I’m writing about one of the endurance runner’s favorite tools, the GPS watch.
In “Gulliver’s Travels,” the 1726 satire by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput. There, Gulliver is regarded a giant, as he finds himself towering over the Lilliputians, the inhabitants of the island who are six inches tall.
In a memorable exchange with the Lilliputians, Gulliver pulls out his pocket watch — a tool they have never encountered. The Lilliputians report that it is either “some unknown animal, or the god he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us … that he seldom did anything without consulting it (1).”
Gulliver consults his watch before he does anything, such that the Lilliputians think it is his god.
Gulliver has this in common with the contemporary endurance athlete.
I love my GPS watch for all the usual reasons. As a nostalgic person, the data functions like a receipt for my running adventures. I can revisit my metrics, poring over the numbers and making sense of them. Unlike a memory, which shape-shifts and fades, the numbers are objective and constant.
My GPS watch is also a great accountability tool. It helps me keep track of my training so that my mileage is inerratic and sensible. If I say I am running easily but my heartrate says otherwise, I can confront this reality honestly.
Also, the first year I trained with a GPS watch, I grew faster. I used the data to draw nearer to my limits by recognizing I could sustain faster paces than I imagined, before my body entered the red zone. Introspection alone did not convince me to probe my limits. I needed to see the numbers to believe I could run harder.
So, I love my watch. But two things can be true, and it is possible that I am becoming a bit like Gulliver in my habits of attention. There are reasons to wonder about how my watch is impacting me — potentially for ill.
Here are a few concerns:
1. The Loss of the Creature
There is an essay by Walker Percy called “The Loss of the Creature (2).” Percy describes barriers to “direct, sovereign perception in a world full of experts and packaged experiences (3).”
For example, Percy describes the impossibility of gazing simply at the Grand Canyon. The sightseer does not see the Grand Canyon in itself. Rather, the Grand Canyon has been “appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind (4).” It is mediated through the lens of expectation, photography, and information. We are abstracted from the experience “in itself.”
Percy gives a second example of a student reading a Shakespearean sonnet (5). The student does not experience the sonnet directly. The sonnet is mediated through symbols and framing, or explanations offered by instruction. It is not encountered on its own terms.
Percy’s observation rings true of my experiences with a GPS watch. It is often challenging to experience running immediately, directly, and in fullness because — alongside expectations and an acquired knowledge of the sport — my runs are mediated by my GPS watch. My watch provides a stream of numbers I participate in, conscious of as they unfold.
I have written in the past about an observation my husband once made. He remarked that, when we run together, we are never really alone. We run with all of the people, including earlier versions of ourselves, who have ever run that same stretch of road and cast a digital shadow. This is true. I am not fully present.
Sometimes my watch malfunctions, and on some level, I feel as though my workout did not count — as though it makes a cosmic difference if I do not leave a trace of numbers in my wake. I feel as though my legs can’t benefit from a run that made no digital impact. (How will my legs know that I ran?)
And even when I leave my watch behind (something I do infrequently), I still view my runs through the habits of attention trained by my watch. My perceptions of running are mediated through the screen of numbers my watch has conditioned me to attend to as important.
So, this is the first concern. I was initially drawn to running, in part, to experience the outdoors in its fullness, and my GPS watch diminishes my status as a sovereign knower. These days I perceive my runs through the numbers my watch reports and the values I have assigned to them.
2. Beauty and Wonder
This concern is continuous with the first. The reason the “loss of the creature” matters is that certain experiences are forfeited in symbolic abstraction — namely the space to wonder, experience gratitude, and appreciate the world beyond the quantitative reports my watch generates.
It is fall in Virginia. A few weeks ago, there were a few red leaves portending the transition of seasons. Daily, large swaths of leaves have changed colors (6). As of this morning, my neighborhood park is resplendent — like a fireworks display.
Sometimes I run through scenes such as these, inattentive to the beauty and focused on my training objectives. The reason I noticed the leaves this morning was that my daughter (a red-headed toddler who was riding in the stroller) kept exclaiming, “The trees are red like my hair!”
I would like to inhabit my runs like my daughter does. I would like to restore wonder and gratitude to my training — at least sometimes. If my watch impedes these experiences, maybe I should run more with my toddler and less with my wearable tech.
3. Is and Ought
A final consideration is this: A GPS watch can tell us what ‘is.’ It provides a description of training — where we run, what we run, and when we run. But our watches cannot tell us what we ‘ought’ to run. They cannot tell us what we should prioritize or how running should fit into our lives.
I say this because there is a strong precedent effect in running. Sometimes I am drawn to run what I (or others) have run in the past, simply because that is the precedent. Sometimes momentum compels me to put more miles in because I feel like I should. But the numbers can’t tell me what is important, or how I should structure my training on balance with the rest of my life. My watch can only tell me what is, not what ought to be.
As I said, I love my watch. It is an important source of information and has facilitated self-honesty in my training. I do not intend to get rid of it anytime soon. But using a tool like a GPS watch can contribute to feelings of abstraction, and it can train our habits of attention toward measuring and controlling, over appreciating and experiencing gratitude. And ultimately, our watches cannot tell us what is valuable or how we should spend our time.
Call for Comments
- Do you train with a GPS watch?
- If so, do you ever prefer to leave it at home?
- Jonathan Swift. (1902, 1726). “Gulliver’s Travels.” Plain Label Books, p. 33
- Walker Percy. (2000). The Loss of the Creature, in “The Message in the Bottle,” 46-63. St. Martin’s Press.
- Leon Kass. (2004). Introduction to “The Loss of the Creature,” in “Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities,” edited by Leon Kass, 541. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Walker Percy. (2000). The Loss of the Creature, p. 47
- Walker Percy. (2000). The Loss of the Creature, pp. 57-9.
- The leaves have changed colors like an autumnal version of blob tag. Do people read endnotes?