State 21: Kentucky (2012 Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon)

The Setup

At some point in the snow-heavy winter of 2011, I had an idea.  Why don’t I run two half marathons in one weekend?  I could drive down to Louisville and run the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon on Saturday, and then drive 90 minutes to Cincinnati for the Flying Pig on Sunday.  I’d knock out two states at once and save myself some money in the long run.  But more importantly, it would be a great achievement and though I wouldn’t cross the finish with fast times, I’d have bragging rights for a while.

If the dream is to run the fifty states, then yes, Louisville, you tell a great truth.

“Don’t do it,” a co-worker with a 2:57 marathon PR said to me when I giddily told him this plan.

“Well, I haven’t signed up yet, but-”

“Don’t do it,” he said again with a solemn and sagacious expression.

“I mean, I wouldn’t race both, just-”

With a slow shake of his head, he repeated the cautionary mantra, pausing the broken record routine to tell me it’s hell on the body.  Under normal circumstances, I would take this as a challenge – who cares what others think, I’m doing it anyway!  But the Bayshore Marathon would be just four weeks after this crazy idea, and I had already decided that was the most important race of the season.  So I chose to run just the Flying Pig Half Marathon and ended up feeling great about the decision.  Not only did I get to bring along three friends on the trip, but I ran a PR in both Cincinnati and Traverse City four weeks later.  However, by opting out of the Derby, I had automatically slated it for 2012, which brings us to this weekend’s race.

The Company

As many of you might know, I love reading about fellow runners’ adventures.  I have a decent list of running blogs that I follow on a regular basis and I like to chime in now and then with my two cents.  On occasion, there will be some blogger overlap, but usually I find this out post-race, so the opportunity to meet new people face-to-face is gone.  However, this time, I knew ahead of time that three different fellow bloggers (five if you include Otter and myself) would be making their way to Louisville for the 11th annual Derby Marathon and miniMarathon.  There was Jeff, a Chicago road runner turned ultramarathon fanatic; Glenn, the local who would run his first half marathon; Aurora, who set out this year to run a half marathon every weekend; Otter, my trusty running hetero-lifemate, and lastly, me.

Otter, me, Glenn, beers for luck

Start Line

When you only have a night and some frenetic moments before and after a race to meet up, logistics can get complicated.  Fortunately, I was able to get together with Glenn Friday night at the Bluegrass Brewing Company for an APA.  I was pretty surprised that he agreed to get beers with us ten hours before his first half marathon.  I feel like I was on nutritional lockdown the week leading up to mine.  After he dropped some local knowledge on us, it was time to get some shut-eye.

We were up at 5 AM, skies troubled and winds cutting across the parking lot of the Jameson Inn, where we were staying.  The chance of rain had been fluctuating between 30% and 70% over the past few days and we (Glenn included) were expecting the worst.  Only twice have I run in rain, both times it was practically inconsequential.  With the amount of races I run, my lucky streak was bound to end, most likely in the shape of a date with torrential downpour.  But as we arrived at the start between the Yum! Center and Louisville Slugger Field, the rainclouds looked to be heading elsewhere.  Finding parking near the start was amazingly easy at 6 AM and we managed to snag a spot a block away from both the start and finish lines.  Right before the race was to begin, we met up with Jeff by the Pee Wee Reese statue outside the Louisville Sluggers stadium.  He was in Louisville from Chicago to run the full marathon as a training run, a lead-up to the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler in Wisconsin just two weeks down the line.  We wished him luck and made our way to the start.  We weren’t able to see Aurora, but wished her well in spirit.

Me with Jeff just before he went on a 26.2-mile training run.

The Race

“What time are you guys aiming for?” Glenn asked the night before.

Always a good question.  I try to run every race as well as I can, hoping to leave it all on the finish line.  But with the Indy 500 Mini-Marathon the next weekend, I wasn’t sure if going hard was the right thing to do.  But to answer his question, I told him that if the weather was ideal, I’d try and kill it.  I have a well-documented history of sandbagging and publicly setting up low expectations for myself, but if we get a cool day with little wind, I will always do everything possible to run a fast time.

