bottle for the sake of it. I settled into the last 3 kilometres and when My Fenix 3 HR ticked over to 45 kilometres, Zwift finally ticked over to 42. I’ve no idea how far I actually ran but I do know that I completed at least a marathon distance in around 4 hours 44 minutes according to my Garmin. The clock pauses on Zwift when you pause. So the time on Zwift was 4 hours 27 minutes or so.
I finished the first ever marathon on Zwift and my first marathon on a treadmill, intact with no injuries and only a minor feeling of frustration that things could have gone a little better. In looking back at the video, the quality of the stream is poor in parts and that’s something I need to work on in the future when streaming running from the shed!
If you are interested in Zwift Running or keen to find out more, sign up for a free trial at zwift.com . Go and join some of the Facebook groups which discuss cycling, racing and now Zwift running. If you have any questions do ask. There is a wealth of information out there the form of videos from Shane Miller, James Gill at Titanium Geek, the Zwift Blog by Eric Schlange and of course Ray Maker too. There’s also Simon Schofield’s Zwiftcast. If you’ve enjoyed reading please do share it with others and do enjoy watching the video.