Saturday, March 2, 2013

iSmoothRun iPhone App Review

For many years I have been a loyal Garmin Forerunner user. Two years ago, anticipating that I would participate in more triathlons than I subsequently did, I purchased the swim, bike and run friendly Forerunner 310XT.
This unit, and the two reliable Forerunners which preceded it have played an important part of my running. They provided me consistently reliable feedback during my training runs and races, and allowed me to wirelessly connect through my PC afterward to Garmin Connect and DailyMile (my favorite owing to their excellent runners' network, and the primary repository for my data.)

Despite this Garmin Forerunner loyalty, lately I have begun testing a new iPhone App, iSmoothRun, and in several ways it is a superior alternative.  For example, I used it on this morning's 12-mile Kenyan Way run, and found it helpful in achieving a negative split. I also appreciate its detailed weather information which, with other run parameters, is automatically uploaded from iSmoothRun to DailyMile, a capability which does not exist with Garmin's export facility.

iSmoothRun makes it easy to export one's complete activity data to multiple services.  History has proven that web services periodically close, often with no notice.  Consequently, a well prepared runner's best defense is to maintain their data on multiple services, which iSmoothRun facilitates as shown below:

My initial concern with iSmoothRun was with its distance measurement accuracy, since deviations proportionally affect calculated pace.  After testing both iSmoothRun and the Forerunner side-by-side over several test runs I have concluded that iSmoothRun's measurements are slightly more accurate.  The reasons for this are not completely clear, but I suspect relate to the excellent LTE-adjusted GPS measurement data captured by iSmoothRun on my iPhone 5. iSmoothRun consistently measures distances approximately 1.3% to 2% short of the Forerunner, approximately an equal margin that the Forerunner consistently measures certified race distances as excessively long.

Finding motivation from my iPhone's music playlists I appreciate iSmoothRun's optional ability to play from a playlist while announcing every mile through my headphones my run's data, including the past mile's and overall run's distance, pace and cadence.  Though the Garmin Forerunner provides the same information, in dimly lit conditions I have difficulty reading even the large Garmin 310XT screen, so I appreciate being able to hear this information additionally since it is non-interruptive to my running flow.

Also, I find periodic real-time cadence information to be valuable in reinforcing my ongoing migration towards a more rapid running cadence.  This is helpful both to improve my running efficiency and form. iSmoothRun assists in this regard by conveniently using the iPhone's built-in accelerometer to measure cadence, where-as the Forerunner requires the runner purchase a separate, expensive, and battery dependent shoe pod.

iSmoothRun's developer has proven responsive to my support e-mails, and open to product improvement suggestions including:
  1. When the user has only run one mile, in the announcement say "mile" versus "miles";
  2. In the set-up screen, allow user customization.  This would allow, for example, iSmoothRun to include the "Average cadence" text string preceding that numeric value;
  3. In the tabular run report, allow the iSmoothRun user to see displayed *for each mile* both the actual start/finish elevations, and the overall elevation increases/decreases within that mile;
  4. Allow the user to press and hold the select button on their iPhone's headphones to start or stop the run.  This feature is essential in a race or a competitive event since the runner is unable at the moment of crossing the start or finish lines to access their iPhone, and iSmoothRun's auto-pause feature would not be helpful since the runner cannot slow as they approach the start or leave the finish line area.
Until the final item is incorporated into a future release of iSmoothRun, I will continue to primarily rely upon my Garmin Forerunner in races.  However, given the many benefits of iSmoothRun over the Garmin Forerunner for training runs, and recognizing that the App costs only $4.99, I highly recommend it.

There are many other important iSmoothRun features beyond those mentioned above.  To learn more suggest you visit the developer's website.

Update (10/24/13):
After many months and many runs since this post I exclusively use the iSmoothRun App during training runs on my iPhone in lieu of carrying my Garmin Forerunner. I love it! Incidentally, I noticed on this morning's run that yesterday iSmoothRun issued a major new update to the App which significantly improves upon its appearance, but leaves the core functionality untouched.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Houston's Rodeo Run 10K Race Report

Every year I run Houston's ConocoPhillips Rodeo Run 10K, and I always enjoy it.  This year was no exception!

The primary reason is that the race is always lined with enthusiastic crowds of spectators.  The fact that the crowd is primarily there to see the trail riders who follow immediately behind the runners doesn't dampen my enjoyment at all.

