Too much tech on the trails?

Given the proliferation of devices, Interweb connectors and wi-fi spreading around us, it’s of little surprise that we’re seeing technology hammering firmly into the trail/ultra scene with great strides.

Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon in the slightest, GPS watches have been around for years as far as running is concerned. But things are getting serious now. And when I say serious, I mean that traditionally clueless companies are now starting to work out what to do with all that data they have stored up. Data that tells them where people are running to and from, as well as what trainers you wear and how much you’ve used them.

The irony is that while we don't like Big Brother, we voluntarily feed him with data
The irony is that while we don’t like Big Brother, we voluntarily feed him with data

Previously, all these companies had been doing was collecting data. Data about our runs, where we live, what services are nearby, how long we run for and where we might stop for a rest. Now they’re starting to understand that data and use it in a way that would see it sold as information to other companies that will build services around it.

Big Brother is watching

Let me give you an example. You might have a staple long run that you do each week that takes in a number areas, where you traditionally stop at a shop to pick up a can of coke or some supplies. The collectors of this data will now be able to start mapping out trends in your running. To the point that they will sell that data and the owner of that shop in receipt of that data will know that you like to stop by around 11am and offer you a half price sandwich with that coke. Seems pretty cool hey?

As another example, you may have noticed that Strava offers you the chance to say what running shoes you use, counting up the kms that you stack in them. There’s a reason for that and heck, they might already be doing it (caveat I haven’t researched it enough yet), but that data will be sold to the shoe manufacturers. Then when you reach the ‘generic’ point of shoe replacement, you’re sure as hell going to know about it with an email offer to buy some more.

On the positive side, that’s a cool service to have and I would appreciate something like that. But similarly, how the hell do they know when I should replace my shoes. They have a vested interest in making as much money as possible from me. A cynic (some may say I do this well), might say that it would be in a company’s best interests to have that turnover of shoe as regularly as possible. Why do you think they bring out so many difference versions of the same shoe?

Now what would be really awesome, is if that same company didn’t just pick an arbitrary number of kms per shoe, but overlaid the distance I had done in those shoes with my body mass, the terrain I run on and the number of hours I’ve worn them to come up with my own unique ideal km per shoe ratio based on millions of data points they have collected. That my friends is what a great digital experience should be all about.

There is of course a massive irony in me writing this article because I work in this line of business and actively promote it. Part of me embraces the advancements that technology brings us, but the other part of me wants to be anonymous and stick two fingers up to the big brother ‘establishment’. The other irony is that while we complain about big eye of companies watching over us, it is us who voluntarily hand over that data, and in some case we actually pay them for the privilege too!

But is there a time where it gets a little too big brother on us? Is that intrusion into our running lives taking it too far? I know personally that I use running as a way of escaping from the day to day and love being on my own for several hours. Do I really want companies selling my data in an attempt to ‘upsell’ me things I don’t really want?

Data analysis tools are still pretty basic right now - in 3-5yrs time the amount of analysis and details we'll be able to read will increase hugely.
Data analysis tools are still pretty basic right now – in 3-5yrs time the amount of analysis and details we’ll be able to read will increase hugely.

Safety, but with accountability

There’s also another side to this. I saw recently that Blue Mountains adventurer Lucas Trihey has developed new software that will help keep competitors safer in trail running events. Now before anyone thinks we’re going to critise Lucas for developing this, we’re not. I think it’s great when anyone can help to make our sport safer for people – there is an inherent need for it. It’s a good thing.

What I do fear though is that competitors and particularly new people to the trail/ultra scene could become over reliant on technology, losing the accountability they need to show for themselves. This kind of stuff already happens in the form of people blaming their gear for bad performances and injuries. How long before people blame technology for issues that may start to happen to them on the trails?

I’m a firm believer that technology is a great benefit to society. But I also believe that you shouldn’t be too reliant on it. It’s similar in some respects to the difference between data and information. Data only tells you what’s going on at one point in time… information is derived from data to tell you what you should be doing about it, and this is a really important point to make.

Generally, (and this is a bit of personal opinion) while technology is advancing our capabilities, we’re also seeing a complete dumbing down of society through it because people are taking it for what it is, and not ‘playing what they see’ to use a sporting analogy. They’re not taking the data and coming to their own conclusions to produce information and insights. Quality decision-making is becoming bereft. You only have to look at the use of GPS in a car. People are becoming so reliant upon it, that gut instinct and clear-headed decision-making goes out the window. If you don’t believe me, read this. 

The same could happen in trail/ultra running. While technology is great, ultimately you are accountable for yourself and only you know your body. There’s a lot to be said for playing what you see, as I phrased it previously. There’s a lot to be said for going with your gut and knowing what’s good for you. There’s also a lot to be said for trial and error and working out things on your own without having everything calibrated in data points. You only have to look at how some sports have become so focused on technology and the data to see how ultimately how boring they’ve become.

Formula One is a prime example of this. My Formula One viewing days hail when the likes of Nigel Mansell would go nose to nose with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Those were the days when true driving skills were what it took to win and my word was it entertaining. But it was entertaining at a cost, often the cost of a life, as happened with Ayrton. But look at Formula One now. It’s more appropriate title should be Formula Formulaic. Car manufacturers know to within the millisecond how a race might pan out – it’s become a dire spectator sport one could argue. Safer, yes…

Other sports have gone the same way. I played rugby union for twenty years before turning my hand at running. Rugby has again become so obsessed with stats and data, that entire games can be mapped out and judged before a ball has even been kicked. It’s driven by defensive strategies that are all about collecting attacking data of other teams and working out how to defensively nullify that. On the whole, it’s become a yawn-fest.

If trail running ever gets its arse in gear and is able to have real-time tracking of athletes on course, how long before entire profiles of athletes are mapped out by other runners that know when and where they could take advantage of a weakness. Imagine Tim Olson or Dakota Jones analysing all of Kilian’s data and working out that at UTMB, he has on average had a slight decrease in pace between kms 136 – 147 and that he typically takes a loo break at 132kms. We’ll start to see runner strategies taking over more and more with entire races mapped out based on what other runners are doing, rather than focusing on what’s going on at that moment.

You can put these under your skin now... it will only be a matter of time for ultra running
You can put these under your skin now… it will only be a matter of time for ultra running

In twenty years time, the question won’t be, which GPS watch will I choose, it will be, which GPS chip will I have inserted into my arm. Garmin and Suunto will no longer exist. There’s a disruptor just around the corner to take their place. We’ll become walking data collectors, where every move, pause, fluid intake and breath will be analysed and fed into a computer system. Competitive trail/ultra races won’t just be about your own training. There will be entire software packages that you can download onto the chip inserted into your arm that will give you all the data you need about the nearest runner, 3kms up the trail from you through your internet enabled sunglasses.

Now of course, the above is a little far-fetched right now, but it will happen… For now, I prefer the anonymity that trail and ultra running brings. The rawness and self discovery it brings. Technology is great, it will move us forward, but always remember to focus on the here and now and play what you see.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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