Minutes before starting, we were in our corral, with the course spread out before us, blue skies and a calm breeze nudging us from the east.  The rain had avoided the city, meaning that the completely flat course was now accompanied by perfect conditions.  It was time to make it happen.

Fourth Street Live

The first four miles of the course were run through the wide streets of downtown Louisville.  Like all big races, I spent the first ten minutes cutting sharp turns around slower runners.  But even with the mandatory sidestepping, I was fast and unapologetic.  The first mile down Main Street was a 7:14, just a few seconds shy of my PR pace.  My last two half marathons have imbued me with a confidence that will catch up with me one day, but in the words of Aragorn, today was not that day.  At the risk of sounding too pompous, I’m calling it my Wanjiru breakthrough.  The late Sammy Wanjiru took the marathon by storm in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, defying the rules and proving that you can surge hard from the start without dying at the end.  Since then, Kenyans have uncontestedly assaulted all major marathons with reckless abandon.  It’s as if they all saw what was possible and downloaded Wanjiru’s tactics into their brains.

This is what was happening to me, except on a much slower scale, as I rounded mile 3 in 6:59.  Though the sight of a 6 in the minutes position of my pace still made me a little nervous this early in the race, it was no longer a siren warning me of impending doom.  I felt good at this pace … but as I approached the 7:14 pace group, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to stick with them for a few miles to keep my ambitions in check.

That lasted for two thirds of a mile.  When the course turned south on Broadway and onto 4th Street, I took off, hoping I wouldn’t see those guys again.  The course very quickly changed from drab urban grays to more scenic greens.  At mile 5.5 we wrapped around Central Park, where all memories of running through wide city streets were erased.  A large group of spectators had gathered at the end of this wraparound, just before the 10k mark.  My watch told me I was four seconds under PR pace, with a little over halfway to go.  The big question now was, would I be able to keep it up?

That task would be made easier by the miniMarathon’s course.  Glenn hadn’t lied to us when he said it would be amazingly flat.  It wouldn’t be until mile 8, where we entered the famous Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby horserace, that we would slide down, under the racetrack and back up into the concourse, briefly testing our climbing abilities for the first time.  I was pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t kicked in the nose by the smell of horse droppings.  Once inside the renowned and historical site, I began to run faster.  Part of it was the desire to negative split.  Another part stemmed from the sheer enormity of the venue, which put an extra kick in my stride.  But the biggest reason had to do with the 11-year old girl that was passing me.  I knew her exact age because her dad was running with her and everyone around them was fawning over how much of a badass she was.  I concurred.  But I wasn’t going to let an 11-year old girl beat me, so it was time to turn on the afterburners.  Later that day, Otter would ask me if I had seen the horses like a kid leaving the theater after seeing Star Wars for the first time.  I had more important matters at hand.

I cruised out of the Churchill Downs at a 6:52, shooting out of a dark tunnel and north onto 3rd Street, where we would run back to the finish line in a 3-mile straight line.  The beautification of the course would now be slowly undone as we ran from tree-heavy neighborhoods back into the heart of the city.  Because there were only two more turns in the race, it was very easy to get in a zone, focusing on nearby competitors and casting a line to reel them in.  The sun was out but temperatures were standing still at 55.  Thanks to all the trees, the road to the finish was covered in shade and there would be no mid-morning heat wave or fashionably late rainstorm to slow me down.

Finish Line, taken from the car on the highway

It was around then, just before mile 10 that I began to consciously ask myself: what can possibly stop me?  The last three miles were all run under 7 minutes and I wasn’t feeling signs of fatigue from my legs or lungs.  Some people might say that I was taunting the universe, presenting it with a potential teaching moment, the impudent youth biting off more than he can chew.  But I was being both bullheaded and completely honest when I considered it: what can go wrong in the next three miles to stop me from running the fastest race of my life?  Though the options were many, and I could produce a good list right now, nothing occurred to me at the time.  So I kept it up, running mile 11 in 6:49.

Quality. Bonus points for minimizing the Walmart sponsorship.

