It was a cold winter this year. You almost felt sorry for those poor people stood outside doorways in pubs shivering as they got their fix. They were killing themselves in more ways than one now since they were forced to smoke outside. However I saw the exact same thing outside the Seymour Centre every Wednesday night. However these Serpies were not smoking, they had their arms raised like they were asking teacher if they can go to the toilet. But they didn't need the toilet, they were in fact asking for permission to run. Permission from some orbiting satelite to tell them they could start. Icicles would form around their frozen faces as the "signal" bar crawled up to 100% and then suddenly "Beeeeep" and these ice sculptures would splutter into life.
I bought one of the first GPS devices back in the days where I thought the key to running happiness was to have every inch of it graphable. It was fairly poor by todays standards. It would often lose signal and would switch itself off after 5 minutes if there was no contact with the Starship Enterprise which meant I had to look at it constantly. In doing so I would run into people and for the first 10 runnings of the "Tower Bridge" run I completely missed this amazing bridge in London that has towers on it. It got better though, future models would hold signal better so that you only had to look at them when it beeps at you, declaring that you have run another mile and causing a funny reflex where you involutarily elbow the person on your left in the face.
The best bit was not the running though, it was the things you could do on a computer with your run afterwards. Plug your watch into your PC and all of a sudden your run becomes interesting. Pounding the trails or roads is boring and futile at the best of times but now your effort has a purpose, you can draw charts and graphs and analyse data. Brilliant. You can also be part of the scintilating conversations at the end of a run where you spew out numbers a the end to each other. "Yeah, mine was 7.32, 7.35, 7.21, 7.45 bugger, 7.32, 7.31". Splendid.
One day as I stared at a funny slug like object on my screen that resembled the path of my run and questioned why mile 7 seemed slower even thought the HR and elevation suggested it should be quicker I wondered whether I had missed the point of this sport. I remembered the days where I'd just go out and run because it feels nice. Now I can't seem to leave the house without something tracking my ever step, as if I need proof that I went outside. I had to ask myself "do I run for fun or do I run as a means to collect data?" If it's the latter then surely there are better ways? I could just stand outside and pretend to be a family fortunes researcher. I asked 100 people "what should I do with my life instead collecting pointless data?"
The watch went into the drawer and I decided to run whenever I liked and not when some beeping device told me too. It was risky, I mean how could I prove that I even went for a run? If I was audited how could I ever have the evidence that I didn't just sit on my backside watching TV? My own testimony would not stand up in court like a good pace graph would. I was treading dangerously.
However on relieving myself of the slavery of the wrist computer I felt like I has been released from prison (those things look remarkably similar to ASBO tags). My arm felt so much lighter having ditched the voluntary electronic tagging device. No longer did I have to let some virtual man beat me around some route, beeping with derision should I fall behind. I could just run as far and as fast as I felt like and could even look at things along the way. My mind could wander onto things so much more important than whether my heart-rate was staying within 80% while I ascended a 6% incline at 7.10 minute miles on mile 7 of my 15 mile circuit. Oh look, a squirrel.
I have not worn a watch in a run or race since. I can occasionally guess the miles in a race by the deafening crescendo of beeping from those all around me and the jerking of elbows swinging up to the left. I can run when I want, stop when I want and no longer get wound up if a 5 foot detour threatens the shape of a graph in a few hours time. I was in a race in summer where I had no idea how long I had been running, how far or even what country I was in. It was a magical feeling that I will remember forever and not one that I will re-live by looking at a bunch of numbers. I'd hate to think what I might have missed in the Alps or the deserts or the English countryside because I was too busy staring at liquid crystals. I don't need my computer to tell me whether I've had a good run or not, I decide that for myself.
I don't think I'll ever go back to that kind of captivity. I'm enjoying the running too much. I do love to ask users of such devices "what's the time". It's hilarious how they frantically press buttons on there watch only to tell me that they don't know, but that I have just raised their cholestrohol level.
And I giggled (perhaps harshly) at a friend who trying to avoid the situation in the first paragraph had his £300 device stolen from his garden wall while leaving it to gain signal.
"But can't you track where he is? I thought that was the point of those things".
"Only if he plugs it into his computer and uploads the stats"
"Well then, you just have to sit back and wait. With that kind of speedy running he is sure to upload it. The graph will be awesome".