Part of my BABWTR (BabyWater) series. My quest to turn myself into a Bad-Ass Back-Woods Trail-Runner. The series is most satisfying if you start reading at #1.
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“What I really want is a way for Susan to track my location while I run… oh, and I need to be able to send her a message if I get hurt or lost.” I made this comment to some co-workers one afternoon when we were talking about running watches. They all looked at me like I was an idiot.
Alex replied: “Hmmm, that sounds a little like my smartphone.”
I don’t have a cell phone. I haven’t had one since I left my previous job nine years ago. This was before the proliferation of smartphones, so I’ve never owned one. I had a flip. For years, not having a phone was seen as a cool, edgy, line in the sand – resistance to modern intrusion. When I told people I didn’t have a phone, their typically answer was “Huh, really? Good for you!” Many people mentioned how they’d like to be less reliant on their own phone.
A couple of years ago, this response began to change. Now I usually hear resigned frustration. My refusal to carry a cell phone is viewed as an oddity, something weird. Something people can’t understand. While I don’t have a phone, I do have a long list of reasons why I don’t want one. But I’m not writing about phones, I’m writing about running. I’ll save my cell phone rants for another occasion.
Using a smartphone as my running watch won’t work anyway. I spend much of my running time in areas where cell reception is spotty… or non-existent. Last spring, I treated myself to a running/writing retreat. I rented a cabin in a campground on the Appalachian Trail. It was a quick get away, just one night. Two nice runs, two long writing sessions, and a grilled steak dinner. I borrowed Susan’s phone and promised her that I would check-in before and after each of my runs – to let her know I finished up safely.
Just before my first run, after I parked, stretched, snacked, and peed, I tried to call Susan to say I was heading out on my run. Nothing, no cell reception at all. I got back in the car, drove out of the park, and up to the top of the closest mountain to make my check-in call. The next day was worse. I couldn’t find reception anywhere near the trail-head. I finally took my run without making my call. Twenty miles of running, zero minutes of cell reception. No, the smartphone idea isn’t going to work.
My back-country skills suck. Maps confuse me, I’m inept with directions. I’m easily lost. Even when I tell Susan where I’m planning to run, I usually wind up someplace completely different. Veered off on the wrong path, running north instead of south. This used to seem less important. I couldn’t run much mileage – six or seven miles on a big day. Almost all of my runs were out my back door, out on the equestrian trails surrounding the Gettysburg Battlefield. Never more than a quarter mile from a road. But even on these short jaunts, I sometimes worried. At times it was cold, single digit cold. The trails were icy and slick. A hard fall on an ice-glazed, rocky trail – fifty yards away from a park road – could be frozen-solid-fatal.
Over the past year, my mileage has exploded. Changes in form, shoes and diet have let me rapidly increase my weekly long run from around seven miles to as long as I want. My distance is now mostly limited by the amount of time I have for a run, and finding a place where I can safely run without getting lost. I get bored running on roads. My ten-mile trail loop around the Battlefield has become too familiar. And too flat. And too short. But a quick drive will take me to Michaux State Forest. An endless network of trails and fire roads with hills steeper than I want to think about. Unlimited miles for me to run, if I can just manage to find my way back to my car.
When I read American trail running magazines, I’m usually reading about the Rocky Mountains. Huge trail networks rising directly out of Colorado ski towns. The trails aren’t crowded, per se, but the magazines describe scenes where runners frequently cross paths with a nod or a “Hey!” Enough runners to create traffic. Sparse, maybe, but traffic all the same.
Central Pennsylvania trails are different. They’re remote and isolated. When I park my car at a trail-head, it’s usually the only car there. And then I head into the woods for a run. I’m all alone. Last-person-on-earth alone. This is reckless, dangerous. A ten mile radius around a parked car yields a two hundred thousand acre search area. An incapacitating fall could lead to death. One of those found-by-a-hiker-in-the-spring deaths.
I’ve been pushing my off-grid running far too long. This has bothered me for years. Once, on a family vacation in Acadia National Park, I decided to run back to our campsite from the beach. Looking at the map, I estimated six or seven easy miles. Two hours later, I jogged into the campground. I got confused by the map. Not lost, exactly, but so hesitant, I back-tracked several times to make sure I was heading the right way. As I ran in the access road, Susan was driving out, certain that I was run over by an RV. Or lost in the massive park. A simple check-in message would saved a lot of worry.
Enter the SPOT. It’s a personal GPS tracker. In a era where watches and phones are turning into mini-computers, the SPOT is quaintly specific. It’s an electronic device, the size of large running watch, and it does just two things. It provides a real-time Internet display for someone at home showing where I am, and it sends one of four preprogrammed distress messages via email when I hit the proper button.
I’ve been putting off this purchase for a while now, waiting for this technology to show up in a watch. My Garmin Forerunner 10 is a disaster. The wrist-band is broken, held together with wire and duct tape. The last time I plugged it into my PC (over a year ago) the firmware started to update, and the watch displayed an out of memory error. Clearly it’s time for a new watch. But they keep on improving, so I keep on waiting. Here’s my thinking: Watches are already GPS connected, so of course, they will simply embed GPS tracking and messaging. It’s just a matter of time.
I now know this isn’t going to happen. The Apple Watch and the Timex One have demonstrated this. These two gadgety watches have jumped past the obvious benefits and simplicity of GPS directly to cellular service. Watches are acting more and more like smartphones every month.It’s more important to runners to be able to access Facebook and Spotify than maintain their tracking signal.
Okay, I understand this is a central Pennsylvania trail problem. Most runners have cell coverage, but I almost never do – I assume. But I don’t really know, because I don’t own a cell phone.
If you’ve never heard about GPS trackers like the SPOT, I’m not surprised. My repeated queries about GPS devices like these on running community websites were never answered. Or if they were, it was other runners incredulously asking what was wrong with my smartphone. In my research, I found that there are only a couple of brands of trackers made for adventurers. For folks like trail runners, backpackers, sailors and 4X4 enthusiasts. As it turns out, the primary market for devices like the SPOT is to LoJack your kid.
There are at least a dozen child-oriented GPS trackers available on the market. As I waded through a collection of these on a CNet product review, I found the SPOT. It ranked low as a tracker for children – something about lacking the ability to receive a “Come home now!” message from mom. But I’m not a child. The SPOT meets my needs perfectly. It shows where I am, where I’ve been, and it’s simple to operate. The distress signals even include longitude and latitude coordinates for those rescuers I hope to never need.
And it’s inexpensive: the device itself is free (after a rebate), and the service plan, at about $20 per month, was one of the cheaper plans available. It’s a lot like term insurance – a total waste of money… unless I need it. And then it’s priceless.
Tomorrow will be my first SPOT tracked run. I’m excited to see how well it works; how accurate the mapping is; if my test distress messages make it to Susan’s PC. For this run, I’ll keep close to home – one more time around the Battlefield . But after this test, I’ll start pushing my boundaries. I’ll leave my car in a Michaux parking lot and see where my legs take me. I’ll still worry about getting lost or hurt, but I’m far less worried about never coming home.
For a thoughtful SPOT review, visit http://chasethesummit.com