It was at that point that I realized my rivalries with 11-year olds weren’t over.  There were two young kids, easily under 13, running side by side ahead of me as we entered downtown Louisville for the last few miles.  These future Dathan Ritzenheims were also completely dry, because apparently you don’t sweat when you’re a middle school running prodigy.  I quietly wished them a rewarding athletic career, one in which running makes you cool in school, and left them to eat my dust.

As I reached mile 12 in 6:54, I took my first look at my overall time.  The clock read 1:24 and change.

Holy #%&$, I thought.  I’m actually doing this.  If I keep this up, I’ll earn a pretty big PR.  Or …

And “or” is what happened.  I started turning my feet over more quickly, practically springing off my toes with every step.  I had been trailing several runners for miles and it was time to put them behind me.  A guy with a white shirt that said “BEEF” on the back; another runner dressed in mostly pink with a shirt that said “Big or Small, We Save ‘Em All” (presumably running with a breast cancer charity); a female runner with a “Train Hard, Breathe Easy” shirt — all of them became targets.  One by one, I passed them all and never looked back.  Some were, in fact, breathing easy.  Others looked like they wanted the race to have ended miles ago.

I could see the right turn ahead onto Main Street, knowing that I was within striking distance of the finish line.  I reached mile 13 in 6:16, my fastest half marathon mile ever and by a huge margin.  The last 0.1 had a slight but delightful downgrade, which made it easy to begin a sprint.  I was happy, as I always am when I surpass my time goals.  But it wasn’t until I saw the clock that I actually felt a little short of breath.  I saw it and did something I haven’t done in the final moments of a race: I laughed.  In a state where I need every last rush of air to push me forwards, I was actually laughing.  I don’t remember if they said my name or if music was playing because I was in another world as I crossed the finish line, my arms shooting up above me like fireworks.

I finished in 1:30:47, a time that I would have considered impossible the night before.  Not only was it a PR by over three minutes, but it was faster than my all-downhill Tucson Half Marathon, which up until that morning, was the equivalent of playing video games with cheat codes or bowling with bumpers.  But best of all, it forever buried my fear of the 7-minute pace.  The last seven miles of the race were all under 7 and I felt like dancing.  Because of this, the race was more than just my 21st state – it was a genuine game changer.

A Kentucky Bison Smokehouse Burger with a “Pillar of Spuds” Celtic Ale

With my colorful medal beating proudly against my chest, I went to hoard some post-race snacks.  The organizers really went all-out, providing fruits, bagels, granola bars and even Sun Chips.  I took a few and ran to the car to get my camera.  Back at the finish line, I managed to get some quality shots of Otter obliterating his PR by an even bigger margin than me.  The rest of the day was spent eating delicious burgers at the Bluegrass Brewing Company, driving back to Chicago and reminiscing over our accomplishments.  All in all we loved the race – our only complaint, if we had to name one, was that not all water stations had Powerade.  It sounds petty, but if we had been running the full marathon, I’d be more than a little miffed.  Then again, if that’s my only criticism about a race that has to cater to almost 18,000 runners, then someone’s doing something right.

And so I notch one more Southern state onto my racing belt.  The region has been very kind to me, not just in providing me with quality, well-run races, but allowing me to scorch their courses to fast times.  As summer approaches, my opportunities for such performances diminish, so I’ll enjoy these glorious mad dashes while I still can.  For other perspectives and completely different stories about this race, check out the following blogs over the next few days: Otter‘s, Glenn‘s, Jeff‘s and Aurora‘s.



State 20: Tennessee (2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon)

I can’t properly describe my experience at the 2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon without first going into some recent history involving some running gear.  If you’re only interested in the race recap, please skip the following section and begin with “The Race.”  Fair warning, though, I will probably make a few references in the recap to the gear in the next sections, which might be confusing if you skip it.

Let’s Back Things Up A Bit …

Five weeks ago, I ran the Little Rock Marathon.  Because of a personal blunder (packing my shoes into my checked bag) and United’s merger-caused incompetence, I had to race all 26.2 miles in brand new shoes and clothes.  I was a nervous wreck at the starting line but somehow managed to cross the finish intact and with a personal best (so much for learning anything).  I saw my pace group leader at the end of the race and told him about my time.  “You should keep those shoes,” he said with a proud smile.

