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Fitbit: the Force is strong, two months on

The Fitbit Force

Two months after I started using the Fitbit Force, it’s time to reflect on how it’s working for me.

Overall, I like it a lot. It quickly made me become more active day to day, and that’s become a sustainable habit already. It could so easily have been a different story, mind you.

A near-miss

One of the major downsides of the Force is how easy it is to lose. For quite a long time after purchase (until the band softened a little) it was quite hard to do up, and consequently it’s easy to wear it without realising it’s not on properly. Similarly, it’s quite easy to undo. It fell off at least once a day in the first week I had it.

A week after I started wearing it, I went on holiday. It fell off a couple of times while I was taking bags on and off my shoulders during the journey. Once we reached Buenos Aires, we navigated the usual airport confusion of how to find a cab that won’t rip us off. Less than five minutes into the cab journey, I noticed the Fitbit was gone. My wrist still felt newly exposed. I realised I must have lost it as I put my bag in the boot.

Yep, I’d had it a week before losing it. I pictured someone finding my ‘watch’ by the cab rank, not being able to charge it, and putting it in the bin. I was gutted.

My long-suffering and wonderful husband immediately tried to console me, even offering me his Jawbone Up as a substitute. I was just bloody annoyed, both at the wasted money and the idea of slipping down the Fitbit league table.

I looked at my phone, opening the Fitbit app to see what I was missing, largely to irritate myself further and wallow in some self pity.

Improvised clasp on Fitbit

The improvised clasp is not a good look

Finding your Force, said the app.

Good luck with that, I told myself.

Then the screen flashed Syncing…

What? That meant my Fitbit was in Bluetooth range. It was in the car!

Half an hour later, we reached our hotel I the city centre. The driver got our cases and backpacks out of the car. And there, wedged in the seam of the boot, was my Fitbit. My husband breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t be spending the next fortnight moaning about my lost wearable.

Once we’d checked in, D made me a ‘safety catch’ for the Fitbit using some elastic from his sock (pictured right). It did the trick, but I suspect this isn’t the brand image Fitbit are after. Looking at reviews on Amazon, the poor clasp design has been a problem for others. The Force could really do with a loop to keep the strap done up if it pops open. I’m hoping an enterprising person will soon offer this on Kickstarter.

Since then I’ve managed not to lose it again (although it did get wet and have to be replaced).

Nudging me to a more active lifestyle

Having quickly shot to the top of the friends’ Fitbit league table while on holiday, I’ve been determined to stay there ever since.  So I’ve been adding additional walks into my day where I can – walking instead of taking the tube to Waterloo, taking the stairs instead of the lift, finding branches of Pret that are further away from the office and using those instead.

On days when I’ve been uncharacteristically sedentary, I go out for an ‘emergency run’ when I get home. So it’s fair to say gamification works for me and is helping to nudge me into a more active lifestyle.

We even have an Intranet Steppers Fitbit group, where a few of us enterprise web geeks compete to be the most active.

In good company

It turns out we’re in good company. When business leaders met at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, one of the key themes was The New Digital Context – the biggest societal and technological forces shaping the world today. Over a third of the audience at the Digital Context session were using a Fitbit or similar. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff named the Fitbit as the piece of technology had had made the biggest impact for him in the previous year.

That’s an impressive result. It even emerged some of the world’s top CEOs have their own Fitbit league. When Michael Dell spotted Benioff had no Fitbit activity for three days, he rang to check he was ok. Like me, Benioff believes wearables can be life-changing technology, and will be big business in 2014 and beyond.

While it’s not immediately useful as a marathon training aid, for me – and for many Davos attendees – wearables are encouraging more active and healthy lifestyles all year round.

A home run

Battersea Power Station

Today I tried running home from work for the first time. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for ages – first, looking up all manner of routes on MapMyRun, then obsessing over what kind of runner’s backpack I’d need to minimise chafing.

But yesterday I caught up with two colleagues who are also running the London Marathon to compare training strategies. Both are taking a similar approach to me – a weekend long run with a couple of runs in the week – and we chatted about the logistics of fitting in running around our busy jobs.

