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Morgan’s Run

An award-winning science fiction writer paints a compelling — and rather disturbing — vision of running in the near future.

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Bobbi Jo was racing through the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska, when her iCoach blasted her out of her dream and into her bedroom darkness.

“Rise and shine,” said the chirpy, aerobics-instructor voice she’d thought so inspirational when she’d picked it from the two hundred or so available options. “Today’s morning run starts in seventy-five minutes.”

Bobbi Jo squinted at her clock’s old-fashioned red numerals, the kind you could read without fully waking up. It took a moment to focus, then she had it: 3:15. Not her usual idea of morning. And if the damned thing was going to get her up at this hour, why the hell hadn’t it told her before that second glass of wine last night?

“Urp,” she said. “Why so ear—”

Then she realized arguing would require more brainpower than she currently wanted to engage. “Never mind.” She stared at the clock again, tried to do the math. “We’re starting at 4:30? I don’t need that long to dress.”

“Yes, but you do need thirty to forty minutes to process caffeine, carbohydrates, and electrolytes and to bring your body parameters into performance range.”

Too many big words. If this thing was going to talk to her at this hour, she was going to need to get it the dumbed-down-communications app. But one thing was clear. “That’s not seventy-five minutes.”

“True. Patterns project that at this hour it will take thirty-five minutes to get you out of bed.”

“Yeah,” she said, wondering if she could also buy the device a snooze app. “See you then.” The too-chipper voice, though, was something she could deal with now. What was the cultured baritone she’s almost picked instead? Martin Freeburg? No that wasn’t right. Oh yeah. “Morgan,” she said. “From now on you’re Morgan.”

***

She’d gotten the iCoach only ten days before, at the insistence of her training partner. “I know it’s expensive,” Becca had said. “But if you’re serious about getting into Fairbanks, you’re going to need help. And in the long run it’s cheaper than a real coach. Not to mention that you don’t have to wait for it to return phone calls. Remember how hard it was to reach Coach Parker? An electronic coach is always there.”

All of which had sounded better in the middle of a gorgeous fall run than at o-dark-thirty on a Minnesota morning.

She’d invested too much energy talking to get all the way back to sleep, but she could still snug under the covers, daydreaming of chasing the elites beneath crystalline skies and a midnight sun. Or maybe daydreaming wasn’t the right word. What do you call it when daydreams come when you should be sleeping?

Next year’s qualifying times hadn’t been set, but with Chicago and Boston hitting 105° last year, Fairbanks would be tightening its standards yet again. It was already the top race on the professional circuit, which was part of what made everyone want to be part of it. And what was the point of training all those months, only to risk getting cooked in a heat wave? North was better.

The same went for Fairbanks qualifiers. Becca had a short list of races she was considering: Reykjavik, Oslo, and Irkutsk, wherever that was. For a while she’d also considered Svalbard but ruled it out because it still had polar bears. “The race director assured me they’ve never had a runner eaten,” Becca had said, “but everyone knows polar bears are starving, and at mile 20 a runner might look like easy prey.”

“Maybe the fear would speed you up. Give you a new PR.”

Becca had laughed, but her gaze was far away. “Hmmm. Wonder if I could simulate that. You know they changed that rule, right? Sims are now legal, even in the Olympics. I once set myself up to be paced by Roland Bryce. He’s got the cutest butt, but it was too distracting. There was this pothole, and I nearly broke an ankle. Nah, I’d know the bear wasn’t real, even if I set my skinsuit to simulate its breath right behind me. Nice idea, though.”

Wherever she ran her qualifier, Bobbi Jo was going to need at least a 3:15 to get into Fairbanks, which was why she’d shelled out two weeks’ pay for the iCoach and put up with five micro-implants to give it all the best apps.

“It’ll only hurt a bit,” the doctor had said. Why do they always say that when the syringe looks like a bazooka? The speaker implant behind her ear had been the one that really hurt. Though the fuel cell that powered it off her blood glucose had run a close second. And when the time came to race, she sure as hell hoped the doctor knew what he was talking about.

“It only needs ten milliwatts,” he’d explained. “Running, you burn several hundred watts, so the fuel cell won’t use enough blood sugar to slow you down. Though if you deplete your blood glucose too far, you will slow it down and the speaker will shut off. So if your coach tells you to eat, pay attention. It will be continuously monitoring your blood sugar, and you’ll also run better if you do what it says.”

“Is that another implant?” Bobbi Jo had asked.

