Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Are You Wearing Too Much Damned Gear?

Note to Reader: I'm starting a short series of articles that seeks to challenge certain assumptions in ultrarunning. In some cases, we may find that certain assumptions are correct; while in others we may find a new and better viewpoint. This is the first article in the series. Enjoy!

Running has gotten too damned complicated.

Nine years ago I ran in cotton--from head to toe--and in shoes I bought from Famous Footwear.

Today, I have all the latest stuff. In the morning, after I put on my compression shorts, tights, socks, base layer, mid layer, vest, mittens and skull cap (my winter apparel, all of which is super-expensive), I attach my blinking red light and head lamp (so I can see and be seen in the pre-dawn hours), iPhone and iPod. Oh, and then I strap on my RoadID and Garmin GPS watch, along with my Timex Ironman so I know what time it is. Damn, I haven't put on my shoes yet. What should I wear today...this pair of Hokas, that pair of Hokas, or maybe my Kayanos or DS Trainers? Hmmmm. And where are my orthotics? While we're at it, my calves are a little sore today--maybe I should also wear my calf sleeves.

In the time I spend screwing around with my gadgets, I could have run an extra mile that might just pay off at the Leadville 100 in August. If that's a mile a day I'm missing because I'm screwing around with my gadgets, we're talking about 7 additional miles a week. Some weeks that could be the difference between 90 and 100 miles.

Yeah, running has gotten way too damned complicated (and expensive). I've gone soft and gotten too reliant on crap that has nothing to do with why I run: the pure love of it.

Memo to self: I don't need all this crap. Yeah, I need to stay warm, and I do like my GPS, but is all this other extra stuff really necessary? No. It's a distraction.

I think I enjoyed running the most back in the day when I didn't wear a GPS or iPod, and a cell phone was so small I barely knew it was there.

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us play right into the hands of advertisers and marketers. We get a RoadID because we're scared of getting hit by a car and being found by someone who doesn't know who we are. This is fear-based marketing at its best (or worst?). Then you have the iPod. We're told iPods help pass the time and get us focused. But have you ever listened to nature in all her beauty (her beauty sometimes being silence)? Isn't that the best music of all? Don't get me wrong; I LOVE my iPod. But do I need Eminem on every single run?

Now let's get dawn to the GPS watch, shall we? I know I'm on hallowed ground here. Many of us like to know how far we went, what our pace was, how much vertical we did, etc. But is that info really important? Granted, knowing how long you ran is pretty important, but why do we need to know exact pace, mileage and climb? We're not professionals, and so we shouldn't get caught in the trap of taking what we love to do in our free time so seriously when there's not a paycheck involved.

Last time I checked, I judge a great run not necessarily by the numbers on my watch, but by how I felt. There's such a thing as an awesome 6:00 mile and a crappy 6:00 mile, a strong 1,500-foot climb and a feel-like-death 1,500-foot climb. A GPS watch can't distinguish between the two, though maybe a heart rate monitor can. While we're on the subject of heart rate monitors, that's one gadget I've never gotten into. I don't see the point. I guess my heart's not in it.

Geez, how did the greats back in the day ever do it? All they had were a pair of shoes and cotton clothing and a stop watch! I'm surprised they could even walk, let alone set records. Imagine what Billy Mills or Roger Bannister could have done if they only had a Garmin on their wrists! Calf sleeves might have made them faster, too.

One of the most popular, followed ultrarunners in the world today is a guy who frequently runs shirtless, without socks and in super minimal shoes--and who sometimes lives for days in his truck up in the mountains living on little more than Nutella, gels and creek water. People follow what he's doing like he's some kind of a prophet. And yet, while we admire how he lives and runs (I admit I greatly admire him), we're strapping on gear out the wazoo that costs us money (that we could be saving or even donating to a worthy cause, such as the local track or cross country team) and has nothing to do with our passion for running. Maybe I'm missing something, but there seems to be a disconnect.