On my way home I realised the obsessing with routes and kit was yet more procrastination, and I should Just Bloody Do It. The struggle with hills on my last two long runs have left me feeling a little downbeat about my strength, so I figured I ought to try some running on the flat to cheer myself up. And the run home from work is exactly that – right along the Thames from the City westwards. None more flat.

Attempting to set off early, I changed into my kit then had a minor panic about what I did and didn’t need to take home. Eventually I stuck my iPad and personal phone in my bag along with my Oyster and bank cards and a bottle of water, and stuck my work clothes, shoes and the handbag full of crap I usually carry around in my locker in the office. I strapped on my Pebble and my little rucksack, fired up Spotify and Runkeeper, and headed out of the building.

I headed vaguely south-west, hitting the riverside at Blackfriars, down the embankment to Westminster and my old workplace, the Houses of Parliament. I ran past the bus stop opposite my old office on Millbank, and felt a pang of guilt at the number of times I’d hopped on the bus from there to Vauxhall rather than do the 15 minutes walk.

From there I kept going along the river, past Millbank Tower and the Tate, and headed for Fulham. There I was stuck on a corner for five minutes while police stopped traffic in all directions until a car and motorcycle outrider appeared.

It passed, and I was off again, heading along the embankment. When I stopped to take a picture of Battersea Power Station, I noticed my Pebble – which I’d thought I’d fixed after its recent fail – had died again and was giving me the error 504 sadface.

Strangely, this didn’t bother me at all. I was actually really enjoying the run. I kept going, ticking London bridges off in my head as a passed. Vauxhall, Chelsea, Albert (site of my very first snog, fact fans), they seemed to pass in a blur as I processed the day’s stresses and mentally wrote the first half of this blog post.

This is the point where the Thames Path veers quite spectacularly from the actual river and gets quite confusing, so I made for the relative safety and simplicity of Kings Road, which gets progressively less glamorous as it extends west.

Outside a kebab shop, some twats with bikes shouted something at me. I expect it wasn’t very nice. I didn’t care. Right then, I felt fucking brilliant. Strong and healthy and happy.

Soon I reached Putney. It was just before 7pm by then, so I decided to head for the station and take the last couple of stops back from there, else I’d have been ridiculously late back, and the route from Putney home is through parkland so I wouldn’t feel safe at night.

I jumped on the train a couple of stops, then sprinted the last half a kilometre back from the station with a huge grin on my face. I haven’t felt so alive in years.

Long slow run report: Bristol

Avon Gorge and Clifton

Running is a fantastic way to explore a new city. By sticking your trainers on and getting out there at street level, you really get the feel for a city and how its neighbourhoods connect together. Wherever you are, with running gear on and some music in your ears, you look – and quickly feel – like a local.

This weekend I was afforded just such an opportunity, when the four of us who run Intranetizen, a world-leading intranet blog, got together for a planning weekend in Bristol, to look at the design and content of our website.

Regular readers of this blog (hello Mum!) will note there was no Long Slow Run Report last week. Having prepped for a a good 12-miler, I promptly got one of the worst colds I’ve had in years and really couldn’t face it. But with less than three months to go to the big day, I can’t afford to miss another weekend’s mileage, so that meant being an anti-social house guest and heading out for a big long run on my own.

Our host and long-time Bristolian Jonathan Phillips plotted a route for me using mappedometer, taking in all of Bristol’s main sights in an 11-mile route.

From Jon’s house in the north of Bristol, I headed to Durdham Downs. It was a beautiful winter’s morning, but seemingly endless rain we’ve been having meant this section, on grass, was surprisingly tricky. I had to do baby steps for a good 2km to avoid slipping over. When I reached the edge of the park, all was forgiven. Firstly, it was paved. But more importantly, it has a spectacular view over Avon Gorge and down to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bristol was looking mighty fine on Saturday morning.

From there I headed down Circular Drive, then up Ladies Mile and back down again, before heading out of the park and down a steep hill, into Clifton, and past Bristol Zoo.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge

From there I headed onto Clifton Suspension Bridge. There’s something strangely pleasing about running across bridges. Living by the Thames it’s something I get to do quite a lot, but Clifton is a spectacular bit of engineering, and one which I was pleased to be able to see up close.