“No. The glucose monitor is just an IR sensor in the wristband. Someday, we’ll be able to do all of this noninvasively, but for the moment, there are a lot of things that can’t be monitored without implants. Now, one more little sting…”

***

It was weather that had changed her training schedule, she learned once “Morgan” persuaded her she’d had as many snooze delays as could possibly be allowed.

“There’s a line of thunderstorms coming in,” it explained as she measured out the morning’s recommended amounts of potassium, magnesium, caffeine, VitaMix, and carb powder and popped them in the blender with a half-liter of water and some white powder she knew only as binder. “I’ll show you the weather map. But first, you forgot the oxygen.”

“Damn.” She went back to the bedroom and dialed the gas level down from “Addis Ababa” to “ambient.” Sleep high, live low, the oxygen-regulator adverts had said. It wasn’t the best slogan—the second half always made her think lowlife—but the oxygen filter hooked into the air conditioning and didn’t use all that much power, as long as she remembered both to dial it back in the morning and keep the door sealed at night. Otherwise she’d spend a fortune as her oxygen unit vainly tried to turn all of St. Paul into Ethiopia.

Back in the kitchen, she poured the vita-mineral-carb-binder concoction into a glass and stared at it. Last week’s wake-up juice had been a nauseating green that tasted like piss—or at least what she imagined piss would taste like. She’d complained and a new brand of binder had come by Federal Express yesterday afternoon.

It looked like chalk.

She took a sip and nearly gagged. Chalk mixed with piss.

“Sorry,” Morgan said. “Studies have found that this mix of ingredients improves training performance by 0.6 percent, which is the difference between a 3:16:08 marathon and 3:14:59. I know that reviews have not been good on flavor but for your best chance of attaining your goal you need to drink it.”

Bobbi Jo gagged down another swallow. It didn’t taste any better. How many months was it until the qualifying deadline for Fairbanks? It was going to be a long summer if she had to drink this stuff every morning. And she had a bad feeling that last night’s wine was the last she’d see for quite a while.

Meanwhile there was weather to deal with, so she put on her training visor to give the iCoach a bigger screen than the wrist-monitor on which to show visuals. “Wow,” she said, staring at a line of Doppler-radar blobs marching across the state. “Where’d that come from?”

“Kansas,” the device said unnecessarily. Sometimes it wasn’t quite as smart as it thought it was. “They were supposed to dissipate, but didn’t.” It paused, the new voice a much better simulation of a real coach than the faux aerobic instructor’s. “Your cortisol is about three hours shy of optimum recovery, but that would put your workout right in the middle of the storm. That’s why we needed to start early.”

“Why not just go back to bed and use the terrain simulator in the club, later on?” she said, thinking this felt amazingly like arguing with a real coach. Though no matter how much she’d wheedled, she rarely won those arguments, either. The simulator’s 3×6-meter belt could hump up into any topography in its databank, and its VR goggles could immerse her in any landscape from Malaysia to Morocco. Or Fairbanks.

“Sorry. It’s booked until 4:00 pm. By then you’re eight hours’ over-recovered. Besides, simulators aren’t good for long-tempo hill runs like this one. If you’re interested—”

“I’m not.”

“—a recent study in the Siberian Journal of Sports Technology found that even in the best simulators, runners experience perceptual discontinuities between proprioception and virtual-reality visuals, resulting in millisecond biomechanical delays.”

“Perceptual discontinuities?”

“It makes you a little tentative. Simulators are fine for easy runs, but not for quality workouts.” The voice in her ear actually chuckled. “Nice try, though.”

future running tech
Photo: Valerie Weilert

Five minutes later, she was out the door.

“Start really slowly,” the Morgan-voice said unnecessarily. Bobbi Jo had always been good at this part.

It was still so dark there was no sign of impending dawn. “Image enhance,” she said, and Morgan obliged. There was no way she was going to run trails if she couldn’t see what she was stepping on.

“Hang on a sec’,” Morgan said. Her visuals had brightened, but apparently something else was wrong. “I’m not getting feedback from your tights.”

Damn. She knew she wasn’t supposed to put them in the drier—and not only had they somehow gotten in with the rest of the laundry, but the drier had been set on high.

“OK,” Morgan said a moment later. “Got it. You’ll be pleased to know that you really do have legs. Better yet, your soleus is another three percent looser than yesterday. We’ve definitely got the recovery suit’s automassage set correctly.”

“Good,” Bobbi Jo said. A week ago, it had looked like she might be heading for a bout with Achilles tendonitis.

There was a pause. “Blood oxygen 100 percent. Cortisol nominal—which is good because I know you’re mad at me for waking you up.” Another pause. “The shock sensors indicate that you’re landing a bit hard, but your cumulative impact-pounds for the week are within normal range, even with last night’s dancing. But not by a lot. I’m afraid you’re done with parties until after the race.”

