The Fitness Geek

There is a fine line between passion and obsession.  Sometimes the only difference is who is describing the behavior.  My passion for exercise and fitness is hardly a secret.  A day without pushing my body makes me feel lazy and crabby.  Rich knows.  He calls it obsession.

Second only to the activity itself is my compulsion to track it all.  The notes on a small calendar have long since been replaced by a Garmin GPS watch and SportTracks on my PC.  Through the wonders of technology I can see at a glance just how many miles I have run and cycled and the kilometers I have skied over the days, week, and years.  It’s beautiful.  I thought I had it all.  Until my birthday.

Recognizing that I couldn’t track my lap swimming with my Garmin, Rich gave me a Moov Now device.  The little red button slips into a flexible rubbery band and is totally waterproof.  I failed to see how it could track my swimming, but gave it a try.  I downloaded the app on my phone,  paired it with my device and pressed “start” while still in the locker room.  Doubt lingered.  I barely felt the light band around my wrist as I swam back and forth, back and forth.  Ok, for 2 miles in the pool.

Moov Highlights

After showering, I retrieved my phone and clicked End.  When the data finished downloading from that red button, I took a gander.  Wow.  It knew everything.  It knew exactly when I started swimming, what stroke I was swimming, how many laps I’d done (2 more than I thought), how long it took me for each flip turn, how much time I was actually stroking, and when I finished.  It would have recorded rest time, if I’d had any.  Averages were calculated for stats I couldn’t even recognize.  

Moov Laps

It was almost creepy.  But not enough to stop me from studying the results.    From the lap by lap graph, I could see how my flip turns took longer near the end – documenting that slight pause I knew I was taking as I tired.  My Distance Per Stroke average was below the “ideal range” so it gave me two paragraphs of coaching advice for improving my efficiency.  At its most basic level, it kept me honest if I lost track of my laps.

I had no idea technology had advanced so far.  I’ve lived without all this data for years.  I don’t really need it all, but still…  It’s pretty cool.  How can a techno geek resist?  Now I wonder what it can do for my other activities…

But that wasn’t all.  Removing more gift wrap revealed a pair of spur clips for my running shoes, with LED lights.  I couldn’t even feel them when I ventured out in the dark on my next pre-dawn run.  But Rich said he could see me all the way down our pitch black road.  Hating my safety vest, I immediately took to these glowing wonders.  And I sure got noticed on the Lakewalk.Molly with shoe lights

I was impressed.  These were real winners.  So Rich confessed that he had help.    Entering something like “gifts for runners” in Amazon’s search box brought up a wealth of options for the fitness obsessed.  I guess I don’t really care what he calls it.  This fitness geek loves her new toys.

Equipment Failures

It seems that our legs and bikes are outlasting our electronics on this trip. Being incurable techies, we couldn't travel without a few favorite toys each: a Garmin GPS watch, smartphone and tablet. Each serves a very important purpose, and is therefore worth it's weight in our panniers. Our Garmins track our movements every day. With a quick look at our wrist we know just how far we've gone and how much we have left to do. That's important information, to either boost our spirits or bring us to reality about our progress. And after the fact, Rich can upload the data to his Nexus 10 tablet. That's the really interesting part, as it shows us a map, gives us elevations and other fun facts.

The smartphones aren't much use as phones here in Canada. We have no cell plans, although Rich can sometimes call when he has a wifi connection. Their real value is quick access to maps and GPS locators that show our actual location. Many a wrong turn has been averted by that technology. I'll also admit that we jump on wifi with them when we can find connections at restaurants.

Our tablets are the key to our evening entertainment. We use them for downloading and editing our photos, blogging, email, Facebook, Skype, checking the weather, detailed route planning and storing our Garmin data. And when we're done with all that, we have multiple books to read on the Kindle app. If we run out of reading material, we just check out more books from the library at home. Pretty handy!

We even have a solar charger that keeps our electronics running when we're camping. They are that important to us.

So Rich was pretty distraught when his tablet started to die. First it wouldn't charge back up to 100%. Then it wasn't charging at all. As the power diminished, he tried everything he could find in the forums online to fix it. But to no avail. With just 2% of battery power left, he resorted to his only remaining option – doing a factory reset. His photos were backed up online, and he managed to save some important personal documents in time. But it was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to our precious Garmin data. I had kept daily logs of the basic mileages and times, but the data-rich records of our trip were gone.

