My streak of running in events without paying an entry fee will continue in the month of May. Long time readers know that I have surreptitiously run several races as Jill, a friend with a fear of commitment insomuch as she pays entry fees and then finds a reason not to run the event. Next Saturday, I will run as another strong, confident woman, my friend Michelle. She probably doesn’t want me to say it, but Michelle has a running problem. She is addicted to road races, so much so that she double-booked herself next Saturday for two races held on opposite sides of the state. She opted to go to Bloomsday in Spokane, which gives me the opportunity to take her spot in a local 10K. Not only do I get a free entry, I don’t have any travel costs since the race starts five miles from my house.
Theoretically, I could avoid driving and parking altogether by running from my house to the starting line of the 10K event, which would make for an 11-mile run (assuming I could get a ride home from someone; 16 miles otherwise). However, the next day, I’m planning to run a practice half-marathon. Practice, you ask? Yes, practice. In three weeks, I will be running in the Capital City Marathon. More specifically, I’ll be running the second half of the marathon as one of the official pacers. I’m excited about this opportunity, and not just because I don’t have to pay an entry fee. I ran the Capital City Marathon last year, and I followed a pacer who helped me achieve a personal best marathon finish time. Andy rules!
I am anxious about being a pacer, as it means other people are depending on me to be consistent in my pace, which, of course, is the sole criterion for judging the quality of a pacer. In my case, I will be setting the pace for a group of folks hoping to run a marathon in 4 hours and 30 minutes, which works out to 10 minutes and 17 seconds per mile. This specificity presents a challenge for me as I’ve never kept good track of my pace. I run with a Timex Ironman watch with chronograph. It’s a classic, high quality device, but so was the Sony Walkman. It allows me to track my total time and split times if I’m running a course with accurate mileposts. However, it provides no information about how fast I’m going between mile markers. There are, of course, GPS-enabled “fitness trackers” on the market that provide immediate pace information, but I have not made the investment. Have I mentioned I’m cheap?
Fortunately, for me, in addition to a racing addiction, Michelle also has a sports watch addiction. I’m considering gathering her friends and family to stage an intervention. My Timex Ironman is the only watch I own. It’s my wrist’s little black dress. It goes with everything, but it doesn’t know much about how fast I run. Knowing that I didn’t have a fancy GPS watch, Michelle offered to let me borrow one of hers. First, she gave me a Polar M600, but that didn’t work out as it asked me to download an app, and when I pushed the button to do so, it told me I had failed. That’s not an uncommon occurrence for me on first encounter with new technology. With some embarrassment, I returned the watch to Michelle, confessing that the watch was smarter than I am. She immediately followed up with two other watches: a Polar M400 and a TomTom Spark fitness tracker. Neither of these watches required any downloading and both were highly tolerant of my random pushing of buttons. Without too much trouble, I was able to get them to record my pace. Ironically, in both cases, before the watches could start monitoring my running, I had to stand still for a full minute so they could synchronize with the satellite. That minute gave me a chance to think about the fact that Michelle owns at least four fitness tracking watches, not to mentioned any slinkier wristwatches she might wear with a little black dress. She has a problem, but I had my own problems to deal with.
I needed to give both watches a thorough test, so I headed out Saturday morning for a nine-miler wearing all three watches now in my possession. While both of Michelle’s fitness trackers offer a dozen or more data points about pace, time, distance, heart rate, etc., I wasn’t taking full advantage of those features. I had them both set on the basic pacing default along with my Timex’s chronograph.
The Polar watch gave me information about how fast I was going at each moment, an overall average pace for the run, and the total distance covered. The comparison of current pace to average pace was unnerving, as the current pace could swing two minutes per mile over the course of a few steps. That was problematic as, from my perspective, I was running the same speed the whole time. However, the average pace seemed to suggest I was running at the ideal rate. Apparently, I am a manic-depressive runner, but over time it all evens out.
The TomTom was set to show me the overall average pace, not my moment-to-moment play by play. Notably, it also let me know each time I had burned a thousand calories, which was nice as I was getting hungry and I liked knowing I could eat a pizza to refuel and just break even. Also interesting was that five minutes after I finished running, it said, “Excellent! You Reached Your Goal Today.” Of course, that was inexplicable as the TomTom had no idea what my goal was for the day. During the run, it vibrated for a second each time I traveled a mile. At first I thought the sensation was a heart attack warning sign, but I soon figured it out and took the opportunity to compare the TomTom to the Polar in terms of miles traveled. I found the TomTom seemed to think miles are longer than the Polar did. The gap between the two watches expanded with each mile. By the end, the TomTom said I had run 9 miles, but the Polar gave me credit for 9.07 miles. Not a huge difference, but it meant my average pace varied according to the two devices. According to Polar, I was hitting an ideal 10:15 per mile, notwithstanding the wild swings moment to moment. The TomTom said I was going 10:21 per mile, which would result in a disappointed group of marathoners arriving a little bit late for their desired finish time. It got me wondering what could explain the difference. Does Polar use a cheaper satellite that rounds down? Is one of the satellites closer, because I don’t how science works?
All that explains why on Sunday I will be running a practice half marathon, again with three watches and a friend who will be tracking our pace on her watch. It will be like an army of data analysts monitoring my performance. Based on our research, I’ll settle on a watch to use during the marathon when it will be my responsibility to deliver tired marathoners to their personal promised land. I’m sure it will all work out fine, and I will have Andy there to help keep track of the pace. If I manage to avoid screwing it up completely, I’ll be rewarded with a free entry to next year’s race, which is, of course, my goal. If I manage to enter a few more races for free I may be able to afford one of those fancy watches.
Thanks, Michelle, for connecting me with Andy and hooking me up with so many watches. I’m good to go.