Running Fiesta

Writing and running in Austin, TX.

If I’ve Learned Only One Thing: Lock the Bezel!

As many already know, I have a love/hate relationship with my Garmin. When I mention it, non-runners often go off on rants about their dash-mounted GPS devices. They don’t realize that Garmin knows where the real money is–the distance/time/pace obsessed crowd known as runners.

To a runner, “Garmin” means a wristwatch on crack. The Forerunner series (mine is a 405), is a GPS-enabled monstrosity. It tracks your distance, elevation, and pace in real-time, as well as – with the optional chest-belt accessory – your embarrassingly elevated heart rate. It can count in miles or kilometers, and beeps helpfully at the conclusion of every “lap”. If you want, you can even set up a “virtual running partner”. (This is a setting where the display turns black and mocks you if you do not keep up with a pre-specified pace. Even if you do keep up, it constantly updates just how far ahead you are, in both miles and seconds, which for me has lead to a healthy case of numbers-induced neuroticism.)
The features of the Garmin are a runner’s dream. Where Google’s pedometer saved us from driving circles around the neighborhood to measure routes out with the odometer of a Subaru, Garmin saved us from even having to look at a map beforehand. As long as you have a general idea of how far 3, 5, 7, etc. miles will take you from your front door, you can just head out, hit the start button, and run until the watch says your done. (Although if you under-estimate, this might involve running up and down your street a few times and arousing a mixture of suspicion and concern in the neighbors.)
Unfortunately, the implementation is not quite as good as the specification. First off, the Garmin is a “one-size-fits-all” affair with a watch face large enough to put a men’s Rolex to shame. Second, if you’ve ever run GPS on any sort of mobile device, like say an iPhone, you know those things can really suck down a battery. I can get maybe 3 runs out of the watch before I need to charge it over night. Third, apparently those satellites are sneaky pieces of hardware. Sometimes the watch connects in seconds. Other times I stand as still as possible at the top of our porch stairs for minutes at a time, my hand extended toward the sky as I ponder whether the leaves of a magnolia tree can actually deflect a GPS signal.
Most of the functions of the watch are operated via the touch-sensitive bezel. You tap one place to connect to the satellites, another to see the time of day, and a third to access your stored runs. When a menu appears, you run your finger around the bezel to scroll through the options. This navigation is fairly intuitive in the era of the iPod. There’s just one problem, and if you’ve ever tried to answer an iPhone while washing dishes, you know what it is. Touch-sensitive interfaces cannot handle moisture. At all.
My Garmin and I don’t usually get into a fight until about 3 miles in to a run. That’s right around the time when I start sweating just enough to have a drop of sunblock drip into my eye. (Ow, ow, owwww!) The situation is usually something like this: As I frantically try to swipe the sunscreen off my retina, the light we are approaching suddenly turns red. Now I have to stop the timer on the Garmin, or my 10:34 pace will fall to a 14:50 as we stand on a corner with a “Push for Walk Signal” button that I’m pretty sure isn’t actually connected to anything. I hit the stop button and the Garmin beeps – but doesn’t stop. Instead it switches to the damn virtual running partner!!!
I angrily jab at the bezel, desperate to make that mocking black bar go away. The Garmin offers a placid “beep”, but doesn’t change the display. I jab at it again. The backlighting feature (s0 helpful for all those midnight runs) starts blinking on and off. Forget stopping the timer; now all I want to do is get back to my normal pace/distance screen. I tap the bezel one more time. This sets off a symphony of beeps that I’m pretty sure is Morse code for “stop messing with me you incompetent fool!!!”
Since I’m so convinced the watch is screaming at me, I start screaming back at it. “No! Shut up! I hate you, you piece of crap!!” (One of my running partners recently told me that the first time this happened, she was mildly concerned I was developing a case of Tourette’s.) Now worried that this cacophany is going to irritate other runners, I fall to the back of the pack and start running with my left harm held straight out behind my back, as if the extra foot and a half will somehow shield their inner ears.
After that, I wait it out. If the Garmin is feeling generous, it will eventually stop beeping and continue tracking my run (at a 14:50 pace). If it’s not, it will announce that it has lost the satellite signal and then inform me that it is 6:43 am on Tuesday, May 25th. Clearly I should have stayed in bed.
Frustrated by this ongoing battle, I finally asked another runner – a guy from work who runs his marathons in the 2:30 range – if he ever has problems with his Garmin.
Him: “No, it’s awesome.”
Me: “Really? Mine just goes crazy sometimes. Beeping and flashing and stuff.”
Him: “Hmm, that’s weird. Well, it doesn’t like sweat, you know. I always lock the bezel.”
Me: “Huh?”
Him: “Yeah, I just get it to the screen I want and lock it so it can’t change.”
I’ve worked in the tech industry for five years. I should have known. A workaround.
Sure I can’t always get Garmin to unlock at a stoplight, but at least I’ve managed to cut back on serenading my running group with electronic beeps. Even better, this uneasy truce means I don’t have to give up on my OCD tracking of pace and distance! Now all I have to do is go on gmap-pedometer.com before I run and find a route without any stoplights.

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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