BURLINGTON, Vt. — Thirty minutes until the start of the Vermont City Marathon, and I still couldn't activate one of my gadgets for tracking speed and distance. Fifteen minutes. Five. And the starting horn went off. I gave up fiddling to focus on my race.
It usually works great for tracking my progress, but that May morning, the Bones in Motion fitness service running on a Sprint phone wouldn't synch with the Global Positioning System satellites. Other devices from Timex Corp. and Garmin Ltd. worked fine that day, but they proved to be just as fussy during other races or training.
Because I often train in New York, where buildings can distort GPS signals and one gadget even placed me floating on the East River, I got excited when Nike Inc. and Apple Computer Inc. later unveiled a GPS-less system. Alas, their Nike/iPod Sport Kit gave me grief as well, but more on that later.
I tried to compare three GPS running gadgets that marathon morning in Vermont. Each picks up a GPS signal, which the device uses to calculate pace and distance. You can transfer data to a computer or Web site later to analyze your workouts and even overlay some on Google Inc. maps.
The Timex Bodylink system comes with a GPS transceiver worn around the upper arm and a special watch that receives the data wirelessly and makes sense of them. All models display your choice of current or average pace and the distance, in miles or kilometers. Unlike one I tested in late 2003, recent models show altitude, too, although they're far from accurate.
The basic Timex system costs $275 and includes a heart rate monitor. For $25 more you get altitude. Timex's $350 Trail Runner package also has navigation — not street directions, but an icon pointing toward the start or another "waypoint" you preset. A separate $75 unit can record the data for analysis on your computer.
The Bodylink helped me through Vermont. By keeping tabs on average pace, I could gauge whether I was speeding up or slowing down more than I should.
As the race progressed, though, the system gradually overestimated my mileage, no doubt partly from weaving to grab water. It had me running 26.82 miles, six-tenths of a mile off.
Garmin's Forerunner 305 gadget came closer: 26.47.
The 305 is smaller than the 201 model I tested in early 2004. It's supposed to be better than the 201 at picking up GPS signals, though it was generally slowest of the three tested. Garmin now has a heart rate monitor — the 205 model without it sells for $100 less, at $250.
Worn like an enlarged watch, Garmin's all-in-one device comes with free software to analyze data and works with Garmin's MotionBased online service, which costs $12 a month to view more than your most recent 10 runs.
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Forerunner matches Bodylink in basic features and accuracy, and it bests the Timex system as a training buddy. Try to keep up with a Virtual Partner at a specified pace; add speed training by alternating between periods of intensity and rest.
Navigation is also better. The Forerunner automatically remembers your starting point and can give you the path back — not the shortest point across a pond, as Bodylink sometimes does.
That said, the input buttons are clunky, and more importantly, the Forerunner tends to have the most GPS troubles, especially in New York.
Bones in Motion
The Bones in Motion service on Sprint usually is the first to get a signal, even indoors, but it also tends to overestimate distances and is less convenient — you can't wear a phone around your wrist. It offers no manual split feature for recording separate laps and displays average pace only, not current pace when you vary your speed.
Despite a lower startup cost — $10 a month on certain Sprint, Nextel and Verizon phones, plus data plans for Sprint and Nextel — the charges add up. I'd rather pay up front, particularly for a gadget that offers more.
The Timex and Garmin systems are both light and comfortable, and both have options for automatically stopping the clock at intersections or water fountains. It's a close call, but Timex gets my vote for city running, even though Garmin can do much more — it can even display sunset time based on your GPS position. Many mornings, I barely make it out of bed, and I'd prefer not spending precious minutes waiting for a GPS signal.
Nike/iPod Sport Kit
It is true the Timex system takes a few minutes, too, so I thought Nike/iPod might be my savior. The $29 kit comes with a small sensor that fits snugly into a hole pre-carved into Nike's specially designed "Plus" shoes.
The sensor needs no GPS signal. It sends information about the time between footsteps and the time your foot is on the ground to the iPod Nano, sold separately at $150 to $250 (the kit won't work with other iPod models). Apple's easy-to-use software calculates pace and distance.
The Nano voices your progress when you press a button. Keep it pressed for your personal inspirational song — the "Superman" theme in my case. It works best in your hand, though the button is large enough to fiddle with in a thin pocket.
Nike and Apple promise 90 percent accuracy for distance out of the box, and you can fine-tune it to your own running style. It took about four attempts to get the calibration right, but it seems to work now, at least no worse than the GPS systems.
With earphones on, such athletes as Paula Radcliffe offer praise after your fastest or farthest runs (though better motivation would be yelling for slowing down climbing the hill).
Apple sells special workout music, though your own tunes work. Nike has special clothing with openings for the Nano and earphone wiring. You also can send data to Nike's free Web site to view your progress and challenge friends.
That said, the device is quite limited in what it displays. You get current pace, but not the average until you finish, nor can you record split times, something core to most sports watches.
My biggest beef is the requirement for Nike shoes.
For one, Nike didn't have a "Plus" model yet for flat-footed runners like me who need extra stability. Within days, my left foot started aching — perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.
I found I could still use the kit with a $6 key holder that attaches with Velcro to my shoelaces. The cheat was less consistent and more difficult to calibrate, though adequate as a fallback.
Nike promises to have a compatible stability shoe out soon, but even so, even the same class of shoes differs from model to model. It took some experimenting — and injuries — before finding a good fit, one that has served me well for 11 marathons since 2002.
I may ultimately buy the Nike/iPod system as a backup, but for Sunday's Wineglass Marathon in Corning, N.Y., I'll be going solo with Timex — all 46,000-plus footsteps in my non-Nike shoes.
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