A month of November without cross-country races is unthinkable. Everything from the cold and dry weather, to the long and dark evenings, to the Pavlovian anxiety we feel when smelling wet leaves tells us we should be preparing for championship season.
Thankfully, runners can now chase heart-pounding glory virtually with the XC Video Game, the first ever cross-country running-themed video game, as far as we know. Upon its release earlier this week, the game pretty much immediately trending on Letsrun.com's message boards.
An interview with the game's creator:
Ryan Craven ran competitively as a high schooler in Illinois, and then as a varsity runner at the University of Wisconsin. On the track, he specialized in the two-mile run, but cross-country was his first and main love. Now 32, he still runs "old man miles" with his dog.
Craven said that when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, he had few work opportunities.
"I was doing Uber before that in Austin, Texas. I just found myself with a whole bunch of time."
Craven moved back home to LaPorte, Indiana for the pandemic. Without a job, and forced to spend most of his time indoors, he combined three of his hobbies — 3D design, coding and his love for cross-country running — to create his first video game in the span of a few months. He hopes the game can give antsy runners devoid of real races something to do.
"Given the circumstances of the pandemic, knowing that people might be robbed of the ability to compete," he said, "I really thought it'd be cool if I could get this out while that's going on — give people a little bit of relief and a chance to compete for... something."
The game is dead simple — use the G and H keys on your keyboard to move forward, and the F and J keys to weave left and right to pass other runners, sidestep trees and make turns. Drafting behind other runners conserves energy, and allows you to eventually use speed bursts. If you don't draft behind other runners, your avatar slows down and starts breathing heavily.
You face the same eight competitors each time, but the race always unfolds differently.
It took me eight tries to win my first race. Once, I took the lead too early, and virtual Alex started panting and flailing in the last kilometre. Going too fast also caused me to bump into trees and struggle on sharp corners. Another time I tried to stay at the back of the pack, but got tangled with other runners and was spit out the back of the pack. I finally won gold by pulling off a classic cross-country tactic - I followed the leader and blew by him at the end.
But that was just level one - the Junior Varsity race. Next is Varsity, and then Elite. To unlock a category, you must win the previous one. I'm currently struggling to win a Varsity race — I have yet to finish higher than fourth.
The virtual 5K course is marked at each kilometre, and brings one back to their high school days. Runners start by rounding a soccer field, then go through a chute of fans and porta-potties and onto a grass course. They then pass on a rubberized track, circumvent school busses and weave through a network of trees — the final obstacle before the finish line.
"It's very cartoonish," said Craven of the course, "but it's also meant to be grounded in reality in a way. There are no lightning bolts or explosions or anything like that... it is just cross-country."
Craven said he expects to build on the game's sophistication, and is currently listening to feedback about how to make it better. He also hopes to eventually make the game available on mobile devices and in virtual reality.
"If it can have a little cult following it would be cool and would be great to add more features and improve on it graphically as it goes," he said. "One foot in front of the other sort of thing, right now."
How to find the game
XC Video Game Twitter account
XC Video Game Youtube channel