Saturday, October 10, 2015

Runner's High

This story starts about five years ago when I first realized that combining my fondness for running, maps, and cool watches in one technological device was possible and affordable, even if it did barely fit on my wrist. I bought a Garmin Forerunner 305. It's essentially a stopwatch integrated with a GPS, heart rate monitor, and computer, so I can know where I am, how fast I'm going, and how hard my body is working to achieve it, all at once. And then I can upload the resulting data to my laptop and stare at it in tables and graphs and maps to come to conclusions like "I get really tired when I run up mountains" and "I should run faster." I used to come to such conclusions without the technology, but now I have data to back it up. It's ludicrous how much more fun it is to go running when you get statistics at the end. I don't remember how I ever went running without a box on my wrist telling me if I was doing it right or not.

I took my GPS watch in my flight bag everywhere I went, so that if I had time to go running at the end of the day, I'd have the motivation of knowing how far and fast I was going, and also so I could activate the "Return to Start" feature. Return to Start gives turn-by-turn directions to get me back to the hotel, regardless of how identical the suburban streets, wooded trails, or gravel road turn-offs appear to be. I don't know that I would be still wandering around a highway truck stop somewhere without it, but there's more oxygen deprivation in my brain after fifteen kilometres of pushing my pace than after five hours of sucking supplemental oxygen through my nose at 17,000'. It's nice not to have to worry which forks I took in the trail network of an unfamiliar town.

I have my data all in Garmin's Training Center software: years of runs from Alaska to Florida and many where I have to zoom out on the little map several times before I figure out which little town with limited map information is traced by the record of my exertions. I like to review this data and use the Training Center "Compare" feature to virtually race the years-ago Aviatrix. (I'm pretty sure I can still take her). But while I've become sleeker, faster and more resilient with the years, the watch hasn't fared as well. It became harder to charge, and reluctant to connect to the computer to give up its data. The beeping sounds stopped working, and then it started shutting off in mid-workout. It's well out of warrantee, and the model is discontinued, so I had to choose a replacement. I could probably export the data in a standard format. Garmin is so prevalent in the GPS field that any manufacturer that couldn't convert or use their formats might be a little silly. But my first choice was just to stick with Garmin.

Their website is a mess of poor feature explanations. It doesn't suggest an upgrade path from the 305 to another product. I didn't find an overview on what the focus of the Forerunner, vivo-, or fēnix lines is, nor could I see any coherent logic to the Forerunner model numbers and suffixes.

I thought I'd had an e-mail conversation about this back when the Forerunner was still available and one could send it in to a Garmin-approved dealer for a flat-rate "repair" (obviously a replacement with a reconditioned model, but it was worth the $75 for me back then). Mining my e-mail archive for "GPS watch" found me all my old blog posts that mention "GPS" and "watch". The insane detail I included allowed me to relive some interesting flights and revisit all manner of places. No wonder people who weren't on the flights to begin with enjoyed reading them. This has somewhat inspired me to find a way to keep blogging about them. Perhaps I'll talk to the owner about the blog.

I tore myself away from my former adventures to google up second hand explanations and information on features and backwards compatibility of Garmin products. There are SO many models. Finally I decided to artificially limit my choices by going to a store and making my selection from only what they had. I took my flaky old Forerunner with me, and on the bus ride there, noticed that the crack between the layers of the case was quite wide. With no prying or wiggling, I lifted the face of the watch right off the back, revealing its electronic innards. Well no wonder it wasn't staying on, charging and connecting. I was lucky it hadn't fallen apart during a run. I feared I had killed it by carrying it with me everywhere, including into the flight levels in an unpressurized airplane.

The higher you go in the atmosphere, the less air there is on top of you, thus the less pressure you feel, so that instead of being all squished together to sea level pressure, the molecules are all spread out. One breath takes in less oxygen, unless I supplement it from a tank, which I do, through the aforementioned nose tubes. Anything with air sealed into it that I bring up from ground level retains the same pressure inside that it had on the ground. As it ascends, the differential between the inside pressure and the outside pressure increases, producing a force acting to expand the sealed container. The tank full of breathing oxygen is cylindrical, and its strong walls and robust valves are inspected weekly to ensure that as the pressure outside the tank decreases, the tank will not rupture, bulge or leak from the added force. Potato chips are deliberately packaged with trapped air, to protect the chips, and their bags will bulge out drum-tight, and sometimes burst, as we ascend. The gases in our intestines and ear canals expand and escape through the usual routes. I was afraid that the air sealed into my GPS watch damaged it. But then I realized that the Forerunner 305 isn't waterproof, and my Timex wristwatch, which works perfectly, is. (I'd tell you what model Timex, but it's so old that all the words have worn away, and the chunks of decorative plastic stuff have fallen off, leaving a bare case with buttons on it). A little more research showed me that plenty of people had their Forerunners come apart, sometimes falling off bike mounts and/or being run over by cars.

