This is based on a version of the same talk presented in person by me at the VR For Good conference, held on in November 2018 at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona, USA.
Back in the Race
Celebrate Good Times
The Price of No Rest
A short run down from my B&B and along the lakefront gave me the first opportunity to try out the trekking poles I had purchased specifically for the race and it was immediately clear how much of a help they are when climbing a slope. With climbing being the theme, my drive onward took me winding up and around stunning passes as I entered the Alps proper, the lakes that flank Interlaken, my base for the race, coming into view and taking my breath away with their startling azure blue color. Just when you thought the view couldn’t get any more beautiful a corner would be rounded and there would present itself yet another vista of pure natural splendour that a landscape painter could spend a lifetime simply in one tiny corner of this land and never be bored. From Interlaken the might of the Jungfrau and Monch peaks come into view as one looks up the valley toward Lauterbrunnen, a place I know as a famous base-jumping spot. Perhaps it stems from the fact I hail from one of the flatter parts of the UK, specifically Norfolk, where we joke that one can get altitude sickness from driving over a speedbump, but I find the mountains utterly captivating and is, I am sure, one of the reasons I feel drawn towards events that compel me to engage with them. Tahoe was stunning but I daresay that the Bernese Oberland may well pip it to the post as far as sheer natural splendour goes, and that says a huge amount.
I had initially planned to base myself in Grindelwald itself, the mountain village that was both the start and finish of the Eiger 101 and other race distances, but due to a combination of simple tardiness in looking and an inevitable hike in prices I found myself being forced to look further down the mountain to Interlaken, the main jumping off point for visitors to the area and a bustling town with all the modern amenities that one comes to expect. My hotel was a basic affair, ultimately serving it’s purpose simply as a place to rest my head, and sure beat the other option I (briefly) considered: camping.
The first foray up to Grindelwald, approximately 30 minutes drive from Interlaken, offered the first clues as to the amount of climbing that the race would involve and also the potential limitations that the altitude could pose. I had identified the potential for altitude adjustment, or lack thereof, to be a factor as soon as I had entered but without the option to physically base myself at elevation for a couple of weeks prior to the race – not an option this year – I knew that I was simply going to have to place that aspect of my performance and experience in the hands of the Gods. I could, for example, feel myself breathing a little more actively even as I drove up to Grindelwald and had the niggle of a headache starting to set in. Aside from the standard, sensible, easy-to-do measures, such as as avoiding alcohol and caffeine, both of which serve as diuretics and thus hasten the onset of dehydration, drinking more fluids and ensuring sunscreen application, there wasn’t really anything more I could do to limit the effects that being nearly 2000 metres above sea-level, which is where I had done pretty much all of my training, would possibly have. At least the views would take my mind off the altitude and as I rounded a corner to see the Eiger for the first time I beamed. There it was! The mighty north face of the famous Eiger! What a spectacular setting for any race!
REGISTRATION & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
1am showers are a bit of a new one to me but I figured that I was set to have a very lengthy, grimey day so at least starting it feeling clean and fresh would get my head in a good space. Plus, judicious application of cold water does more to wake a person than a shot of coffee could ever hope to.
One final check of the kit, food, including breakfast packed, and a confirmation of pick-up for fellow Eiger botherer, Victor, who had travelled over from London for the race and whom I had offered to provide a lift to up from Interlaken, and it was off we headed. One of the reasons that I wanted to get up to Grindelwald so early was that I was concerned that given the number of entries this year, there might be some issues finding parking close to the start on race day itself. I honestly need not have worried as we rolled into an almost deserted central car-park and so had time to wander to the start area and ask about where to place our half-way bags, before leisurely taking on some brekkie. In hindsight I might have been better off eating a little more at the start than I did but pre-race nerves do tend to curb one’s hunger. Still, I didn’t feel sick, just excited and eager to get this thing underway. One thing that is common across all sports and any big event is the need for the pre-start pilgrammage to the, ahem, facilities. One advantage of being early was that I was able to avail myself of them without suffering the ‘music festival’ atmosphere that tends to quickly develop around them. Phew!
With the race start approaching the area just behind the line started filling with people, with the deathly silence of just a few souls quietly pottering around being replaced by the anticipatory hum of excited voices and the obligatory motivational soundtrack. I guess the idea that anyone not doing the race and staying in the centre of town being permitted a restful early morning snooze was thrown out, especially when right on cue, at 4am, the race was started and a large cannon was fired! It was magical running through the village, as there were scores of supporters up and out even at that time of the morning, and as we snaked up the valley towards the start of the actual trail, I was beaming from ear to ear. I was here, finally, in the Alps taking on this mammoth challenge. What a world away from the Middle East. Victor had originally suggested that we try and stick together for as much of the race as possible, an idea that I was happy to go along with, especially given how mentally tough I know these races can get later on, and knowing that he had experience of running long in such events. In fact I had to drastically reevaluate my original projections of target times based on our morning conversation as he said he was aiming to finish in about 20 hours. Given his greater level of experience with such races I started to seriously question my original target of 18 hours, with that admittedly based purely on blog research and extrapolation. In the end even my own revised targets were way off, but more about that later.
As it turned out the weather did end up impacting the E101, with the race officials opting to pause the race for about 3 hours later in the evening, and ultimately redirecting runners such that those who had been stopped – I’d have been one of them – ended up doing 80km rather than the full 101km. Whilst it would have still been a huge achievement, knowing that one had not completed the full distance yet receiving a medal for it would not have sat well and I feel that I might have found that more frustrating than electing to pull out when I did. One thing is for sure though: I want to return and I want to tackle the 101 again. Next time I will be better prepared, will train more specifically for it and absolutely ensure that I get a chance to acclimatise to the altitude. I know that I can do the distance.
It seems that for me, big goals seem to take me two years to realise, whether it be completing my first Ironman or gaining entry onto a top MBA programme. The Eiger 101, it would appear, is no different and so perhaps it was fated that I would not make the finish line this time around, thus compelling me to return and nail it the second time around. Who knows? The thing is I may not even secure an entry for next year given how unbelievably competitive the registration is – I will simply have to be ready when 10am on the 31st October 2018 comes around and keep my fingers crossed!
(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )
With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!
Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.
Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.
In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.
One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.