Packet Pickup was in a barn – very folksy

And keep them I did.  Since they were about 26% lighter than my regular trainers and fit my gait nicely, I started running on them.  Three weeks after Little Rock, I used them to run a blazing PR at the Shamrock Shuffle 8k (32:01) in Chicago.  They felt fast and my confidence levels were soaring.  With my times getting significantly faster, I thought I had discovered my new favorite shoe.  Around the same time I started demo’ing Motorola’s new MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player.  As someone who never runs with music, I was suddenly dashing down my training grounds at dangerous speeds.  Every time a new song would come on, I would change my pace and cadence to match the song’s beat.  I felt unstoppable.

But after a particularly fast 15-miler, my left foot decided enough was enough.

I had gone five months without an injury.  My knee had been acting up in October, leading up to the New York City Marathon, but I ran it without major issues and finished with a good time.  In the four months that followed, my body was structurally sound, not a single complaint from any muscle or joint.  I even stopped stretching and PR’d four times in that time period – everything was going well.  That is, until I started running intensely in different shoes.

That was last Saturday.  Since then my left foot had felt … off.  It didn’t hurt and I wasn’t limping.  It just didn’t feel right.  There was some tightness and a little discomfort, but nothing searing or even worthy of serious complaint.  But I tend to assume the worst and treat it as such, so I limited my running that week to just three miles on Thursday, opting to do stair climbing exercises instead.  With an especially intense racing schedule coming up, I didn’t want to ruin it all by breaking a bone.  But that wouldn’t mean I’d bow out of the Oak Barrel Half Marathon.  So it was with this mix of caution and obstinacy that I found myself in Lynchburg, Tennessee, at the start of a half marathon, very uncertain and nervous.

The Race

The race started right on time at 8 AM.  Otter decided to hang back and line up with the 8-minute sign, while Regan and I stayed closer to the 7-minute runners.  Regan was a new addition to these marathon trips.  He was a fellow Pike at Northwestern with me who ran his first half last October and shamed me with a 1:35 finish, which at the time was faster than my PR.  I guess he ran cross country or track in high school and has excellent muscle memory.  We also duel in 8k races in Chicago, but this was the first half we race together.  With an impressive 1:32 PR, he was the man to beat.  However, he too was experiencing some toe pain, so his confidence wasn’t very high.

Lynchburg Town Square

Earlier in the day, I had jogged around the parking lot of Lynchburg’s Wiseman Park to test out my own foot troubles.  It felt fine, which was very reassuring.  But would it hold up over the 13.1-mile distance?

Well, I thought.  No time to think about that now.  The Oak Barrel Half Marathon is a large loop up and around the hills of Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the first two miles were mostly flat.  “I think I’m going to start off with a few 7:30s,” I told Regan a few minutes before the national anthem.  “Slow down up Whiskey Hill and then maybe throw down some 7:15s.”  He thought that sounded good and agreed to run with me for the first few miles until the hill.  See, around mile 3.7 the course begins to rise.  Organizers affectionately call this part of the race “Whiskey Hill,” and have even given it a portrait and its own Facebook Page, where it posts anything from truculent and intimidating statuses to open questions about growing a mustache or running for office.  But the actual hill itself was anything but silly.

Finish Line

Up until this point, Regan and I had been running in the low 7s, which was PR pace for me.  It’s become standard race practice for me to start off much faster than I intend, but this time I fault Regan for blazing the trail.  Temperatures were in the mid 40’s, crisp humidity was keeping us cool and winds were barely more than breezy.  The thick forest that surrounded the race’s two-lane road provided ample shade.  In such conditions, who wouldn’t be out for a five star performance?  Plus, my left foot wasn’t acting out yet, which made those first four miles easy to cover at a 7:10 pace.

That is, until Whiskey Hill.