I don't want to keep ranting . What I do want to do is lay down the gauntlet. Next week I'm going to leave my iPhone at home. My iPod also will stay home. I'll keep wearing my RoadID and lights for my own safety since I do have a family to think about when I'm out there in the dark. I think I might also refrain from wearing my GPS on a few runs and instead just wear my good old fashioned Timex Ironman and estimate my mileage like I used to do back in the day.

While we're at it, do I really need to enter all my damned runs into a freaking website when my paper-based logs (which I've been keeping for several years) will suffice just fine?

Maybe simplifying will help me get in some extra mileage and time on my feet and remove some distractions that only take me away from the spiritual, meditative aspects of running--aspects that make me a better endurance athlete and person.

Are you willing to give anything up, even temporarily? If so, what?


  1. So you're leaving your GPS at home and wearing your timex instead. This can also be said as you're leaving your fully-featured wrist-device at home and bringing a slightly-less featured device instead.

    As a result of not having a GPS watch on your wrist, now when you get home you have to spend time figuring out how far you ran and then you have to spend time determining how fast you ran, using data from the glorified stopwatch you wore on your wrist anyway. With all that time, you could have gotten an extra mile in.

    Don't get me wrong, I see your point regarding having too much gear but minimalism for minimalism's sake is a completely different topic altogether. Either wear a watch or don't wear one - but if you wear one, I don't see the point in choosing a less-featured one.

  2. Steve: All good points, but it's about outlook. I'll never give up on my GPS--I love it. I'll continue to wear it, but I see no need to wear it everyday and especially on routes where I know the mileage. I find that GPS can encourage bad habits in me--for example, I pay too much attention to pace and not to feel. Sometimes I get fixated on mileage and run in circles until I hit a certain mileage. Also, it used to be that when I wanted to know what my speed was like I went to the track (once a week). With a GPS, I now go to the track less and instead convince myself that I can monitor my speed via my splits on the road. There is no substitute for intervals on the track! The big point I was trying to make is that running on feel can beneficial and maybe today we're relying too much on devices and not enough on our own intuition. We can become slaves to devices.

    That said, does it really matter what the exact mileage is? In my mind, no. What matters most is the quality of your run, which you can judge not by the numbers but by how you felt.


  3. "The big point I was trying to make is that running on feel can beneficial and maybe today we're relying too much on devices and not enough on our own intuition."

    That's fair, and a lot different than minimalism for minimalism's sake (or worse, minimalism because AK is a minimalist. And I admire him too.)

    "That said, does it really matter what the exact mileage is? In my mind, no."

    Perhaps you're right - however -mileage, approximate or precise, is a difficult thing to avoid thinking about, especially since the alternative you propose - running by feel - won't work for everybody. I, personally, cannot run by feel. The ultimate goal in most of my training is to force adaptation and, frankly, forcing adaptation is a painful process. If I ran purely by feel, hedonistic tendencies to slack off would take over and I'd never improve. My training is thus based on objective measurements like speed and distance, and "feeling" is a secondary consideration that tells me that perhaps it's time to take it easy for a week or change my diet or whatever. But when feeling becomes my primary consideration (as it sometimes does), my training becomes unproductive.

    Of course, all of us are like this to an extent. We all have goals based on objective measures, eg., "I will run 50 miles per week." That is a good thing.

    Bringing this back to the point, technology as opposed to minimalism for me is a matter of convenience. I generally shun expensive running gear - the $7 tank-top from Walmart is fine. But I do carry a nifty GPS on all of my outdoor runs. The ability to have a gizmo tell me that I ran 5 miles today and it took me 45 minutes and have it all logged automatically and then have my entire week/month/year collated into totals and averages is invaluable because I'm too damned lazy to do it manually. So to me, it's worth it.

    Finally, I wanted to say that this is a good post & discussion. Thanks, Wyatt.

  4. It's a tough balancing act, isn't it? Some runs I go too light, some runs I go to heavy.

    I try to keep it light all the time (although my definition of "light" is way different than AK's. Maybe it's my age).

