Surreal Sports

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, September 24, 2006

The virtual has become actual. This is so difficult to grasp. Please tell me I am not alone.

Maybe you've had your moment of discovery. Or maybe yours is coming soon, sneaking up on you, as mine did me. It will hit you like a brick over the head, which in its own way will feel good.

Mine happened this morning, while on my first run in years. I was thumping along in the most joyful way, wondering why it had been so long. I used to be an avid runner. It was my thing, my peace, my church, my solitude. Why had it been so long?

Of course, I did know why: knees and kids. I blew out my knees about the same time the kids came along; you can't run when you've got babies at home; you can't run very far when you're saying, "Ow, ow, ow, ow," as you go. The doctor said "pre-arthritic," prescribed physical therapy, suggested getting an elliptical machine, which allows a human to spin in one place, endlessly, while putting minimal impact on joints.

I loved that machine -- for about three minutes. To combat the boredom that would set in by minute four, I stuck a TV in front of it. To combat the boredom of TV, I got TiVo. I could control what I watched while I sweated -- zap the commercials, cry with Oprah or get a Chris Matthews headache.

Also, I redirected the flow of air in my basement ducts, resulting in maximum breeze through the vent situated near the machine.

Manipulating temperature, manipulating time, controlling distance, controlling speed and kilowatts: I can't say I was aware that I was becoming master of the universe. I was too plugged in to do much thinking on that scale. How do you get distance when the distance itself is virtual -- 3.75 miles if I kept my RPMs above 50? The terrain I elected to cover was hilly, meaning that you traveled from level 12 up to 16 and then back again and up again. I went there over and over, day after day, but I saw nothing -- no vistas, no scenic overlook -- from the vantage point of 16.

It never bothered me. It's not as if the situation were unique compared with the rest of my days, plugged in, as I was, to my computer. Facts at my fingertips. Friends at my fingertips. Tap, tap, tap, I live.

Then, recently -- just last week -- I got a new car. I ordered it with all the extra gizmos, having embraced my love of technology to such a degree that I forgot why I ever fought it. The navigation system on my dashboard has given me a new reason to get up in the morning. Punch in the destination, and the lady starts her sweet talk; already I've come to depend on the rhythm of her voice. "Continue to follow . . . the road . . . for two . . . miles." Meanwhile, a cartoon map continually moves so I can see where I am, in real time, in relation to other roads, parks, gas stations, restaurants and museums. I decided to drive my old running route on that three-mile course along backcountry roads. Also, if I pushed a button on the new navigation system, I could see the elevation at various points. I discovered that, all those years, I had been running the hard way around. Those hills would have been a lot easier if I had simply reversed the route; the numbers on the dashboard now made that obvious.

That's not why I decided to run again, of course. Clearly I was emotionally setting the stage for a return. My knees were better. My kids were grown up enough to be at a sleepover party.

And so I ran. It was hot, which I thought rude. I deserved better. It was dusty, and there were bugs to swat. Rude! Eventually, of course, the endorphins kicked in, and soon I was

soaring. The creek. The woods. The forgiving shade, pungent skunkweed, a field of Queen Anne's lace. On the side of Station Road, I spotted a freshwater spring. That was odd. That didn't used to be there. There's a spring over on Valley Road that I had come to depend on for a drink. But this? Was this water potable, too? I wanted to know.

I was thirsty. I wanted to know right then and there, and so I turned as I always do, not physically, but mentally -- with expectation and entitlement, I turned in my mind to Google that spring. Type something. Ask the air: "Is it potable?"

There in the woods, there in the middle of nature, I turned to Google the water, and I was mad, for an instant miffed, that there was no Googling to be had. It hit me like a brick. If you live all your days in a virtual reality, it's not virtual anymore: It's reality. What, then, of everything else? Stupid water. Stupid air. Somebody please reboot. I am forgetting how to live in the real world, or I'm at least finding it annoyingly inconvenient.

I didn't drink the water. Later I asked a neighbor, and she said, "It's all good." I am going out for a real run again tomorrow. I am going to try this again.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is

© 2006 The Washington Post Company