By mile 3, most runners had already stopped jockeying for position, everyone running their target pace.  But right at mile 3.7, as the earth rose before us, runners became sloggers and a few let themselves walk.  Regan and I kept a brisk pace, averaging 7:12 with the delicate incline.  But every time the course turned, the road would snap upward just a little more, putting more stress on our legs.  We didn’t stop running, even though we were now at a 7:40 pace.  A little up the road, there was a speaker hidden in the woods blaring a twangy banjo tune.  It felt like we were in line for Splash Mountain, except with more panting and fewer people.  I smiled at the folksiness of it all, but not for long, as the worst part of Whiskey Hill remained ahead of us.  Runners who had decided to run a little more conservatively were left behind, victims of the hill’s mighty slope.  But even we would get sapped completely with the final two switchbacks.  As if mocking us, the course cracks upward even more for the last hundred feet, putting some serious hurt in our legs.  There were spectators at the top of the climb with speakers, blaring 80’s power anthems, enjoying the schadenfreude with every new victim.  The worst was over.

Just before mile 12

“I almost puked there,” Regan said as the music faded into the background and we tackled a delightfully flat stretch of road.  We reached mile 5 and clocked an 8:25 mile.  Whiskey Hill definitely left an indelible mark on our pace.  Now it was time to undo the damage.

From there to the finish was all downhill with a few exceptions.  Whiskey Hill had put me on my last gear and it had taken me a few minutes to get my heart rate back down to below threshold pace.  But once back in the low 7s, it was time to focus and keep my head up.  There was one more dastardly switchback just after mile 6 that caught us all by surprise, but once over that sinister ridge, we were faced with a very consistent downhill.  At this point, we were following a reliable pattern: I would use my stork legs to leap my way down and put some distance ahead of Regan, only to have him catch up on uphills and aid stations.  We slingshot like this for several miles until we reached mile 10, where we were almost locked, stride for stride.  By mile 11, he had pulled slightly ahead, but only enough to block the wind.

That’s when my foot started to act out.  It wasn’t a sharp pain, but a dull discomfort that gave me pause.  By this point, we were in the high 6s, charging our way through Lynchburg’s tree-lined roads, the possibility of a PR becoming very real.  I didn’t start this race with the intention of posting a fast time, but by now it was inevitable … almost.  If I could just stay in Regan’s shadow …

But I couldn’t.  I stopped at the last aid station at mile 11.5 for the last swig of Gatorade before the final stretch.  Regan, however, did not.  At that point, he put considerable distance between us, a gap that felt unassailable.  We were now on the main road that feeds into Lynchburg, running on the shoulder.  The downhill had ended and it was all flat until the finish line.  Regan was ahead of me by about forty yards.  Every time I tried to surge, my kick only lasted for about ten seconds before I’d dip back to my established cadence.  An ambulance zoomed past me going in the opposite direction around mile 12.  I hate it when that happens because it reminds me that people do get hurt in these events.  You can’t help but suddenly hear your heart pounding in your head, your frantic breaths becoming louder and more savage.  If I push too hard, it could be me in the back.  But I pushed the thought away and made another attempt to reel in my competitor.

My last surge, like all the others, was in vain.  Regan was getting faster while my feet were getting heavier.  We passed the Jack Daniel’s Distillery on our left just before the 13th mile marker.  Alright, I thought.  My foot might be pretty beaten after this race, so I might as well just give it everything I have.  I began my karate chop sprint and propelled myself forward, cutting sharply into the Lynchburg Town Square where the finish line beckoned me.  I heard the announcer call my name as I crossed the mat in 1:33:58.  God’s country had become PR territory.

Post-Race Discoveries

Domination.  Picture courtesy of Otter.

Regan finished in 1:33:34 and Otter landed a PR to the tune of 1:48 even.  We went back to the car with our awesome wooden medals and changed into dry clothes before returning to the post-race food party.  In addition to the typical staples, organizers had provided chocolate milk, pasta, pancakes and pizza.  It was an excellent race, very well put together and with lots of impressive souvenirs.  In addition to a long-sleeve tech shirt, all runners got a wicking hat and a unique wooden medal with the Oak Barrel and Jack Daniel’s logos.  On top of that, every single volunteer and spectator was extremely warm and approachable.  The race really embodied that Southern hospitality that everyone lauds.

Age Group Podium! Picture courtesy of Otter.

Later in the day, Otter went to get a Jack Daniel’s souvenir for his coworker.  In the store, a friendly local congratulated us on our finishes.