The good news is that the reset worked – sort of. The tablet slowly came back to life, although it still only reaches 42% power. In the meantime, Rich has become very good at finger typing on his smartphone and downloaded his Kindle books to read on the minuscule screen. He can download his pictures onto my iPad and email them to himself to post on his blog. Adapting is the name of the game. Surprisingly, with using the tablet on only a very limited basis and filling in with the phone, Rich is pretty much back to full functionality.

The next to go was my Garmin. It had been showing signs of misbehavior, with decreasing battery power as time went on. Most days it died before we reached our destination. But we had Rich's for the official trip records and I could track our mileage for the majority of the day. Then one morning I turned it off during breakfast and it never came on again. Dead. It wouldn't even recharge. Kaput. It's not a critical failure, but I sure miss it. Rich tries to keep me informed, calling out miles to go every so often, but it's not the same. At least it's a lot easier to add and subtract layers of clothing now, without having to move my Garmin each time. It may be a stretch, but that is a silver lining!

It appears that it's really batteries that are failing us. The electronics themselves may be perfectly fine. We have just taxed the ability to recharge them. Good thing our bodies are doing better than that! We seem to be able to rejuvenate ourselves each night and with the addition of a rest day now and then. And our bikes have performed admirably to date. It's a pretty good outcome, really. The important parts just keep on running. Thankfully.


Coming Unplugged

We knew that cell phone coverage in Canada would be an issue. My phone plan flat out does not include Canada. Rich's phone is unique in that it uses wifi for its primary access, so he occasionally has connectivity. To rectify the situation, we intended to buy a cheap prepaid phone in Canada, but such plans to not include calls to the US. Not willing to spend an arm and a leg for service, we're just going to make do.

First, we're testing the limits of our equipment. Rich figured out he can still send and receive email on his phone when there is cell service. Texting seems to work as well, on the same basis. Sounds good, but we're traveling through remote areas of Ontario. We just have to hope for signals if we run into an emergency and need to notify family back home.

Naturally, wifi is a valid lifeline. When we can find it. We suffered mediocre breakfast food and barely passable coffee one morning for the glory of a fast internet connection. We rapidly connected, checked email, published blog posts and checked in with Facebook. We've learned to work offline ahead of time, using our scarce internet time to push content to the web and download sites to read later.

Sunset over the Ottawa River

Normally we would get our internet fix in the evenings. Even cheap motels offer free internet. But campsites don't provide the same luxury. We thought we had it made when we found a cute little restaurant attached to a motel for dinner last night. Sure enough they had wifi. Unfortunately, the waitress was more focused on food than technology, and we never did get that password. But there were other compensations. Instead of lingering over our tablets we got back to our campsite in time for a beautiful sunset.

With each passing day, the withdrawal symptoms have lessened. Checking email seems less urgent. Reading at night wins out over composing blog posts. Life will go on if we don't post our latest pictures on Facebook. We've trained hard for our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, and this final journey to the start of that trip is preparing us in another way. The Canadian Maritimes are guaranteed to present even greater technology challenges. Fortunately, we've also learned a trick. What seems to be extinct in the US is still available in Canada. If we remember how to use it, we can still call home. Even when we're unplugged.

Canadian Phone Booth


Post-race Rehash

A marathon or half marathon takes only a few hours to run, but requires at least two days to dissect and re-live.  Since yesterday’s Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon my son, Erik, and I have been doing just that.  It’s best to have a family member with whom one can share this activity.  It just doesn’t have the same appeal to those who did not participate in the race.

DSC_0041The first rush comes in the finishing chute.  Erik was there waiting for me, and we quickly shared notes on our finishing times.  He clocked a fast 1:33 compared to my 1:52 finish, but we both beat our goal times and shared a common surge of accomplishment.  The cold, foggy, windy day was perfect for running, but did not encourage lingering after the race.  Basking in the afterglow soon cooled to shivering in the wind, so we headed home to continue reviewing the race.