    I don't mind the technology if it's unobtrusive. I never run with music (I like to hear my surroundings), but the GPS is fine. Some people are borderline Amish in looking down on high tech, but I'm not one of them. I just turn it on and run, and use it to keep track of sunset to avoid hungry critter encounters.

    The toughest thing for me is balancing the clothing, especially on high peak runs, where the temp can vary by 30 degrees and the wind by 30 mph!

  5. Wyatt -
    I think this is a great post and I agree with the spirit of what you are trying to do here.

    I am definitely a minimalist runner primarily because of cost. I pay enough in race fees and travel fees that I don't really want to compound that with hundred of dollars of gear. I try to buy only the stuff I cannot live without (a goretex jacket in case it rains during an ultra, a camelbak, a headlamp, etc...).

    The part I agree with the most is the GPS. I wear one on every run, but I do think we obsess about them. In my opinion, they ruin running in two ways. The first is the potential for injury and over training by feeding the ego and always trying to hit splits. Sometimes your body just isn't up to it. The way they ruin it is taking away our passion turning each run into a results driven exercise to meet some distance or pace goal.

  6. Hooray for cotton! But no way I'm giving up my iPod.

  7. Brownie: My prediction: Cotton makes a comeback. I do love technical fabrics.

    AJ: "The part I agree with the most is the GPS. I wear one on every run, but I do think we obsess about them. In my opinion, they ruin running in two ways. The first is the potential for injury and over training by feeding the ego and always trying to hit splits. Sometimes your body just isn't up to it. The way they ruin it is taking away our passion turning each run into a results driven exercise to meet some distance or pace goal." YOU NAILED IT!

    Mtnrunner2: Yes, knowing how to dress for mountains can be tough!

  8. Good topic, Wyatt, and well-written post. Thanks for raising the issue.
    I sometimes use a Garmin or the SportsTracker function on my phone, am the same about taking poles (I'm more into multi-day/long/solo stuff than racing), and on rare occasion listen to music (only on more urban outings), but I most often head out with just a skirt, bra top, socks, shoes, and a water bottle. Perhaps it's because I've been doing this for over 20 years and because I'm not really into racing, but I find that I have to make an effort to incorporate "gear" into my running life. For me, a headlamp is for crewing, a non-wrist Garmin is my GPS of choice (mostly for backpacking/fast-packing new routes), orthotics are for other people (I’m yet to have a running-related injury), and so on. However, I draw the ‘old school’ line at clothing and shoes. When I started running ultras, there were no trail shoes and the clothing was either cotton or polyester. It was really difficult to dress for the most innocuous conditions, much less the extreme ones. Now, I own many pairs of trail shoes and road shoes, and a wide variety of running clothing, and utilize every bit of them/it at some time or another. I can be out comfortably, for work or play, in any conditions now – a big improvement over the ‘old days’. And one other piece of gear I won’t go without, for safety’s sake on long and remote stuff, is my SPOT tracker.

  9. Good One Wyatt!
    I like my music and sing WAAAAY to much out there..but it relaxes me. I actually find myself needing the tunes on harder tempo type days vs. long trail only days. I guess I need that distraction from the clock on the timed tempo. was on the fritz all year. All over the place, but having just received my new 910, I fell in love again. I leave it at home on timed run days, otherwise I race it too much. So, for me, the GPS can be a blessing and curse. Although, I agree with Steven, I'll get home and calculate the run distance and that takes too much time too.

    Clothing... I like to be warm but tend to not wear enough most of the time as I hate wrapping things around my waist. I seem to always have gloves though.

    What about packs vs. handheld?? That's the toughest one..I love the freedom of HH but tends to limit what I'll carry or wear, or eat due to not having anywhere to put it...back to not wanting the wrap my waist.

    Just so tough being a runner!

  10. I guess I'm one of the borderline Amish, not that I look down on technology, I just don't use it, have no temptation to. Everything I do is a rough approximation. It might not work for everyone but it works ok for me. Although, I currently have a Garmin on loan from a friend to do some route measurement, and I think I do pick up the pace, knowing what my pace is. But I also know I'll easily be able to give it up when I give it back. But tech stuff, clothing, and hydration are three different topics, not to mention extra weight like a change of clothes, books or other stuff if running for transportation purposes.