I got to the store and interrogated the clerk about the selection. I was almost ready to buy a Garmin Forerunner 225. It has the heart rate monitor integrated in the watch itself, with no need for a chest strap. It has a built-in accelerometer to give pace and distance information on indoor treadmill runs. "What about winter?" I asked. "Can I use it with a chest strap in the winter, when I wear the watch on the outside of long-sleeved garments?" To answer this question, the clerk went not to the Garmin website, but straight to the blog of DC Rainmaker, an obsessive sports technology reviewer. I'd encountered one of his reviews while googling for compatibility information earlier, and not noticed that everything I could ever want to know about pretty much any sports watch is on this guy's blog. The Forerunner 225 will pair with a chest strap, for people who mount it on bicycle handlebars, as well as winter runners, but it was missing a couple other features that I wanted. Indeed none of the watches they carried had the Back to Start feature, so I went home without buying any of them, and went back to DC Rainmaker's site.

Ray Maker (get it?) conveys the excitement of taking a new electronic toy out of the shipping box, gazing at its packaging, and then breaking the shrinkwrap. He includes photographs detailing the plastic bags and twist ties containing all the sub-components of the products. He does more running, biking, and swimming to test one device for a review than some buyers will log in the lifetime of their device. Every review is ridiculously detailed. Some people would say too detailed. So a little like many of my blog entries, if I did way more research. It parallels the way I'd like to blog if I had the diligence to drill down to the technological and legal root of everything I said, rather than speculating and drawing on knowledge already in my head. It made me cheer a little when I found a typo now and again, on his site, because it just goes to show that typo-free is not a requirement for an insanely awesome blog. He also displays a lot of integrity: he borrows and returns all reviewed gear despite the fact that his reviews are clearly enough work to deserve a lot of freebies. If you run or bike and like gear, you almost certainly already know his site, but if you don't you're in for a treat. If you never do anything more energetic than opening the refrigerator, but just like tech, especially GPS, you'll probably still want to read his site. The comparison tool there allowed me to quickly determine that the correct watch for my needs is the Forerunner 310XT. It wasn't at the store nor prominent on Garmin's website because it is ALSO being discontinued. I decided to get one now, through a site DC Rainmaker partners with, to compensate him for the work he does. I had some trouble with that site, so posted a comment on his blog, and as I was already thinking of blogging about the experience, I signed the comment "Aviatrix."

It turns out that DC Rainmaker is a long-time reader of Cockpit Conversation. It made me feel like a member of an elite when he asked if I was that Aviatrix. As I told him, some days I’m convinced that there are far fewer people on the Internet than is generally thought. Maybe it’s just you, me, the awesome people who comment on our blogs, and a lot of Chinese spambots.

Meanwhile I ordered a Forerunner 310XT somewhere else, bound my Forerunner 305 together with rubber bands, found it worked perfectly, glued it together with silicone sealant (as recommended by several people on the Internet), and am currently in high level discussions with my printer on why it should print the return mailing label for the 310XT. When the 305 gasps out its final beep I'll do this again, probably with a whole new set of features. I might get one of the "lifestyle" watches that track your every move, including sleeping.


Paul Tomblin said...

I had a 310xt, which got upgraded to a 910xt when garmin did a return for repair for me. Both the 310xt and 919xt worked great for kayaking, so they're nice and waterproof. I recently dropped my 910xt on the road where it got run over by multiple cars and the screen shattered. I replaced it with a 920xt, which is kind of a weird combination of the features of the 910xt, a Fitbit (step counting and movement reminders) and an Apple Watch (showing you phone notifications). It has "return to start" as well as saved locations and courses.

One thing you'll find though is that Garmin doesn't support the activity center software anymore - they want you to upload to their Garmin Connect web site instead. It has many of the same features and some newer better ones.

Aviatrix said...

Yeah, I noticed that. I don't consider being forced to store my data in the cloud to be a plus. I have years of data on my running, all stored on my computer, and GTC lets me instantly compare myself to the 2010 Aviatrix, or find another run I did at a given altitude, or what route I ran in Thunder Bay, regardless of the crappiness of a given hotel's wifi. I was hoping that despite Garmin no longer supporting GTC, I would be able to upload data from the 310XT or its successor to GTC. We'll see.

Sue said...

When I was shopping for a fitness tracker earlier this year, I stumbled on the DC Rainmaker site and was blown away -- the guy is awesome. I ended up buying a Garmin VivoFit, which I've worn continuously on my wrist for over 9 months now (I only take it off to shower). I don't use the chest-strap heart-rate monitor, except when I run or do high-intensity intervals training. I also decided not to upload any data, because I figured it would be too discouraging. But I like the VivoFit a lot -- it suits a basically sedentary person like me. Though I work in Information Technology, I'm not a real gadget geek (I use a $5 Tracfone and a 15 year-old Swatch watch).

Paul Tomblin said...

I don't think you can upload from the 310XT to GTC - you have to use a little ANT+ dongle in your laptop with Garmin Express. You definitely can't from the 920XT - as a matter of fact, because I tethered it to my iPhone, as soon as I finish my workout it uploads to Garmin Connect.

I've also heard people complain that GTC doesn't work on Windows 10. I use Mac so I can't verify that for myself, but GTC does actually still run on the latest version of Mac OS.

I also just noticed that GTC has an option under "Edit" to send all selected or all Activities to Garmin Connect.