From there it all went a bit wrong. The plan was to head straight on, touch the entrance to Ashton Court, then turn back and head back the way I came. But somehow I took the wrong turning and ended up heading the wrong way. Pleasingly, it was all downhill, so I kept going. But when the pavement ended and I was running on the edge of the road with traffic racing past me, I realised this was a bad idea. I was going the wrong way. Worse; that nice downhill run was about to become a steep uphill on the way back.

I turned and ran back the way I came. There was a raised pavement on the other side of the road, so I headed over where at least I felt safe. But that was quite some hill. I don’t know if it’s because it’d been a fortnight since my last long run, but I found it really tough going. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any power in my legs at all. My run was barely any faster than walking, and at one point I gave up and just power-walked it.

I found my mojo again when a tourist stopped me and asked the way to Ashton Court, which only added weight to my theory that you always look like a local in running gear. I had no idea but could confidently state it wasn’t down that way.

This detour added about a mile to the route, the latter half of which was a horrible uphill slog. Eventually I reached the entrance to Ashton Court and headed back to the bridge. For the first time in what seemed like hours, I was back on the flat and running seemed easy again. I crossed back from North Somerset to Bristol, admiring Brunel’s engineering wonder on the way.

onion seller

Onion Johnnies: normal for Bristol

From there I headed back uphill into Durdham Downs. Again, I really struggled with the incline. It was around about there I started to question both my ability to complete a marathon and my sanity for even attempting it. I just couldn’t find any power in my legs to get me up the hill. After what seemed like an age (but was probably only ten minutes), I reached the top of the hill. Back on the flat everything seemed ok again; I could have gone on for another hour.

After my unplanned detour earlier I decided to cut out Ladies Mile and the path along the edge of the gorge and head straight for Jon’s house. I ended up going the wrong way entirely, taking me into Bristol suburbia, where I saw a Frenchman selling onions and a man who fell from the eighteenth century,

After two hours and eleven miles of exploring, I made it back with a mix of emotions. The hills were hard. I seem to have lost all my strength and I’ve definitely got slower. But I’m getting more confident about endurance. I will make it around. And that feels good.

 

A tale of tech fail

Pebble error message with sadface

It was perhaps inevitable that right after starting a blog about tech and running, all my tech would fail on me.

I ran the New Year’s Day 10k with both my Pebble and Fitbit. It was raining quite hard that day, and somehow it got into the Fitbit and messed up the display. It still seems to work ok, but the watery display just ruins my enjoyment of the device. Every time I look at it I feel a bit disappointed.

 

My water damaged Fitbit Force

My water damaged Fitbit Force

The Fitbit Force, unlike the Flex, doesn’t claim to be waterproof. Where the Flex can be worn showering and swimming, Fitbit advise users remove the band even for washing up. It does, however, promise to be rain and sweat proof – but my experience shows it isn’t.

Credit where due, Fitbit’s customer support have been excellent. I reported the fault through the Fitbit app, and quickly got an email back suggesting I return it to the shop where I bought it. Given the shop is in New York and I am in London, that’s not a goer. And besides, I threw away the receipt. I emailed back to say so, expecting a battle to get a replacement. They responded saying they’ll ship me a new one anyway. Impressed.

Then inexplicably, after ten months of only occasional use, my Pebble died on me too. It worked fine on my run, but when I got home and quit out of the Pebble’s Runkeeper app, it developed a fault which meant it shows nothing but a sad face.

I tried all the usual routes for a hard reset, but none of them work. The only other suggested fix I can find on the Pebble forum is to wait for the battery to run down and run a restore when plugging it back in.

I’m currently cursing the battery life and the fact I’d given it a full charge the night before. This could take some time. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have to return it.

It might be a blessing in disguise. This week Pebble unveiled the Pebble Steel at CES. It’s essentially the same watch but with a much more attractive steel casing and band. It’s gorgeous. I couldn’t justify buying one given I already have a Pebble, but if my one has to go to the great factory in the sky, then maybe it’s time to upgrade.

Long slow run report: the first ten-miler

steep slope sign

With exactly 100 days to go until the marathon, it’s time to start upping my distance. I did a nice 13.5k a couple of weeks ago, so on Sunday I did the first ten-miler of my training programme.