    I don't consider myself minimalist, just old school. My model is less Krupicka (or is AK Akos Konya?) than John Geesler. You talked about fiddling with the gear before you go out, and that kind of thing could keep me from going out altogether some days. I can go out even on a 30-40 miler with just a water bottle, driver's license (for ID), Metrocard (for the subway if needed), a few bucks cash. Maybe my watch, maybe my phone. But I do bring my camera if I'm doing my bridges.

  11. Technology can be used to empower and save time but some people become a slave to it. This is all about frame of mind.

    I gave up music on runs long ago, I consider it dangerous. I can hear things coming up behind me - traffic, cyclists, and animals. The increase in situational awareness has saved me trouble quite a few times including from loose dogs.

    GPS / heart rate serves as a great training tool and lets you discover things about yourself. After an initial learning stage GPS does little but put metrics on sensations an experienced runner already knows and can be much less relied on. Saves time compared to mapping things out.

    I leave the phone at home for all but the longest runs, and then it is only to call in case of emergency. I run to escape the world, not take phone calls on a run.

    To each their own, everyone has a relationship with the things and technology around them but it is important not to let tech replace critical thought. That is where dissatisfaction comes from.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  12. Love your post but I'm not giving up a darn thing. I'm wearing my $10 MP3 player and my Garmin Forerunner 101. That is, I would wear it if I hadn't injured myself trying to eclipse a 7:30 mile on mile 3 of an 8-mile run while looking at my Garmin and listening to Led Zeppelin.

  13. Here Here!
    Ultrarunning is quickly going to join weddings and the baby industry in the category of "those people will buy anything."

  14. I'll never be an elite but I like to run.. for my health,the sensation of cruising down a sweet single track, & for my mental well being. I also have a closet full of shoes and I run with a GPS, not because I have to but because I like shoes and enjoy analyzing my runs.
    Running is an amazing sport because you can get involved in it for very little (shoes) or you can buy into the marketing hype and buy one of everything. But in the end you still have to walk out that door and run.
    Example in Point: Last year I was at a early spring race and a young twenty something lined up next to me in Carhart paint pants, long sleeve work shirt and what looked like high tops shoes then proceeded to smoke just about eveyone! It made me laugh at myself for being a little judgmental, so wear/buy what you want but remember why you started running in the first place, because I'll bet it wasn't about the gear.

  15. Phil: Yeah, I remember John Geesler from the 2009 North Coast 24 (which you of course won). He's a good guy and I seem to remember him wearing cotton for the entire race. Somehow, despite his cotton :-), he managed to qualify for the US team. Imagine that! (I'm being sarcastic, of course.)

    Your reference to AK potentially being Akos Konya (who was also at the North Coast 24 in 2009, as you recall) brought a smile to my face since in this sport we seem to forget that there's such a thing as roads. I haven't heard much about Akos lately. He had a nice run for a while there and seemed like a really good guy.


  16. Great post. New to the blog. I saw the link on ultrapodcast.

    I have a theory that a lot of runners over fixate on gadgets/special clothing because they are trying to find shortcuts instead of running nasty mileage. There are not any shortcuts. It is all about putting the time in. Just my opinion.

  17. I get this. And I completely agree. I also think AMericans are eating this $hit up much more than europeans.

    But I also get evolution. I mean, we were perfectly fine writing letters and now we write emails. A long stretch, but you get my point.

    I think the danger (or humor) is when running becomes ALL about the gear. Like the gear is going to make one faster.

    Good post!

  18. I think you're spot on, Evan, that some people attempt to substitute technology for training.

  19. Like to the Hone comment.

    I am going caveman this summer. Clothes and all are out. I might carry a bone however.

  20. I am going caveman this summer. Clothes and all are out. Nada. Nothing.

    Like the Hone comment.