Run, Rat, Run

Inside the maddening new world of online training


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I’m sprinting down one of my local trails, sweat pouring off my chin, Rage Against the Machine blasting from my iPod. Alarmed mothers snatch up their children, and seniors with trekking poles hobble for safety. Even my speedy rott­weiler, who usually sets the pace, lopes behind, tongue lolling.

Tips for the Aspiring High-Tech Athlete

Tips for the Aspiring High-Tech Athlete
1. Make a list of all the hardware requirements for your training program before you dive in.

2. If your computer is more than three years old, go rent a new one.

3. Macs are great, but they lag behind when it comes to software development. A work–around: Parallels Desktop, software that allows you to run Windows–only programs, such as TrainingPeaks’ WKO+, on a Mac (;

4. Expect delays: Syncing your gadgets may cause headaches and lost spontaneity. Meditation, yoga, and brewpubs help.


Let me explain. A few weeks ago I started using some new running–analysis software called WKO+ (“workout plus”), developed by TrainingPeaks, a Web–based outfit that specializes in crunching workout data. TrainingPeaks caters mostly to the VO2–max and lactate–threshold crowd—it measures performance with sophisticated algorithms and allows users to track workouts with GPS. The site is popular with pro cyclists, but recently TrainingPeaks started reaching out to recreational jocks with a yen for state–of–the–art gizmonitry. Upload your GPS data from a hilly run and the newly expanded WKO+ program will tell you how fast you would’ve gone on a flat surface. This allows runners to objectively compare workouts, regardless of terrain.

It sounded great in theory. But it turns out that in order to get the most out of WKO+, one must triang­ulate three key components: a GPS–enabled watch (in my case, Garmin’s new Forerunner 405); a wireless router; and the TrainingPeaks Web site. It took two days before I’d descended into the ninth circle of tech–support hell.
An abridged sampling:

1. Neither the new Garmin nor the WKO+ software would run on my Mac, so I had to procure a Dell laptop from Rent–A–Center, a process akin to getting a home loan.

2. The rental wouldn’t work with my home router; I was forced to head off–campus.

3. I couldn’t get the Garmin plug–ins, basic programs that allow the watch and PC to communicate, to download properly.

4. The Rent–A–Center PC wasn’t configured correctly (shocking, I know), prompting a tech–support rep at Dell to conduct a remote hostile takeover of the laptop—from Bangalore!—driving the cursor ghostlike around the screen. When we finally hung up, the problem still unsolved, I let out a barbaric yawp and made that mad dash past the toddlers on my local trail.

The ordeal reminded me of what Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, calls “gumption traps”—small problems that “destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business.” The beauty of running, after all, is its simpli­city: You just lace up and go. But, as I was on the brink of abandoning my tech odyssey, I had to ask: Was running as I’d always done going to be enough to let me realize my distant dreams, like a 35–minute 10K?

Near the end of my Zulu–warrior charge through the woods, I calmed down (maybe it was the nausea) and resolved to see my challenge through to the end—or at least the beginning. And a few days later, I finally managed to get everything synced up and running properly.

Once I deciphered the WKO+ info, which at first looked about as intelligible as Sanskrit, I realized that I had a powerful tool at my disposal. The Garmin software allowed me to produce detailed maps of my routes using Google Earth, and the WKO+ programs let me compare routes, tracking distance, elevation, and running times. In other words, WKO+ helped me determine that running a particularly hilly three–mile trail in 25 minutes was roughly the equivalent, effortwise, of running a flat course of the same distance in 20 minutes.

Gone was the guesswork I’d typically applied to my trail runs; I could now plan out a conditioning program around “pace–based” running that would have all my loops and circuits working for me. Were my workouts becoming wonkouts? Maybe. But I could already see myself getting faster, and I wasn’t scaring any little kids along the way.

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