One of these days I'll figure out running, as despite my presumed expertise in running races of varying length I made several mistakes while running a 45:36 (7:20 average pace), specifically:
  • In the face of the screaming crowd starting the first 5K at a much too fast 6:56 average pace, which revealed itself in the final half pace of 7:46;
  • Too many warm-up miles (3 versus an ideal 1), run at a get-to-the-start-before-they-begin frantic 8:00 pace versus an ideal 9:00;
  • Arriving at the race start with less than five minutes remaining which prevented a sufficient cool-down;
  • Not taking into account my leg fatigue having just six days prior run the Austin Half Marathon.
In any case, shown below are the trail rider photos that I took from my car on Memorial Drive while temporarily sharing the road.  Though my race performance was minimally affected by the resulting delay I am gratified to have had an opportunity to admire close-up these amazing trail riders, as they annually ride to Houston often from hundreds of miles away to kick-off our world class Rodeo and Livestock Show:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Austin Half-Marathon Race Report

Austin's famous Congress Ave. bridge during the 2013 Marathon
I have on several past occasions enjoyed running Austin's Full or Half Marathon.  Today was absolutely no exception!

The weather conditions were absolutely perfect, starting in the low 40's, low humidity, clear skies, and essentially no wind.  In waiting for the race to begin I was glad to have a sweat coat to keep me warm, as it saved me from the shivers and blue lips of many other 3:20 pace group runners dressed in their running attire.

It continues to amaze me the amount of body heat that we generate by running!  At the start of the race I jettisoned my sweat jacket, and despite only wearing my thin singlet was feeling excessively warm, so I stowed it and ran bare-chested.  This wasn't the first time upon doing so in "cold" race weather that I attracted startled glances from the coat and gloves laden spectators, but I didn't care!

Just past the finish line, after running 1:39:36
I ran strongly in my relatively new 2013 Newton Stability Motion Trainers, and they and I felt great.  I especially enjoyed the long downhills concentrating on keeping my hips projected forward, maintaining a slight forward lean from the ankles, and allowing my leg turnover - and therefore my speed - to significantly pick-up.  It was not surprising to pass many runners while doing so who were maintaining essentially the same leg turnover regardless. This common mistake is discussed in a dated but worthwhile Running Times article that additionally discusses the easy ways to adjust one's pacing strategy with hills.

Though I did not achieve by four minutes my Half-Marathon P.R. of 1:35, it was set in the ultra flat Chicago course during which my running regimen was of higher volume and more consistent.  Nevertheless, overall I completely satisfied as I had a another great race experience, so I highly recommend either the Austin full or half marathon.

Newton's Motion Stability Trainer 2013 Review

Newton's new 2013 Motion Stability Performance Trainer arrived a week ago, and with my loyal University of Illinois alumni blood was happy to see their orange color, especially as the prior version of this great shoe was blue.  Though my past shoe reviews typically only briefly reference color, in this case it deserves prominence as the 2013 version of Newton's Motion Stability Performance Trainer is minimally changed from last year's model.  Besides color, essentially only a softer upper differentiates this year's model - a key feature for sock-less runners (a group which I have not yet joined!)

With my characteristic confidence in Newton's build shoe quality and fit I have consistently run consecutively since receiving them, including in this morning's Austin Half Marathon - with great results.

In these and other Newton shoes their Action-Reaction technology provides the runner improved speed via better elastic recoil otherwise provided only by the calf and plantar fascia.  Particularly late in a half or full marathon when our stride mechanics worsen the benefits of these shoes becomes evident.  Bottom line, if you haven't tried a Newton shoe you should give them a spin - ideally from a specialty shoe retailer that allows you a real world (versus treadmill only) running experience.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Pacing a portion of the Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler

On Saturday late evening deep in the woods of Huntsville State Park with only my headlamp and a trail map to guide me, I was there to support Tim, a long-time friend and fellow multi-marathoner.  At about 10 PM in his 72nd mile we would meet at the Damnation aid station, and I would then run 11 miles with him in the nationally known Rocky Racoon 100 mile race.

While I had run several much shorter 50K's, this was my closest exposure to an ultra distance endurance race far eclipsing anything I had personally experienced.  I had already run 13 miles earlier that morning with Kenyan Way, so my legs were feeling the effects despite having had half a day's rest to recuperate.  So, it was with massive respect that I witnessed runner after runner gracefully put in mileage with steady legs that made me as an experienced marathoner scratch my head in amazement.