I began by reviewing my nutrition strategy. That is, I stayed in bed until half ten wondering if I could justify the rather excellent French toast with bacon and maple syrup from Pickle and Rye. In the end I decided against in favour of a skinny bacon sandwich (medallions on seeded rye bread), which had the edge as it was available in my own kitchen rather than going outside.

After that I spent an hour and a half waiting for my breakfast to go down and hoping it might stop raining. So it was half past one by the time I finally made it out. At least it actually had stopped raining.

I wore my Pebble and Fitbit, one on each wrist. Battery looked a little low on the Pebble, despite having been on charge all evening. Weird, I thought. I slipped my phone in the back pocket of my leggings and headed on out towards Richmond Park.

I was finding it tough right from the start. My Pebble was showing 6.49/km – a full minute slower than my 10k pace just a few days before – only partly accounted for by the slight incline on the road up to the park.

In ten minutes or so I reached Sheen Gate, the entrance to the park. On the plus side, Richmond Park is massive and beautiful, even on a grey January day. On the minus side, it’s hilly. The slight incline on the road up becomes a steady hill pretty quickly. As I headed towards Richmond Gate I started to get even slower.

I’d worn my jacket in case it started raining. I regretted this once I got into the park as it’s relatively mild for January and I was far too hot. At this point Kanye West’s Mercy came on my Spotify shuffle, a song I don’t really like and which goes on for far too long imho. I reached for my Pebble to forward the track on, only to find it had died. That battery indicator wasn’t lying after all. It felt like some kind of sign. I stopped for a drink of water, and as the sweet sound of Kanye West filtered into my ears, I got overtaken by my husband, who’d left 20 minutes after me.

I picked myself up and carried on, from Richmond Gate to Kingston Gate, a nice, gently undulating path along the edge of the park.

Right after Kingston Gate is Dark Hill, or as I call it Big Bastard Hill – a 100m incline over the course of a little under a mile. I haven’t run on hills for so long that I really struggled here; I was so slow I was barely running at all.  Just then, another runner I’d passed earlier on came the opposite way and I got my first hello, which gave me the boost I needed to get the the top of the hill, taking me to km 8 or so.

From there it’s a kilometre or so on the flat, to the point where the path starts heading downhill again. I stopped here to take a picture of the Steep Slope sign, and only then noticed a beautiful group of stags by the side of the path. It’s good, sometimes, so stop and take a look around. I lost a good five minutes here, but it was worth it.

The slope the signs refers to really is steep. Going down it I feel like I’m on wheels, and have to deliberately slow myself down so I don’t trip. This feels like the home straight, although really it’s only a little over halfway. From there it’s all flat, although at one point there was a giant, deep puddle which couldn’t be avoided at all so I did the last 3km with wet feet.

I reached Robin Hood Gate, then Roehampton. From there it’s no distance at all to my almost-end-point Sheen Gate, but I was finding it really hard. I stopped in my tracks, but a jogger coming the opposite way smiled and said “come on! you can do it”!”. I reached the gate, then Sheen high street, adding a little detour on the end to hit my target mileage.

I was a little disappointed to find, when I got home, that Runkeeper made it a touch under ten miles, so after all that I still felt like a bit of a failure.

Slow and hard work, this wasn’t one of my better runs.

Serpentine New Year’s Day 10k

Serpentine NYD 10k medal

I began the new year as I mean to go on, by getting up at the crack of dawn (9am) for my first race of the year – the New Year’s Day 10k organised by Serpentine Running Club.

This is the third time I’ve signed up for the NYD 10k, but only the second time I have bothered to have turn up, as last year the lure of getting a bit drunk then staying in bed proved more appealing. Had I not had the marathon coming up, I certainly would have done the same this year, as race conditions were grim. The morning offered the full triumvirate of runner’s favourites: cold, wind and rain.

The timing and almost guaranteed bad weather means the NYD 10k attracts a different crowd from other races – very few fun runners and slow plodders like me, and lots of Proper Serious Runners with athletic bodies and running club vests. I’d been told to expect a personal worst, but that 90% of the battle was getting to the start line.

This year seemed less well-organised than previously, with long queues for registration and bag drop. They also ran out of safety pins well before the start, leading to a bizarre threat to penalise anyone using more than two pins (!).

