by Ron Marinucci

“I feel naked if I go for a run without my GPS watch.” So said Flint-area runner Bill Khan. Dave Zurheide, on the other hand, a long-time runner and certified coach, offered, “I do not use one [GPS device] and have no desire to use one.”

The GPS, global positioning system, watches are yet another marvel of modern technology. Employing the many satellites orbiting the earth, these tools can provide a wealth of information for runners, from distance covered and current pace to downloading capabilities to computers. The leading producer of these GPS watches for runners is Garmin, although Polar and Timex also have models. Nike is rumored to be getting into the market, too.

But how popular are they? What types of runners actually use them? And, of those who do, what GPS functions do they use?

A very informal survey of eight serious and long-time runners showed very different opinions. Chosen and responding randomly, the eight replies returned four fans and four runners who have no interest in the new technology.

Khan, as noted above, loves his Garmin. “My first run with a Garmin was on February 6, 2007 at 9:14 AM. It was a speed workout.” No, he’s not obsessive nor has he instant recall. “I can tell what because all of the wonderful information is stored on my computer, having been exported from my Garmin Forerunner 205 into a computer program that tells me when I ran, where I ran, how far I ran, how fast I ran, how many calories I burned…and the elevation of the course I ran.” Whew!

He admitted, “I originally got it primarily to know how far I ran. This is important for those of us who are anal about every detail of our running. The GPS feature I really rely upon during training runs and especially during races is the ability to see my average pace for the run. If I want to run 7:30 pace in a marathon, I can keep an eye on my Garmin to make sure I’m hovering in that range. I call my Garmin my ‘cheat sheet.’ Of course, you still have to do the work.” And he added, there are “plenty of features I’ve never even touched…. Perhaps I’ll sit down with my owner’s manual sometime.”

One of the best female runners in the state, Erin O’Mara, has a Forerunner 405. “[I] love it,” she enthused. “[I] got it for Christmas 2008—the best gift ever,” she went on. She uses “it for both pace and distance. On easy days, I ignore pace.” For her, the GPS “makes doing workouts anywhere convenient.” But, she added, “I don’t race with it because I am racing the course and it doesn’t matter what my Garmin tells me.”

Another “big fan of my Garmin 205 watch” is Andy Muchow, a former Michigan Runner Runner-of-the-Year. He uses his GPS “for a specific purpose. I take it with me when I am on vacation or just out of town. It lets me get in a run and, not only know how far and how fast I have gone, but if it even became necessary [if lost], I can backtrack on it.” Muchow also likes what his Garmin can do after he runs. “The recorded runs, especially those on vacation, become a sort of electronic journal of where I have visited. When I return home, it’s fun to download to Google Earth and view the runs on satellite imagery.” For him, “It’s a worthwhile tool in the total training kit.”

One of the nation’s top masters runners the past few years has been Paul Aufdemberge. He’s been using a Garmin “for most training runs and workouts” over the past seven years, since the Forerunner series was introduced. Like O’Mara, “I usually don’t wear it in races, though.” With his GPS, “I frequently check mile splits, average pace, and distance during a run. I think using a GPS has helped my training. It is motivating to have accurate pace and distance information right on my watch. I often recommend them to other runners.”

But the GPS watches aren’t perfect, despite how much these runners enjoy and appreciate them. Aufdemberge noted, “[I] have no problems to speak of. Distance and pace information is close, but not perfect. It’s nice to be able to run hard workouts on unmeasured routes, but I keep in mind that the splits could be off by a few seconds per mile compared to a track or certified course.”

Muchow said much the same. “The 205 can have problems with heavy tree coverage or in a canyon (including ‘urban canyons’). But in general it’s pretty darn accurate and reliable. If you need accuracy,” he echoed Aufdemberge, “you might as well do your training on a track.” Then he quipped, “or get help for your obsessiveness.”

Khan added some advice. “GPS watches are fairly expensive, so I only recommend them for runners with pace goals because they’re great for helping you keep a pace. I guess I’d also recommend them for runners who have disposable income because they’re a fun toy.” He also cautioned, “It’s actually a good idea to go out and run without a watch, a GPS or a standard timing device, and just run easy without any pressure to meet any time or distance goals. We need these types of runs to recover from the hard runs and to just enjoy the feeling of running. I’d like to say I follow this advice, but I’d be lying if I did.”

Of course, not every runner is enamored with the GPS. None of my informal survey respondents were opposed or hostile toward the technology. It just doesn’t fit them or their running. Zurheide admitted, “I like the technology…, but I view them [the GPS watches] as another unnecessary complication. My fear is becoming obsessed with the features and then spending too much time managing the data. And, since my ‘long’ runs tend to peak at 10 miles or so, an estimate of the distance on a new course suffices….” He added dismissively, “Otherwise I can measure it in my car.”

Several others joked about not training with the GPS devices. “I don’t even use a GPS when I drive,” quipped Hartland runner Barb Gavitt, who is currently training for an early summer triathlon. She sounded like me, adding, “I guess I live living dangerously.”

Maggy Zidar has run thousands of races, including over 100 marathons. She doesn’t use a GPS at all, laughing, “I joke about [still] living in the age of calligraphy. Technology is not my forte,” again reflecting my views. But she added, “Hats off to the rest of you [who use it], especially those of my generation!”

Marathoner Jed Hubbell said, “I never used one. It would not have worked for me,” he joked. “Apparently you have to be moving at no less than three miles per hour in order to have it register.” But, he conceded, “I know of people who use and love them. I kind of think they are for more elite runners who really want to track time, distance, etc.” With a look toward the future, he surmised, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “Heck, the way things are going with electronics, in a few years they’ll be giving them away with the purchase of a new pair of shoes!”

Me? I have two Garmins, both gifts. One has a rechargeable battery, while the other operates on two AAA batteries. I only use a GPS to gauge distance, never time or pace. I don’t use any of the other functions, although I see how interesting and helpful they might be for other runners. I guess my primary purpose, like Muchow’s, is to use the GPS in new places. I can sightsee while running without worrying a whole lot about distance—or getting lost.

I’ve run into a few glitches. Again like Muchow, I’ve noticed “heavy tree coverage” loses the satellite(s). Since I run a lot on the forest trails of the nearby state park, accuracy goes out the window. When traveling long distances from home, it takes a long time for the GPS watch to recalibrate, find a new satellite, etc. Running in western New York state or Ohio, for instance, posed no such problem. But in Massachusetts and Las Vegas, sometimes up to half an hour was needed for my watch(es) to be ready to run. Also, every so often, maybe a couple of months, my rechargeable seems to have a mind of its own. It might or might not turn on. Or, it might turn on, but lock up so no function, not even the clock, can be used. I’ve learned to just let it rest for two or three weeks. This rest seems to restore it to normal for another few months. The AAA batteries (several different brands) seem to lose their power very quickly, sometimes after fewer than ten hours of use.

On the whole, though, I enjoy my limited use of my Garmin(s).

Those interested in using the technology to help their training will find ample means to do so. There certainly are strong advocates for it. Yet, other runners prefer to keep their running simple. But it’s great to have the option to use or not use a GPS. Perhaps Khan said it best, “They’re a fun toy, if nothing else.”