The initial burst of analysis is focused on times.  With the aid of our Garmins GPS watches, we could quickly distill the race down to mile splits and paces.  “Here’s where I slowed down,” and “Look how I picked up my pace at the end” punctuated our detailed view of the data.  Even if we don’t remember the nuances of our progress along the course, aided by technology we could reconstruct the journey.

The instant availability of race results online takes the discussion in a whole new direction.  Suddenly we can see how we stacked up against the whole field of runners, our sex and age classification.  The topic takes on renewed energy, as we then hunt down the results for family, friends and loose acquaintances who ran the race.

IMG_0113 trimmedOnce showered, fed and sporting our new Finisher T-shirts, the intensity of our scrutiny dwindles, and we can even engage in normal conversation.  But fair warning to family members – any comment can readily trigger a return to the race route and a related comment.  Particularly over dinner that evening when congregated with spectators and supporters.

Morning brings the newspaper coverage of the race.  Admittedly it is already dated, and although we rarely read the physical print edition any more, the race requires a purchase.  There is nothing like pouring over the list of finishers in tiny print, checking the times of the top age group runners, and reading the stories of victories and personal experiences.  It not only refuels the post-race frenzy but spawns new ambitions and challenges.  “If only” in this race is converted to “next time.”

Didn’t I tell you I’d be reconsidering a return to the full marathon?  It must be catching.  Erik just signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon.  I think I need more time to rehash that decision before committing.  Maybe next year.

A boat is coming!

Growing up in Duluth, we could hear the boats tooting from our house.  And the bridge’s unique signal in response.  The incoming ships would sound their horns just about even with our house.  On a nice summer evening, it spawned instant activity – “let’s go see it go through the bridge!”  We’d jump in the car, race the ship down to Canal Park and rush to the pier to watch the huge vessel slide under the bridge.

I had a poster on the dresser next to my bed, with all the smoke stacks of the Great Lakes ore boats.  And my dad, who worked for a mining company, knew many of the ships by sight.  Living in Duluth, shipping season is part of every day life.

Having returned to live in Duluth once again, I still thrill at the sight of the boats on Lake Superior.  I was there on the shore to see the first ship leave port this spring, among the piles of ice that lined the water’s edge.

While I still love to hear the ships tooting, I no longer need to rely on them for my ship arrival and departure information.  With the leap in years between my youth and my return, there has also been a leap in technology.  While there is a wealth of information available on the web, I wanted access to the data any time, anywhere. So I turned to my trusty iPhone and yes, there’s an app for that.

photo 2I’m a visual person, so I tested out several apps that display ships on a map.  I chose the MarineTraffic app for its intuitive visual display and ease of use.  It has different icons for docked and moving ships, displays the direction of travel, and tapping an icon displays a picture of the ship and detailed information about the vessel, its current voyage and last position.  It’s a great way to see what’s coming and going, or to identify a ship out on the lake.

But that still doesn’t tell me when to find the ship under the bridge.  For that I turned to a shipping schedule.  The best source I found for that is the Duluth Shipping News.  They have a web page that lists Arrivals and Departures for Duluth, Superior and Two Harbors.  In addition to estimated ship movement times, it includes what cargo it is loading or discharging, which I find interesting.  To make this easy to access, I created an icon on my iPhone that goes directly to that web page. (Here are step-by-step directions to do that.)

My techie side is happy with my new apps.  And I’m sure they will be very useful.  But if I hear a boat tooting on a nice evening, I may still race it down to the bridge.

Two Techie Cyclists

We admit it. We love our technology. My husband, Rich, and I are avid cyclists and have taken to doing long distance cycling trips. We love the slower pace and more engaged style of travel that it encourages. We have mastered the art of traveling light, even when camping. And that includes our techie toys.

First on the list are our Garmin GPS watches. We haven’t updated them in years, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Although the older models are much bulkier, they have bigger displays for our aging eyes. We wouldn’t dream of going for a ride without them. They not only display our mileage, pace and time as we go, but when we get home we download them to SportTracks where we can view our route on a map, and analyze other data ad nauseam.

