I wrote this story back in the early 1990's for a writing contest for Runner's World magazine, which I didn't win. I didn't mind not winning so much, but at the time I was really disappointed in the story that did win. I guess I should have expected it, sci-fi is not the most popular genre. In re-reading the story, I think there are things I would do differently today, but I was limited to 2,000 words for the contest, and I think I did pretty well at the time.
I've never thought of myself as a runner, but a bicyclist that likes to run. Running is good cross training, I really enjoy running, and it helped me bike better, but I was never very fast. Running outdoors is best, and a serious runner would want a trainer. Finding a running partner is difficult for some people (I never had one) but it's a fact that people who have a partner trainer better, enjoy it more, and are more regular that someone who always runs by himself. People will spend a couple thousand dollars for a good treadmill. What if one could buy a robot? Well, first someone has to build one....
by Roger S Nelson
1: "Train a robot to run? Me? A plump over the hill desk jockey whose idea of
running is riding the people mover? Come on, give me a break." That's what I
said when the boss gave me a new assignment today. The company wants me, a
robo-trainer, to train a robot to be a Running Companion (RC) to coach and aid
runners. Since our neural network robots are designed to learn like people, by
observing and doing, training RC to run means I have to run so he can watch me
and copy my motions. I wouldn't mind teaching him to drive a golf cart, but
Day 2: The company wants a robot who can run three minute miles (20 mph) for the length of a marathon (26 miles) on a single charge. Once RC learns to run from me, I can command him to speed up and download his programming to other robots. (The company wants a whole line of sports robots.) Programming RC manually may be possible but would be extremely difficult and probably inferior since running is so complicated (It's a "balanced falling forward"). I wish I had the Billiards Companion project.
Day 7: After working with RC for a week now, I can't get him to go faster than a brisk walk. This project is even harder than I thought!
Day 14: My feet are killing me! I must have walked 5 miles today trying to get RC to go faster. I need better shoes.
Day 15: I bought running shoes today. I really hated to do it, but I need them for my job. (My wife thinks I'm crazy.) I'm disappointed in my progress with RC.
Day 21: RC is eating up my life. Even though I'm the company's best robo-trainer and computer programmer, I'm getting almost nowhere with RC. I dream about him at night. I go over his blueprints by day. I skip meals working with him. I lose sleep trying to come up with better ways to train him. He is my obsession.
Day 28: The boss and I talked about RC today. The pressure is on to get this project up and running. I know the boss is not happy with the results so far. If it wasn't for my good track record with the company I'd be in a lot of trouble.
Day 29: The boss understands my frustration and managed to get the company to extend my term on this project up to a year. I hope I don't have to work a whole year on this.
Day 35: I'm really discouraged. After working with RC night and day, he only goes 5 mph. I take RC home on occasion, disguised in plas-skin so no one will recognize him as a robot. This project must be kept secret from the competition. No one can tell as long as he doesn't talk (his computerized voice gives him away). This project is consuming me, but I know I can do it.
Day 42: I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner but I had a great idea today. If I knew how real runners trained I would know how to train RC. I picked up a copy of Runner's World at the newsstand and sent in for a subscription.
Day 49: I asked RC to read Runner's World and tell me what he thought. He said that interval training seemed to work well with humans. After he explained interval training, I took him out. We alternated fast and slow laps and even did a few hills for good measure. I'm exhausted. RC is still slow.
Day 63: I just had to rest today, I'm beat. I spent the day in the office thinking about RC. He has plenty of power to run three minute miles for over 30 miles, at least in theory. I wish I had so much energy.
Day 70: My wife worries about me. She says my obsession has gotten out of hand. "Look at all the weight you've lost, You're going to make yourself sick or die of a heart attack." I tell her, "Not to worry, this project will be over soon and things will get back to normal." (I hope it's over soon.)
Day 75: RC has made a little progress. He is going 6 mph now, (10 minute miles). RC was built plenty strong enough. There must be a problem with his positronix brain.
Day 82: I ran a thorough check of RC's neural network this past week. His positronix brain seems to be functioning well within specs. Guess I'll have to keep training him. Groan..
Day 100: I keep RC at home now. The boss doesn't worry about me stealing him. He knows the last thing in the world I want is a dumb old running robot. I'd sure like to finish this project.
Day 105: When people see me with RC they think he is my running buddy. I can hardly believe people think of me as a jogger now. Little do they know.
