I went out on “black friday” to take advantage of sales to upgrade my phone. I got a free phone but also ended up buying an expensive pair of wireless headphones that will not remotely stay in my ears while running, and a $75 programmable robotic ball I thought would entice my cat to run around more. She’s terrified of it. I’m trying to use it to teach her to code now.
I tell you all this because I currently own more fitness related tech than ever before — and I’m dissatisfied with most of it.
There’s a long history to this. My relationship with technology can only be described as “it’s complicated.” I have a reputation for dropping things, losing things, and exploring the limits of how wet my technology can get without sudden death. Over the past two decades, my water/coffee spilling habit has killed three computers, at least three iphones, a client’s fancy speaker phone, a first generation $600 ipod, and pretty little red nano. The nano death was a spectacular episode of clumsiness where I somehow caught my earbuds in my hairbrush and swung the ipod into the toilet when I was taking off my running clothes.
I suspect I have some sort of undercurrent direct signal to apple as “client zero,” with a task force taking in all of my data to continually innovate for the chaotic user. And tech HAS caught up to my abuses — a few years I dropped my iphone4 off the side of a boat into a lake in Myanmar, where it drowned for several minutes before the boatman kindly dived for it; about two hours later, it gently just came to life. Six months later, I dropped the same phone while walking on a stunning beach in South Africa. An hour later I found just the corner sticking out, submerged in sand and the sea as the tide rolled in over it. I picked it up, shook it hard to get the sand and salt out of the ports and tossed it in the boot of the car. Two hours later, I got a text from my sister. Someone said at the time “I think that phone is… getting… stronger.”
Now my relationship has evolved in a different way. I destroy fewer things, but I seem to keep buying more things, and they do many more things, and they get more complex, and they never make me happy. Especially around fitness.
I’ve always run with some kind of headphones. For years, I had this little “sports walkman” that strapped on my arm and got me the CBC. I did endless long runs listening to whatever happened to be on — even the hated Cross-Country Checkup. I had a watch that kept track of the amount of time I was running. I’d write it down and estimate distance based on my rough pace. That was it. For years. It worked.
A few years ago, I “upgraded” to a simple garmin watch with GPS, that gave me distance and pace. I didn’t really ask the right questions when I (impulsively) bought it, and didn’t realize until I used it that I couldn’t upload the data. I had to write it down But that was fine. For a few years, I ran with this second generation basic tech: music or podcasts via iphone with the earbuds that came with the phone; basic garmin watch.
This all functioned… okay. I was never really satisfied. The watch didn’t hold a charge very long — it couldn’t seem to do more than 7 hours of GPS, which meant it was useless on a long bike ride. It took forever to sync to satellites when I turned it on. And I noticed that although I’d trained well and run hard for years with very little info, I’d get edgy at not having more information. This tech created an insatiable appetite for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted.
Last winter, I got caught up in the social media swirl of tracking my runs and rides through a strava app on my phone, feeling satisfied as cycling distance added up over the year, enjoying the kudos and “thumbs up!” from my friends, a facebook contact I haven’t seen since I was 20, and even — weirdly — my bank manager. I don’t think anything actually changed because I was recording and sharing this info, but I sure felt virtuous every time someone patted me for getting out the door.
Around the same time, my unsatisfying garmin watch died. I had a cheap analogue computer on my bike that measured distance based on wheel rotations, but when the watch died, somehow the conflation of strava, the fitbits and step-counters dangling from everyone I knew, and shininess of fancy bike computers everyone on my bike rally team seemed to have made me decide that not only did I need a new running watch, I also needed a bike computer. And maybe a fitbit.
I am really bad at deciphering tech stuff before I purchase it. I seem to need to use it before I know if it will work for me or not. (I had an ex who thought a romantic and practical gift for me was a subscription to consumer reports. I did not appreciate it). This time, I posted some questions on facebook about what kinds of tech people used and why they liked it, but the answers didn’t really help.
I ended up going to MEC, which I thought had the best selection and prices, and bought a (pricey) mid-range bike computer (Garmin Edge 520) and a garmin forerunner 15 watch. The guy helping me didn’t really understand the tech that well, and I got the watch home and discovered that because it didn’t have bluetooth, I have to actually physically clip it to my computer to upload any data. But hey, if I wear this clunky watch all day instead of my pretty european “timepiece,” it gives me steps! Which means… something, right? (Nothing. It means nothing to me. I don’t change any behaviours because of this).
The Edge was a bit fussy to figure out, but once I got the hang of it, I mostly like it. I did spend one whole 105 km ride with the display shouting OFF COURSE! at me. People keep mocking me for leaving my $30 wheel-rotation counter on the bike as backup, but I was grateful for it that day. But the Edge does what it’s supposed to do, and when I sync it with strava, I get a certain satisfaction in looking at my kilometers add up over the year, looking at speed, tracking my mastery of Brimley hill.
The rest? Sigh.
Like the older generation Garmin watch, this one still takes forever to sync to satellites — at least 5 minutes in front of my building. Which is a significant chunk of time to bounce around waiting to start a 20 minute run. It doesn’t have a lot of storage space, so I have to physically hook it up to my computer frequently. And Garmin seems to upgrade the software constantly, and an occasional upgrade seems to render the GPS sync impossible. It’s… fine. But not joyful. (And I can’t be the only person who doesn’t understand these limits based on the specs on the website).
And then there is the whole matter of headphones. Back in the sony walkman days, I had the little set that fit over my head, never fell off and gave me tinny but reliable sound. Which was fine for the radio. This current generation of headphones has excellent sound, excellent noise-cancelling properties, and hefty price tags. And I need good headphones because I’m on conference calls for my job half the day, so they are dual purpose.
But here’s the thing. The in-ear ones don’t stay in your bloody ears. And when I got my new phone, I got an iphone6, not a 7, for price and specifically because it still has a headphone jack. But the sleek, waterproof case I bought for it means that I have to add this … clumsy, inevitably-lost extender thing to use wired headphones. (I’ve already had to replace a lost garmin watch charger once). Again, this wasn’t clear until I pulled it out of the box.
So now I’m in the land of expensive wireless headphones. And when I bought the phone and cat robot, I bought a fancy set of Bang and Olufson wireless headphones that will NOT stay in my ears unless I’m sitting at my desk. (You can’t try out in-ear headphones before buying them. Like underpants). They also have a pretty touchy battery life. So a week later I ordered a set of wireless powerbeats with over-the-ear clips. Miraculously, these work beautifully for work and running, and have a pretty solid charge time, but they are also hard to whip out of your ears quickly, so if you have to interact with other human beings, there’s a buffering time. Also, another $225.
So now my mobile tech looks like this.
This doesn’t include my mini-ipad and the analog computer still on my bike. I have to constantly track whether my phone, watch, headphones and bike computer are properly charged. (They all have different chargers, of course). And then there’s the mystery of itunes and icloud continually, unexpectedly booting my running playlists off my phone. It’s all Beyonce, all the time now.
Technology makes all sorts of things possible. But it also adds this crazy level of anxiety, mental tracking, irritation, dissatisfaction and unnecessary expense. That stuff up there? Not simple.
When I made my FB post about which running watch to buy, one of the guys I knew said “Don’t buy any. Just run. Run naked.” I keep hearing his voice when I pace around waiting to start a run because my GPS hasn’t shaken hands yet or wanting to throw suddenly dead headphones on the ground. And wondering what this really is doing to my brain. I know what it’s doing to my bank account.