“But my birthday’s next month!”

“You’ll have another next year.”

She was running again, the elastic in her skinsuit’s smart-tights contracting to absorb the energy of impact, releasing it again at just the right time to add spring to her stride. The tights had been expensive, but worth it. As far as she could tell, they’d given her five seconds a mile. Hopefully she’d not toasted them too badly in the drier.

Green lights flashed in her visor. “OK,” Morgan said, “you’re good to go. You can pick it up a bit. But not too much.”

***

Bobbi Jo had always liked warm-ups: the sense of her body waking up, the assurance that no matter how tough the coming workout was, life was flowing into her muscles and she could do it. It was a time for herself. She’d made that very clear to the electronic coach the first time she ran with it. Don’t talk to me during warm-up. Even when she ran with Becca, she warmed up on her own.

Happily, that was one of the few things the iCoach hadn’t argued with. Instead, it simply projected a cursor that her visor made look as though it was about five meters in front of her, moving at her ideal speed. If it got closer, she was going too fast and the cursor would turn red: slow down. Too slow, and it drew ahead, fading toward purple. Green was optimal. And the nice thing about warm-ups was that there was a fairly wide range of optimal. Mostly, the cursor just showed her the route.

Left, right, straight. Left again. The iCoach’s web access included the traffic bureau’s stoplight cycle, allowing it to direct her so she rarely needed to stop. During warm-up, that was nice. Later on, there would come times when she’d pray for a red light.

Two miles passed with Bobbi Jo left to her own thoughts.

“Why isn’t Becca joining us?” she asked eventually.

“I consulted her electronic coach last night. You recover slightly faster than she does, which means your training cycles are currently out of phase. You’ll be back in phase in about two weeks.”

Damn again. Not long ago, she’d done most of her training with Becca. But such was the cost of optimizing: if she really wanted that 3:15, she needed to bite the bullet and do it right. It would suck to get a 3:16 just because she was too sociable.

Maybe simulated company would be nice. Would a simulated conversation with Roland Bryce feel like the real thing or just dorky fan-girl stuff she’d be glad existed only in cyber non-reality? Becca wasn’t the only one who thought he was cute.

Morgan’s voice interrupted her. “Time to get this show on the road. Kick it into gear and go–but not too fast; you’ve got twenty kilometers of this. Follow the cursor and keep it in the green.”

***

For the several miles, Bobbi Jo varied her pace as Morgan monitored her lactic acid level and the cursor fluctuated from green to purple to rosy.

Then she was on trails. Bark chips in parks, steep climbs on the river bluffs. “Good job,” Morgan’s voice said in her ear. “Effort is what matters. Pace is irrelevant. Today we’re after lactic acid threshold. As long as we’re close to 4.0 millimoles, you’re doing it right.”

She smiled at the “we.” Real coaches said that. And the fact that its voice was an implant powered off her own blood by a grain-of-rice fuel cell did give “we” a new meaning. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all, chalk piss and pre-dawn wakeups notwithstanding.

Miles came and went. Fast, not-so-fast. Pink dawn in the east. Rosy tops of thunderstorm in the west. A good time, now that she was truly awake, to be alive and moving, the changing tension in her tights massaging tiring muscles. When she hit the trails, her shoes adjusted too. Grew treads, lost them. Added cushion for downgrades, shed it on the flats. Then Morgan’s voice served up something new. “Ok,” it said, “time to hit the wall.”

“Hit the what?”

“The wall. The time when some people bonk in marathons.”

“I know what it is. But what do you mean, time to hit it?”

“Just a head’s up, so you’re not caught by surprise. You bought the app. It’s installed and ready.”

“What app? I didn’t buy any ‘hit-the-wall’ app.”

There was a pause, probably as Morgan uplinked to check her contract.

“Ah.” Another pause. “It was bundled. You took the promo package. The wall was one of the free add-ons. It crashes your blood sugar. You’ll lose voice contact with me when that happens, by the way. But you can always talk to the wrist monitor, and I can answer in the text scroll. In twenty minutes, your blood sugar will rebound.”

“Is it safe?”

“There are thirty-four journal articles examining it. Twenty-eight call it innocuous. The others agree that it is a very good simulation of a marathon experience gone bad and will make you mentally tough. The free app in your promo package gave you a hormone capsule capable of three simulations. After that, you’ll need a new capsule.”

“What else did the package include?”