DevicesThat brings us to the next item – our tablets. Absolutely essential. In addition to blogging (of course!), we download all our photos each night, to edit and organize them.  And of course we use email, maps and other apps. They are the most economical use of space for any device we bring – particularly as they allow us to read an unlimited number of books along the way.

Smartphones are our lifeline while we’re gone. We don’t use them much during the day, but they are there if we need them, and keep us connected to family back home. And then there are the maps. Rich can download Google Maps locally on his Android phone ahead of time, and even without a cell connection he can use GPS to pinpoint us on a map and clarify where we really are. Or where we need to go. It has saved us many a wrong turn.

Not bad, just three devices each. But now that we’ve taken to doing longer trips and camping, we face new challenges. Our Garmins only store a limited amount of data – four full days is about the max mine will hold before the detail gets written over. Even if we trade off using them on alternate days, it’s still not enough. Enter Sportablet. It’s an Android app that Rich has loaded on his Nexus 10 tablet, and now we can both download all our GPS data nightly and save it for the duration of the trip. It works like a dream!  So we have our data licked.  (And to give Android its due, clearly there are some things it does much better than Apple – handling external data is one of them.)

PowerMonkey being chargedPower is not an issue when staying in motels, but what about when camping? We turned to solar power on our last trip, using the SolarMonkey Adventurer. I strapped it onto my sleeping bag to charge during our ride in the daytime, and at night we were able to recharge two Garmin GPS watches, two cell PowerMonkey chargingphones, and it still had additional power capacity. At 15 oz, we deemed it worth carrying.  Power solved, at least if the sun shines…

Our next trip will be 2,000 miles long, and will keep us on our bicycles up to two months.  Sunshine and satellites willing, and the occasional internet connection, we will be happy techies.

3-2-1 Lego!

Lego League has been a part of our lives since our son, Erik, begged his dad to let him buy a Lego Mindstorms kit with his own money. We were only too happy to encourage a “toy” that involved Legos and a programmable controller for robotics. From there it was an easy leap to joining Lego League.

Before Erik was involved, we went to see a tournament. They call it “A Sporting Event for the Mind” and that’s exactly what it is. We stepped into a gym to hear blaring music, the professional voice on an emcee and kids competing against each other with robots on 4′ x 8′ fields. It was every bit as exciting as any sport your could imagine.

We were so sold that Rich soon signed on as the team’s coach – never having worked with kids before in his life. A year later, I was drafted to help with the research project and skit for competition. We were all in. Erik stayed with it all through high school, and it propelled him into a top rated engineering school where he earned a degree as an Electrical Engineer. He’s quite a poster child for Lego League.

IMG_9527 trimmedToday, the three of us are volunteer judges for tournaments. Saturdays in late fall and winter will see us spending all day in a school, talking to team after team about their robot, their programming and their research project. It’s a highly satisfying job, and so rewarding to see kids get so excited about working with math, science and technology. It takes a lot of judges to run a tournament, and we meet fascinating people each time we sign on for a tournament. As they say, when you give of your time, you get so much more in return.

IMG_9534Of course, the most exciting part for the kids are the Competition Rounds. There, they run their robot against the clock, seeing how many missions they can accomplish in their allotted two minutes. They can only touch their robot when it is in base – the rest has to be done through programming, sensors and a solid mechanical design. It is great fun to see the IMG_9530creative ways the kids dream up to achieve their missions, and often it is the younger, uninhibited teams who come up with the most unique solutions.

Recently we judged at the State Tournament. There it was the cream of the crop – the teams who had won their regional competitions and earned a spot in this final round. It was there that we learned a fascinating fact. We knew that Minnesota was one of the leading states in generating Lego League teams – in fact, there are more Lego League teams per capita in Minnesota than in any other state. And in many schools it has become a varsity sport. But the curious fact that drove it home dramatically was this – there are more varsity Lego League teams in the state of Minnesota than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams! I love it – the mind game has won out over slapshots and forechecking. Way to go Lego robotics teams!

Home is where the computer is

We’ve had our house in Duluth for over two years now, and we’re beginning to tip the balance with spending more time there than in the Cities.  Instead of making trips to Duluth, I feel like I’m packing for a few days in the Cities.  That’s all fine with me!