The Rocky Raccoon organizers wisely only permit pacing support in the runners' final 40 miles of their 100 mile race, which works well since by then the 50 mile runners have largely vacated the Park and its trails.  We successfully met at Damnation, and I exchanged pacing duties with Joanne, another long time experienced runner and friend.  Tim and I ran together for the next three hours, talking nearly continuously in our normal way discussing a diverse range of topics.

Though Tim was understandably tired (he had been running largely non-stop since 6 AM), he nevertheless showed tremendous strength and running skill.  I was particularly interested in his successful technique of walking all uphills while otherwise running for six minutes followed by a brief one minute walk break.

Having run the beautiful Huntsville State Park during two daylight hour 50K's, I was impressed that the 100-mile runners, in darkness punctuated only by their headlamps' illumination, successfully navigated the myriad pine tree roots which thoroughly carpet the trail.  Each of the hundreds of thousands of tree roots along the trail creates a treacherous challenge and puzzle to be solved in a fraction of a second with each foot plant.  Any momentary lapse of concentration or glance away from the trail provides the runner countless opportunities to trip, twist an ankle, and fall.

Tending amazingly and consistently well to the hungry, tired and occasionally injured runners were many volunteers who staff the aid stations that are provided approximately every three miles in the race's complex circuit.  All the runners that I overheard were openly and appropriately grateful to these volunteers, as only through their efforts could the race occur. 

I am proud of Tim that he completed his 100 mile race, narrowly (by less than 30-minutes) missing the achievement of breaking his goal of 24-hours - an amazing accomplishment nevertheless.  I was happy to be a part of the group of four running friends who have known and run with each other for many years, and successfully supported Tim through some rough stretches.  Simply expressing positivity and engaging conversation with a sleep deprived and exhausted runner is often-times all that is needed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Houston Marathon 2013; My first weather-induced DNF

Evening prior's reaction to the Marathon weather forecast
Like most runners in the week prior to the Houston Marathon I exchanged e-mails with other running friends and fretted endlessly about the expected weather conditions on Sunday morning.  In most cases such pre-race anxiety proves over-blown as the weather on race day proves better than had been expected, but this morning's race was the exception since the forecast was optimistic.

As correctly shouted by a West University spectator at mile twelve, due to the weather the 2013 Houston Marathon is one that all of its runners will long remember.  With starting temperatures in the low 40's, and powerful gusty northerly winds between 20 to 30 miles per hour carrying a mix of rain and sleet, despite growing up in Chicago I was ill prepared.
Mile 15, and close to my DNF

Though my clothing was warm enough, I had never practiced running long distances while frequently hurdling over large and growing puddles of water on the road surfaces hoping to avoid a premature soaking.  Eventually realizing that my efforts to keep my shoes and socks semi-dry was futile, owing to the cumulative effect of rainfall, splashing by adjoining runners, and the periodic necessity to step in puddles up to an inch deep, I did not anticipate the effect of such hurdling on my hip flexors.  The hip flexors are the critical muscle which one engages to lift up ones foot and leg during the running gait, and owing to these puddle jumps this critical muscle was excessively used long before mile 26.

Mark and Ryan Hall following the Houston Marathon
In fact, by the time the above picture was taken from a friend at mile fifteen (I'm the middle runner in green) I knew my proverbial goose was cooked.  Had I continued to run with my weak and deteriorating hip flexors I would have quickly have had to walk the remaining distance, for which my clothing was inadequate with temperatures by then in the upper 40's.  So, I chose to prematurely exit the course (i.e. DNF) at mile 16 since at that point on the course it is the closest possible distance to my home.  My wonderful wife kindly picked me up, encouraged me to take a hot shower, then brought me back to the race start.  There I enjoyed breakfast and congratulated my training partners and friends Xabier and Kim who had both finished well.

As a consolation prize, upon returning to the GRB I happened to see a line forming to meet Ryan Hall, which I took advantage of as I have long been a huge fan and supporter.  Mentioning my DNF, I was encouraged when Ryan responded "we've all been there" (as I know he has, having himself DNF'd on more than one race.)

Laura, Cortney, Xabier, Kim and Mark
So, in summary, despite the weather it was a great experience.  Naturally, I am very disappointed by the weather and the result, but I am lucky to have a set of such good friends and the Kenyan Way training group to help prepare together for future races

To all of the 2013 Houston Marathon runners, and especially for the many volunteers and supportive spectator along the course, I congratulate you.