I bumped into two people I know around the start, my colleague (and fellow marathoner) Jeanette, and a friend from a running forum, which made me feel a little more at ease.

I made may way to the start line, where all the runners huddled together for warmth like emperor penguins in the face of the cold wind. At this point I wished I’d worn my jacket, but by then it was a bit late. Two people behind me discussed whether they’d break 40 minutes for the last time before they turned 40. I felt like a fat, slow fraud of a runner.

A little after 11am, we were off. The race runs on narrow paths through the park, so for the first 2km or so there’s a lot of jostling to get ahead as people find their space and pace. I started well; I looked at my Pebble and saw I was doing 5.36/km, but I was being overtaken by almost everyone else nonetheless.

The route is a winding one through Hyde Park, doubling back on itself a couple of times and including a loop which has to be run twice. By the time I got to the start of the loop at around km 4 there were people just finishing. One of them stepped in a massive puddle and splashed me from the waist down. In yet another sign that I am being comprehensively beaten at this game, this is the point where I started to feel dreadful and slow down, while the puddle-splasher sped on ahead as if it hadn’t happened.

From here on I slowed down to over 6mins/km for the next 4km. The loop is the worst bit of the course anyway – being lapped by speedy people running it for the second time – but this year was especially bad as there was a strong headwind and at one point I think there was even hail.

The water point here was very welcome, and after that I felt a little better. The 6km mark led me to do a little mental fist-bump at having got halfway, and after that the 8km mark seemed to come around quickly. From there it was the home straight. I glanced at my Pebble and realised that if I gave it some welly I could make it round in under an hour.

me-serpentine

My first medal of 2014!

I started to power though, and my speed upped a little – did km 8 in 5:53, and the final kilometre in 5:48 as I pushed myself to get over the line before the hour mark.

My chip time was 59:05 – pretty respectable, I thought, and certainly no personal worst. But it was a strong field of Proper Runners so I was 439th of 582 runners to cross the line.

After the finish I got a medal – hopefully the first of several in 2014 – and a t-shirt (not a technical one, but still decent swag given the £17 entry fee).

What made this race great were the volunteers who were up early on New Years Day to make this a great race for everyone and get the running year off to a good start.

Finding my feet

putney

After feeling a little despondent about my training so far (or the lack of it) and resolving to up my game, I finally did.

I live by the river Thames, which is an excellent place to be (until the sea levels rise, when it won’t be). Amongst the many great things about where I live is that the Thames towpath is right on my doorstep. It’s a brilliant place to run; there’s no traffic, it’s peaceful and quiet, and you get to see the different birds as the seasons change. I know it sounds wanky, but it makes me feel much calmer and more connected to the seasons when I get out along the river.

I have a regular route from where I live in Barnes down to Hammersmith and beyond, and back again. Whenever I want to add a bit on to my distance, I just add another bridge on to my route on either the way out or back again. The Hammersmith-Barnes loop is a nice 7.5k – a good lunchtime distance – but I hadn’t been further than that in a while.

Today I reached Hammersmith and still felt like I had plenty more in the tank, so I kept going, all the way down to Putney, across Putney Bridge (see photo above), and back down the north side, around 14k in total.

It was an absolutely beautiful day. Cold but sunny. There were cormorants and herons on the shore, and rowers out on the river. I felt fit and strong and happy, and as I made my way back home, I felt like I could have gone on longer were it not getting dark. For the first time I felt like I can really do this.

I can run a marathon.

First impressions of the Fitbit Force

Fitbit Force

I have a new gadget: the Fitbit Force.

Force is the newest addition to the Fitbit range of activity trackers, which aim to ‘nudge’ sedentary people to move more. It’s a pedometer, essentially, recording the number of steps walked or run, distance covered, calories burned, etc, with a small push-button display. The Force combines the functionality of the Fitbit One (with its screen display) with the sleeker look of the Fitbit Flex wristband. Read more about the Fitbit Force here.

Like a lot of women I rarely wear anything with pockets, so if I’m going to carry something around with me all the time, it really needs to go on my wrist (at least until the Google Glass becomes less douchebag-gy).

The relative puny functionality of the Flex had put me off buying one, but when I heard the more feature-rich Force had been launched I was keen to get my hands on one. It’s only available in the US at the moment, but it’s due for UK and international release in January 2014.