But it does make for a transition of goods.  Most of my clothes still live in the Cities, and my favorites seem to travel back and forth.  I guess that just goes to show how few clothes I really need…  Perhaps there is a message there for me, and a closet cleaning activity in store.  Specialty cooking tools and ingredients appear to be making a gradual migration.  We’re more likely to entertain in Duluth, so with each recipe different items make my packing list.  Sports clothes are largely duplicated in each home, but the big ticket items like bikes and skis will continue to travel back and forth.

But the real indicator is my computer.  Until now, my “main” computer has stayed in the Cities.  It has all my specialty software installed – including SportTracks for tracking my workouts, and Scrapbook Factory for designing Christmas letters and creative photo pages – and stores all my photos and files.  In Duluth I have used a hand-me-down computer, which I primarily use to connect to the internet, do email, write on my blog, and use Word and Excel.  Any files I need from my main computer are accessible by virtue of using Carbonite for online backups or with Dropbox.  It’s a system that has worked well so far.  But now that has changed.  Recently I loaded up my main computer and moved it to Duluth.  For a technophile like me, that’s making a statement.  Duluth is becoming our real home.

Doing without Electricity

We pride ourselves on our lack of technology and unnecessary appliances at the cabin. But truthfully, over time improved cell signals have enabled some devices to creep into use. I will admit to occasionally checking email myself. And then there was the arrival of wireless Internet at the bait shop. Suddenly the trip for the morning papers took longer than before.

But all that's a moot point without electricity. When the storm took out our power the other night, little did we know that days later we would still be managing without it. The smartphones were the first to go. The storm hit in the evening, when the devices were already depleted from searching for distant signals. Common cell phones fared better. We all switched to airplane mode to conserve what little life was left. iPads without a data plan hung in there, but the Kindles were the clear winners – they can go forever without a recharge. Good thing, as reading is a high priority at the cabin.

On the more mundane side of life, we have bemoaned the loss of our fans in the continuing heat, humidity and lack of wind. But the lake has served to cool us off. Opening the fridge is severely restricted, and has been supplemented with a cooler of ice. We normally grill most of our meals anyway, and have been using up our fresh fruit and salads. By chance, my son brought his camp stove – that's our next option. And thank heavens for the old fashioned outhouse… Without electricity, we have no water pump.

And then there are the creative solutions. We have swapped the usual evening board games for 20 Questions. Booklights and headlamps are in demand for nighttime reading. Our son, the newly minted electrical engineer, fashioned a recharger out of batteries and a dissected charging cord. Since it produced smoke, we opted not to plug in any of our precious devices. We patiently awaited my husband's arrival today, as his car held an electric converter. Although we earlier poked fun at our neighbor who recharged her iPhone in their truck, the idea has since become more appealing. If this keeps up tomorrow morning, we're going to plug in our coffee maker. Communicating with the outside world can wait. There is only so long we can go without our morning caffeine.

Map before you run

GPS is great.  But it doesn’t do much for planning routes in new areas, or figuring out where to run or cycle in an unfamiliar city.  That’s where mapping websites come in handy.

I happen to use the Gmap-Pedometer website.  It’s a handy mapping tool that allows you to click on roads and trails to create a route.  It shows mile or kilometer markers and allows you to “undo” if you want to change a section.  There are several types of maps to choose from, including satellite maps and terrain.  It understands running and cycling paths, and if you just need to get from one spot to another, you can tell it to just draw a straight line.  Sometimes I use all three methods to draw the map I want.  The mileage calculates as you go, and records the final distance.  When you are satisfied with your map, you can save it and bookmark the URL.  Alternately, if you create an account you can name and save your maps there, which I find to be a lot more convenient.  The site also allows you to record your workouts.

USA Track & Field website has similar capabilities.  I find it a bit more tedious for mapping as it only uses straight lines, while gmap-pedometer will automatically follow the curves of a path or road.  However, it does calculate total climb, and present a graph of the elevation profile.  The site also has a database of routes entered by other runners.  You can search for routes in a particular location based on distance, starting point and route rating.

Note the accuracy – each of these examples follows the same route that I ran and captured on my Garmin GPS and SportTracks in my previous post.  The mileage is almost identical.

Check these out to eliminate guesswork and plan your next route!