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Jan. 12 2010 - 8:54 am | 947 views | 0 recommendations | 9 comments

Imprisoned by Garmin

Garmin GPS Watch

Image by slgckgc via Flickr

“I had planned to go for a seven-mile run around the lake, but my Garmin battery died so I turned around after two miles.”

When I read that sentence on a popular running blog a few months ago, I felt the blood-boiling urge to smash every last GPS-device-for-runners on the planet into a billion bits.  Perhaps taking out the satellite would have been easier.

The matter-of-factness of the sentence makes clear just how deeply ingrained in our running consciousness the technology already is, only a few years after its introduction to our sport.  The implied rule is unequivocal: No GPS, no running.

I’m all for using technology to enhance our lives, even in so primal a pastime as running.  Technology touches running through iPods, watches, hydration systems, moisture-wick clothing, sports drinks, Gu’s, even our very shoes (though one could argue running shoes do more harm than good).  And GPS has its place: I know that last week when I was lost in the woods in twenty degree weather during my first-ever 50K, it would have brought me immeasurable comfort to know that I had Ponce-de-Leon-in-a-box waiting at my beck and call, should my lips turn the color of cobalt.

For navigation, I get it (though not all running GPS’s do navigation).  But for running to be so wrapped up with GPS technology that a runner can’t leave home without her Garmin makes me want to vomit in my Vibrams.  Is it knowing your exact mileage that’s so captivating?  Is it the lack of knowledge, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you ran 8.02 miles and not 7.86 miles that keeps you imprisoned in the house when the battery dies?  If so, I suggest you pull the plug for a while.

Running, at its core, is not about miles or kilometers — we made those measures up.  It’s not about hours, minutes and seconds — we made those up too.  Your body doesn’t care about numbers; it knows only how it feels.  Long ago, we ran to chase and to escape.  For most of us, that’s not what it’s about anymore, but that spirit lives on in our desire to run, to move our bodies and to be free.  Put simply, running is about that movement, no matter the speed, time, direction, or distance.  If you’ve done it for some time, that movement is fun.  And no watch-connected-to-a-satellite can tell me when to stop having fun.

I know that for some, training is about numbers.  I did the whole numbers thing when I was training to qualify for Boston; in fact, it was only with a very specific “x miles at y pace” program that I was eventually able to qualify.  I didn’t use a GPS, but I can appreciate that knowing exact mileage would have freed me from having to run mindlessly around a track so much in my training.

In that role, GPS is a liberator.  To the blogger mentioned above, it’s a jailer.  GPS can do a lot of wonderful things for runners, and I’m sure at times it has quite literally been a lifesaver.  But make no mistake: Running and GPS aren’t inextricably tied for all eternity.  Just as you can run without music, Gatorade, and even shoes, you can run without a watch, a plan, and yes, a GPS.

Try it.  Just run.


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  1. collapse expand

    Beautiful! So true.

    I’ve actually struggled not so much with GPS dependency, but with heart rate monitor addiction. My Polar RS800 tells me whether I’m in zone 1, 2, 3, or 4 — and when a triathlon coach told me that heart rate training was *incredibly* important, I started wearing the damn chest strap every workout.

    So, imagine my horror when I left the gadget at a friend’s house last week…and had to train using common sense (“am I breathing hard? or not?”). Pretty damn liberating. So true that giving gadget-free training a try can be a wonderful thing.

  2. collapse expand

    At what point will some essential Darwinism will take over, when the GPS-dependent lose the gizmo and all DIE while running in circles?

    How many otherwise imaginative people will never know the pleasures of getting lost and then finding their way again, using a map and dead reckoning only? The brain needs that.

    • collapse expand

      Scott: unfortunately, I wonder the same thing about Darwinism as it relates to the GPS in my car. My sense of direction is so bad that if my GPS ever died while I was in the inner city, I’d never be heard from again.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Matt — What irked me was the same thing that irked you: That a dedicated runner stopped running and turned for home when the GPS failed. C’mon, have some minimal sense of minimal adventure on foot.

        In the car. . .eh, do what you have to do, I suppose, GPS or no GPS. Lately, I’ve heard stories of people getting lost in their car due to bad GPS directions but then using the device to plot another course that led to the proper destination.

        Who knows — maybe the GPS are purposefully rigged to force people into a little navigational creativity and their reward will be a GPS that works once the device has detected a little imagination in its user.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    There is something funny about technology in sports. It might ever-so-slightly raise the bar, but once everyone has it, the field is leveled so people who thought they could buy an advantage are right back where they started. My sport, cycling is even more gismo-holic than runners. You can get a Garmin GPS that also collects power output data from you PowerTap or other power measuring device. You can conceivably track speed, distance, time, average speed, maximum speed, elevation gain and loss, power output, max power, average power and heart rate. Then of course you NEED a COACH to interpret all that data! One could spend as much time downloading and discussing the ride data then the ride actually took! I had a PowerTap on my bike for a while. I found I was constantly looking at the dang thing. Every time there was a hard effort on a group ride, I would check it…’900 watts..not to shabby’ I would say to myself. I never went the full route of hiring a coach but I really don’t think it would have made that much difference. In the end, I took it off and sold it. I found that if I put in the time and effort, I get faster. The only measurement I need is to be able to stick with the guys I know are fast.

  4. collapse expand

    This article was very nice to read!! I miss running with a passion!! In Iraq I hurt my back in an IED accident. This has changed my life forever.
    During training for my first half marathon, I also lost my heart rate monitor and my GPS. In the beginning it was difficult. Thanks to my training & constant listening to my body I was able to enjoy the run and get my runners high back. After that moment I never relied on gadgets again.
    Enjoy running – I miss it – and its freedom! It’s the best high ever!!

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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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