I love a gadget, and I especially like this kind of gadget as I like to measure and track things, but I’m not very good at remembering to do it. The beauty of the Fitbit and its ilk is you don’t really need to record anything – it does it for you.

For the past nine months I’ve been using the Pebble smartwatch, which can run native apps, but works primarily as an additional screen and controller for a smartphone. I find it a bit too chunky for general use, but it’s a brilliant device for runners – it allows me to skip tracks and keep an eye on my Runkeeper distance and pace via the watch, which means I can keep my phone in my pocket rather than on an arm strap, making for a more comfortable run.

Both the Pebble and the Force also tell the time. So if I want to know the time, I can look at my wrist, rather than getting my phone out. Revolutionary, right? I’m not sure it’ll catch on.

Early impressions

My early impressions of the Fitbit are good; it’s comfortable to wear, reasonably attractive, and the battery life is solid. It’s already making a difference to my activity levels; in my first three full days of usage I’ve found myself going out of my way to walk to places to bump up my ‘steps’ total.

The device works in conjunction with a smartphone app, which has a really clean, intuitive user interface. It also uses gamification techniques, awarding badges for achieving total or daily distance goals, and allows you to compete with friends. This feature brings out my worst competitive instincts; the three friends I run Intranetizen with are Fitbit users, and I’m determined to make my way up the league table.

Here’s my Fitbit profile – if you’re a Fitbit user, do add me. The more competition, the better.

But while the Fitbit seems effective at nudging users to be more active day to day, how useful is it for marathon training? I’m not sure. Number of steps isn’t a particularly useful training metric, and building two-mile walks into my working day is unlikely to prove a useful marathon training tactic.

Nonetheless, I like it. I’m about to head off on holiday, so there will be no running until mid-December. In the meantime, I’ll be using the Fitbit to track my holiday walks in Argentina – to make me feel less guilty about all the steak I’ll be eating.

So, this happened

clean trainers

“Oh crikey” was my first thought when I opened the email from work saying I’d won a place in their London Marathon ballot.

Ok, so anyone who knows me knows that isn’t really what I said. A stream of expletives too rude to publish on a PG-rated blog went through my head and I screamed “SHIT” at the top of my voice. Fortunately I was working from home, or I’d have had some odd looks from my colleagues.

I ran through to my husband in the room across the hall and told him the good news.

“Congratulations!” he replied “I guess that means you need to get back on the training, eh?”

That bought me back down to earth with a very hard bump. I don’t really like running. I see it as a necessary evil, something to burn off a few calories and help in my endless battle between fitness and fatness. I tolerate it, and sometimes it even feels good. But training, to run 26.2 miles, well that’s a different story altogether, isn’t it?

You see, I’m 33. I’m a 5’0″, dumpy, slightly overweight woman in my mid-thirties. I’ve run three half-marathons before, but the last one was in March. Since then my running habit has waned. I developed a reasonable early morning gym habit over the summer, but as the mornings have got colder and darker and that’s been less appealing than staying in bed and reading the entire internet on my phone.

My recent lazy patch, together with my fondness for chocolate, means I’m tipping the scales at 63kg today. And I have to run a marathon in five months and two days’ time. Shit.

“I need to do something” I thought. So I did what any sensible runner would do: I posted the good news on Facebook so my friends could have a good laugh.

Then I toddled upstairs, and put on my running kit and trainers. My most recent run was barely 15 minutes. I could have gone further, but I couldn’t be arsed. But now I have to be arsed.

“Half an hour. Just keep running for half an hour,” I told myself as I strapped on my Pebble smartwatch and fired up Runkeeper on my phone.

And so, I ran. Through the recreation ground, past Barnes station and through the common all the way to the Spencer Arms in Putney, by some odd back route I’ve never come across before. Putney was where we had our wedding reception, and it was our wedding anniversary, so I kept going all the way to the riverside venue, where exactly two years ago we celebrated our marriage.

After that I looped back down the river towards home. 9k in total. 45 minutes. And it felt pretty good.

As I was running, I started to think “I can do this. I can run a marathon.”

In my head, I started making a plan. I need a training plan.

But more importantly than that, I need a website.

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