Unintended consequences of modern running innovations

As with all aspects of society, modern innovations are constantly being introduced in running and racing, mostly for the great benefit of the sport. Technology and new ideas that were completely unknown 15 or 20 years ago are now commonplace and some are considered almost essential. Nowadays a cotton race shirt or a non-chip-timed race are considered quaint, primitive, or "retro". However, the best innovations are often accompanied with unintended consequences. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I'll mention a few: Tech clothing.  Who doesn't appreciate the quick drying and wicking character of modern athletic fabrics? I first started to receive tech shirts at races around 1999-2000. I think I got my first one at the Seattle Half Marathon in 1999, a nice light blue long-sleeved shirt that is still in my first string cool weather rotation. Soon tech shirts became ubiquitous, as various companies tried to outdo each other with their own version of new breathable materials.

Just a couple tech shirts in a stack of clothing can lead to a disastrous landslide of laundry.

But have you ever tried to fold and stack tech shirts? They are so much more slippery than cotton that it's sometimes tempting to just wad them up and toss them in the drawer as is. And you know how avalanche warnings always mention how the differences in temperature and composition of ice crystals in layers of the snow causes snowy slopes to give way? Well, the same is true of stacks of clothing with tech shirts mixed in. Cotton stays put, but introduce a few tech shirts into a mountain of cloths and be prepared for a landslide of laundry.

GPS watches. I really love the “gee-whiz” aspect of the new generation of high-tech watches. I didn’t feel the need for a GPS watch and held off getting a Garmin, but then I was lucky enough to win a Nike+ Sportwatch GPS at a small 5K in 2011 (probably the best prize I’ve ever won at a race), and I’ve been a devotee ever since. The pace and distance data are cool, but my favorite feature is the way you can see your route on the map.

I never get tired of the mapping feature of GPS watches. Just for fun I spelled JOE on one of my runs.

I try to use the watch on every training run and race now, since the software keeps track of my mileage totals for me, and I’d feel like there’s something missing if I didn’t record every run. However, there are times when it takes a little longer for the watch to link up with the satellites, and I find myself standing around shivering in a chilly drizzle, feeling slightly silly, waiting for the familiar beep-boop-boop of the “ready” signal. Gone are the days when you just poked the “start” button on your stop watch and set off, hitting the lap button when you saw a mile marker.

Now, several years into the GPS era, runners are irritated when their watches insist a race course was long or short, while race directors are irked that runners depend on an inexact technology to question a carefully hand-measured route. Personally, I find I rely on my watch to record my splits for me automatically, wait to check the stats after the race, and no longer consistently monitor my pace during the race.

Furthermore, I’ve noticed races are slowly becoming less likely to post mile markers along the course, and I wonder if this is a reaction to the ability of GPS watches to tick off the miles automatically. If the watch does it for you, and you don’t need to hit splits manually, why bother marking them on the course?

Chip timing. It’s pretty nice to be able to have your start, finish, and net time recorded automatically. If your GPS watch doesn’t link up before the gun goes off, you’re still assured of an accurate time, and it’s a boon for race directors, who no longer have to manually record the moment each runner crosses the line. Also, announcers can see a runner’s name pop up onscreen and give her some recognition as she crosses the line. Results are often virtually instantaneous now too. Within minutes of finishing, you can get a printout containing your time and place.

But since chip timing means you can theoretically start anytime (within reason) after the official start time, it is now possible for one runner to “chip” another. If someone started late enough, he may “beat” you in the final chip-timed results by having a faster net time, even if he never passed you on the course. And unless race directors employ a backup results system, if your chip fails to record your finish, you may not end up in the results at all. (And using a backup “old school” results system kind of defeats the purpose and convenience of the chips in the first place).

And instantaneous results are cool, but so was the anticipation and suspense of waiting to find out your place after a longer interval. The best example of how chip timing has changed the character of an event is the ORRC’s Wildwood/Greenway Trail Trial, a race where runners start at anytime during a window of a few hours: It used to be manually timed, and you had to wait patiently and excitedly for a week or two (I’m being generous) before the results (and potentially an age-group ribbon) were mailed (yes mailed!) out. You ran as hard and as fast as you could, and then waited to see how you placed. The wait used to be part of the tradition, and the excitement of finding an envelope from ORRC in your mailbox was half the fun. Now the results are online within a few hours after the last runner crosses the line, and the race seems less unique, and more like any other race.

Online registration. The convenience of going online and signing up for race with just a few clicks is obvious. But the tacked on extra fees are an unwelcome and unintended consequence of this innovation (at least for the runners).

Not long ago races had one pre-registration fee and a day-of-race price. But now, related to online registration, we have the proliferation of race fee “schedules”, offering “discounts” for registering early for races. Theoretically, this is a good way to sign up for races and plan your schedule in advance while saving money.

But race directors are increasingly milking this for all it’s worth, with an overwhelming menu of dates and prices that increase every few weeks, often beginning months before the race. Emails crowd your mailbox in the fall with special “early bird pricing” for races next summer. Do you take the bait and sign up now to save a few bucks, hoping you won’t be injured, ill, traveling, or completely burned out on running by race day? Or do you take a deep breath and wait until a week before the race, making sure you are race ready but paying an exorbitant entry fee?

It’s hard to think on the run, and courses can be confusing if they aren’t marked clearly.

Race perks and “extras”. Running events are no longer just about racing. A recent surge in adventure runs, urban challenges, mud runs, beer miles, color runs, and other offshoots offer fun for people who just want an entertaining running experience with their friends, regardless of pace or place. Even the more conventional races are increasingly adding special features like bands, beer gardens, and festival-like after parties. Finisher’s medals are getting bigger and more elaborate. Some race companies offer special “VIP” packages allowing access to luxury areas before and after the race.

Those are welcome added benefits for many runners, but they present increased work for race directors, and have the potential to stretch limited pools of volunteers even thinner. This can sometimes unintentionally result in less attention being paid to the basic elements of a race, like mile markers, route markers, or course marshals.

This year, I have noticed an unfortunate increase in course snafus, often at races with a commendable amount of attention paid to extra perks. While the addition of these special features adds to the fun, the fundamentals of the race should be nailed down first before devoting limited manpower and resources to the “luxury” items.

But despite the occasional unintended consequence, progress marches on (at race pace), and mostly for the better!

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