Day 112: When I took RC on a run through the city I was attacked by a mugger. RC performed beautifully, stepping between me and the mugger and taking the shot. RC was not damaged. He grabbed the gun and tossed it into the river. Then he knocked the mugger flat and we finished the run. I'm glad RC can protect me but I sure wish he would run faster.
Day 119: RC and I were running along a country road when a big dog came out from a farm and attacked. RC made a loud high-pitched blare that scared the dog away. Another plus for this slow-bot.
Day 133: Perhaps he needs more sensors in his feet.
Day 145: Even with extra sensors in his feet he only goes 7mph. I ordered him to go faster but he won't.
Day 154: I am so frustrated! I know RC could run a marathon at 20 mph. His circuitry is fast enough. He is structurally sound enough. I just can't get him to do it. Why won't he run faster than me? - - Wait a minute. Did I say "faster than ME"? That's it! I've got to get him in a race where he can see real runners and learn from them. He needs to see fast runners.
Day 161: I found just the race for RC. It's a funky fun race called the "Paper Bag" race. Contestants wear a paper bag over their head during the race. I'll run also to observe. A bag will help disguise RC and even I don't mind running in the race with a paper bag on my head. This is only a 5 mile race so it won't kill me, and RC will be able to see some fast runners. The things I do as a robo-trainer! Oh well. The sooner I get over this project, the better.
Day 185: The race is tomorrow. I covered RC in a giant blue paper bag with the words "blue streak" written down the sides. Only his feet show. I pre-registered him under the name R. O. Bott and he was assigned number 99. I got number 98. With a little luck, RC will be across the finish line when I reach the half way point. I instructed RC to follow the fastest runner (but not to beat him). I feel real stupid doing this race, but if it means an end to this discouraging, frustrating, even maddening project, it will be worth it.
RACE DAY: Here we are at the starting line. I wonder if I know any of these bag covered people. I am glad no one recognizes me, slow as I am.
Bang! The gun! We're off. There goes 99 ahead of me. Good! No. Not good. The leader is dropping him. I talk to 99 through my wireless mike. "Come on 99, follow the leader! Step on it, 99!" No results. "MOVE IT!!" Suddenly six months of frustration bursts into anger. "Darn you 99! If I catch you I'm going to turn you into beer cans." I surge forward. 99 goes a little faster. It's almost like the little bolt head is teasing me.
We pass the first mile. A time keeper calls out 7:48. RC never ran this fast before, maybe this competition is helping him. Still angry I keep chasing him. I concentrate on breathing and relaxing. Every cell in my body is focused on FORWARD. I'm going to catch that son-of-a-chip if it's the last thing I do. Each step beats out "Kill! Kill! Kill!".
We reach the two mile mark. 15:26. Still keeping pace. Forward. Forward. Catch him. Catch him. I only have one goal in life right now. He is just ahead. Beer can city for him. Nothing else matters.
Three miles. 23:15. Still on pace. How long can I keep this up? My heart is pounding its way out of my chest. My lungs are turning themselves inside out pleading for air. Forward. Forward. Run. Run.
For a moment I forget my anger. I'm a steam engine rolling down the track. Chuga chuga. Chuga chuga. No, I'm a soaring hawk. The landscape floats by. In my mind's eye I see the finish line draw near. My whole body and mind and spirit are flowing together. I never felt like this before. It's like - like - wonderful. It's fun! Wait a minute. Fun? My anger returns. The last six months have been so frustrating I risk my job. Kill! Kill! Kill!
Four miles. 31:30. I'm right behind 99. I've slowed a little. So has 99. Hmm. Maybe I can trick him. I slow a little more. So does 99. My body recovers with the slower pace. RC has tortured me long enough. It's my turn to get even. I slow some more. I have a little reserve for a jump. Almost to the end, I sprint ahead and grab 99. All I get is a handful of blue paper. 99 leaps ahead. We sprint to the finish line. He beats me by a step. Five miles. 39:56.
Holy cow, we just ran eight minute miles! Not bad for an old duffer like me. RC never ran faster, but why didn't he follow the leader? People congratulate us just for finishing. I'm too winded to avenge myself on 99, but in catching my breath I feel good. Tired, but good. My anger is gone. That feeling back there - maybe running isn't so bad after all.
I get in the car with RC and drive home. Silence. I feel a little ashamed of my anger. As we get out of the car I ask 99, "Why wouldn't you follow the lead runner?" He winks a plas-skin eye and starts running 20 mph down the road. Suddenly "robo-trainer" takes on new meaning. I look at my trim body and think of the wonderful feeling I had during the race. He did his job well. I run down the road after him, enjoying my new sport.