“Not a lot you’re likely to need, though the adrenaline app can be useful. In an emergency, I can jolt your muscle strength enough that you could make a mugger regret meeting you. Or a dog, for that matter. You could probably punt it into the next county.”

She laughed. “I bet that same app would give me a really good finishing kick!”

“It would.” She swore there was an almost-human hesitation in the answer. “But that’s against doping rules. My licensing as an Olympic-legal device requires me to report any illegal uses of my capabilities.”

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to cheat.” Though she wasn’t quite sure that was what the device had been hesitant about. She tried to remember the degree of ambition she had requested her iCoach to have. Becca had told her to go for 100 percent. “That’s what I’ve got,” she’d said. “It won’t let you fail.”

Or had she actually said it? Once Bobbi Jo had agreed to get an iCoach, it seemed that most of Becca’s advice had come via email. Or maybe texts—she couldn’t remember which. Odd now that she thought of it, because normally, Becca would have grabbed at any chance to chat. Now she was all business—the price, it seemed, of dedication. Which, of course, was what Bobbi Jo needed to practice for the next few minutes.

She drew as strong a breath as she could, given that she was still running fairly hard.

“Okay,” she said, “hit me with that wall thing.”

For the next 200 meters, everything seemed normal. Then her breathing became ragged. Her legs felt like lead. Thinking became an exercise in crawling through molasses.

Luckily, she wasn’t on trail. Tree roots would have been bad news. And the visor continued to guide her: good, because lightning was now flickering on the western horizon and in about thirty minutes, home would be a good place to be. Getting lost would be unpleasant.

She forced herself to look at the wrist monitor, where Morgan’s chip dwelt.

Speed up, its screen scrolled.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

Speed up.

Every minute felt worse than the one before, but she concentrated on form. Arms. Toes. Don’t clomp. Don’t overstride. All the things Coach Parker had taught before she’d replaced him with an electronic gadget whose voice was now off-line due to a deliberately induced blood-sugar crash.

Five minutes passed. Better, scrolled the screen. Hold it.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen.

And finally it was over and energy flooded back into her legs, lungs, and brain.

“That was a decent start.” Morgan’s voice was back in her ear. “But you’re going to need to get a bigger capsule because I can tell that we need to do this at least once a week until you get it right…and if you can master this, you can do anything.”

Thunder rumbled.

“Let’s go home. Food first, then ice bath, 11.5 degrees C.” If she wore the tights, they’d help her get the temperature right. “Easy run, this afternoon. I’ll tell you when.”

“Not until after the Twins game,” she said. She could spend the game in the recovery suit getting a massage.

There was a pause. When Morgan’s voice came back, it was startlingly stern. “Let’s get one thing straight,” it said. “I’m the coach. I’ll tell you when to run. This is an important stage in your training.” The tone lightened. “But in this case there’s no problem. Timing is not so critical on recovery runs. I’d guess your next hard workout will be Tuesday, after work.”

“I’ve got a date.”

“I moved it to Wednesday and shifted it to lunch. Check your social calendar. He’s training for a half-marathon and his electronic coach and I agreed that keeping Tuesday evening open might be better for both of you.”

“You did what?”

“I—”

“I heard you. It was a rhetorical question. The real question is when did you do it?”

“Yesterday.”

“Why didn’t he call me and tell me himself, rather than waiting for you to tell me?”

“I asked his electronic coach to tell him that you’d requested the change. So he thought it was your idea.”

“You did what?”

“I asked his—”

“Damn it, don’t repeat after me. Though I suppose I should have asked why.”

“Dating is not conducive to personal bests. A study in the South African—”

“I don’t care about—”

“—Journal of Performance Psychology showed that athletes do best if they are either single or in established relationships of at least eleven months’ duration. New relationships other than casual friendships are contraindicated until after your race.”

Bobbi Jo chewed on that for a moment. Just how much did she want that 3:15? Not that much, she decided.

“It’s my life,” she said. “You’re fired. I want my money back.”

Morgan chuckled, but it wasn’t as gentle-sounding as before. “Eighty-four percent of electronic coaches hear that at least once. Read your contract. There are no refunds, and the discount package was contingent on you doing your best to run your target time or better. That’s because the contract lets us use you in our advertising. If you fail and I deem that it is because you were not sufficiently serious in your training, it’s a breach of the advertising contract and you will owe an additional—”

Thunder drowned out the precise figure, but Bobbi Jo was sickeningly sure that whatever it was, she couldn’t afford it.

“You might pick it up a bit,” Morgan said, its calm manner no longer sounding at all friendly. “Avoidable electrocution is no excuse.”