(Paavo Nurmi checks his stopwatch (1928). Image: Wikimedia commons)
It was a fine fall morning, and a pack of us were trotting along at an easy pace along the smooth gravel trails of Battle Road. The chilliness of the early morning had been forgotten, and the weather and the temperature were perfect for enjoying our long run. Had it not been for our easy conversation, our passing would have been attended only by the light, rhythmic sound of our footsteps… that is, until a sudden burst of electronic chirping announced the completion of another mile. A few moments, later, a second chirp answered the first one, confirming our achievement. I can’t lie: one of the GPS watches that broke into our conversation belonged to me, and the other — an identical model — belonged to Gordon. After a few miles, and several more chirps, Kevin called me out on it. “I can’t believe,” he said sadly, “that you’ve gone over to the dark side.”
Oh yes, the dark side.
Although I’m not sure its the embodiment of evil, in 2015, the GPS watch is at the very least a marvel of technology, and a convenient way to measure every aspect of a run. But it can also be an intrusion. It’s not just the repeated alerts (those can be muted easily enough); it’s the entire worldview that the watch represents, that the only reality is the data — time, distance, elevation, strides taken, calories burned, heart rate, etc. — that the watch collects, and that you upload, share, and obsess over.
The modern GPS watch is only the latest in a long line of measuring devices that runners have used, or disdained, for the better part of a century. Paavo Nurmi, the ‘Flying Finn,’ famously carried a mechanical stopwatch during his interval workouts (and sometimes his races) to check his pace, and distance running probably hasn’t ever been the same.
I remember my first mechanical stopwatch (purchased, when I was just a lad with books and books of “green stamps” that I had pasted into booklets that were then redeemed for merchandise). That stopwatch great, except that the motion of swinging arms threw off its time-keeping accuracy, making it difficult to use while running. I also remember, years later, purchasing my first Casio digital watch. The Casio, although lacking the aesthetic appeal of the traditional stopwatch, was great in its own way. I wore it on every run, used it to take splits during track workouts, and eventually got to the point where a run without the watch didn’t feel like a run at all.
I remember, too, the first GPS device (I won’t call it a watch) that was intended for runners, and that I bought after seeing a demonstration from the parent of one of the kids I was coaching then. The device was big and bulky and designed to be strapped to your upper arm. It took a minute to locate the GPS satellites from which it calculated position, and was easily defeated by heavy cloud cover or overhead foliage. But mostly it worked, which is to say that it measured the distance one had covered, and hence, one’s pace. Never mind that it wasn’t always terribly accurate, the data display was its own reality.
Since then, the watches have become lighter and far more accurate and reliable. And they are collecting more data than ever before.
Not surprisingly, as the technology advanced, runners became ever addicted to collecting that data the device generated. In addition to the device itself, there was software for uploading the data to computers, where it could be imported into spreadsheets and analyzed to death. Furthermore, with more precise monitoring of distance, it became a much more common habit for runners to glance down at their devices at the end of a run, and continue for a hundred meters past their original destination, or add on a few trips around the parking lot to make sure that they had rounded their run distance up to a whole number. Now that everything was measured, runners changed their behavior to make the numbers look better.
But none of this is really new. I’m sure that Nurmi with his stopwatch was following the same instincts as today’s jogger with a GPS watch. But even if it’s not new, the habit of measuring so much of the running experience still makes us uneasy. Do the clock and the GPS in their precise delivery of objective data make us dull to the information that we receive through our senses? Do we listen to the watch when we should be listening to our breathing, our heart, and our instincts?
On our run the other day, with our watches chirping happily in the clear autumnal air, Joni mentioned that where she volunteers as a high school cross country coach, there is talk of banning GPS watches from races. As she explained it, one consideration is “leveling the playing field,” by not allowing a potential advantage to those who can afford the pricey GPS devices. Another consideration is to make sure the kids are developing pace sense, and learning to read their own bodies. I’m not sure it’s possible to put that genie back in the bottle, but I do think that the concern forces us acknowledge that real-time data is not always helpful. Sometimes, hearing a split time has a demotivating effect, for example, when a runner hears that she or he is on a faster pace than planned, and immediately slows down for fear that it’s not sustainable. I wonder how many PRs are lost that way?
As for me, I go through phases of loving the information that devices can provide, and tossing them aside and running with no watch at all. These days, I’m liking my GPS watch, and I use it on almost every run to see how my pace changes, especially as I warm up and become fully engaged. But I’m not saving more than a small fraction of the data, and I give my solemn promise that I will never post my runs to any social media platform. In a few months, I’ll probably be tired of it all, and go back to running au naturel.
But in the meantime, I’m happy to be trotting around on Sunday morning with such a sophisticated instrument attached to my wrist. Why wouldn’t I be delighted to own such a marvel of technology? Nevertheless, to remain in the good graces of my running buddies, I’ll make sure to turn off the sound next time.