“Where are y’all from?” she asked.

“Chicago,” Regan answered.

“Oh, they were talking about a young man from Chicago who’s tryin’ to run all fifty states,” she said matter-of-factly.  “They said this was his twentieth.”

I told her that was me with a cocky grin.  During the registration process, the Oak Barrel asks if you have any neat stories or stats about yourself, so I told them this was an important milestone in my quest to run all fifty states.  I didn’t actually think they would announce it at the finish line, but they did.  I was just too busy getting rehydrated to hear it.

“It’s you?” she asked and turned to the woman behind the register.  “This is the young man I was talkin’ about!”

We stayed talking to them for a few minutes before heading to lunch at the Barbecue Caboose, a small greasy spoon in the Town Square.  While there we exchanged race stories with a young man who won the 20-24 age group.  The food was okay but at that point, I was so ravenous that I would have eaten my bib and loved it.  Once done with lunch, we returned to the post-race party to find that they had printed out preliminary results and pasted them on a store wall.  I never check results on-site, but I was curious to see how close Regan and I had gotten to an age group award.

And lo and behold, we weren’t just close, we were second and third!  I got third place in my age group!  As a 29-year old male, it’s damn near impossible to place in my age group.  But somehow, in this race of 1,000 people, Regan and I had beat the competition, save one fleet footed young man who ran a 1:27.  I was never competitive in sports in high school or college, so I have no trophies to speak of.  But now I do!  We stayed for the awards ceremony where we were given a piece of an actual Jack Daniel’s oak barrel, engraved with the race logo and the smell of burnt charcoal.  It was a moment to remember, an awesome stamp on my running passport.

After getting to know the Jack Daniel’s distillery, we drove back to Nashville, where we spent the night hopping from one bar to the next, each one with its own live band.  From blues-inspired country to honky tonk, Broadway was the place to be.  With Yazoo beers and a delicious plate of pork shoulder in our bellies, we officially declared the weekend a rousing success.  Not only did the three of us run a fast race, but we basked in good old-fashioned southern hospitality and in the process, I conquered my twentieth state.  If you’re anywhere near Lynchburg, Tennessee in early April, do yourself a favor and run this race.  Most races don’t get this good in their tenth year, but with only three under their belt, the nice folks at the Oak Barrel Half Marathon have mastered the art.

MOTOACTV GPS Fitness Tracker & Music Player Review

A few weeks ago, I received a Motorola MOTOACTV GPS Fitness Tracker and Music Player in the mail.  I had no idea Motorola was entering the sports industry, but they somehow decided that I was a person of influence amongst the endurance community and they sent me the product to demo and review.  I’ve made it a point to keep this blog strictly limited to race recaps only, but I felt compelled to reward their generosity by upholding my end of the “bargain” and reviewing their new device.

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Since I’ve never run with music, this would be a big change to my training.  Literally, the only time in which I have ever run with music was back in college when I ran with an old iPod around the track at the gym.  After two songs, the shaking made the device turn itself off and that was the end of it.  Headphones that stayed put were also difficult to find and after three years of running without music, I had convinced myself that I was a purist at heart.

Is that such a crazy thing to say?  Every time I go to the gym or hit the running path, I notice that I’m in a very small minority of runners.  Even in large races, it looks like the vast majority of athletes are plugged into a music player of some sort.  When I’m out training on the path or racing through city streets, I’m in tune with the sounds of my breathing, spectators, the wind, hundreds of car engines on Lake Shore Drive and whatever song is playing in my head, usually coordinated to match my stride.  These sounds change depending on the season, area, and time of day.  The sounds of racers struggling on a trail uphill have a completely different character than what you’ll hear on a straightaway in the Chicago Marathon.

I always thought listening to music during all of this would rob you of a very unique experience.  You’re no longer listening to the collective grunts of a massive, living, breathing thing, brought together by the single visceral drive to move forward relentlessly.  Instead, you’re listening to Sum 41, watching others listen to their own playlists.

“I feel like you listen to music to distract yourself while you get the exercise over with,” a coworker of mine said to me recently.  It made sense.  Most people run as an obligation, not as something they enjoy or look forward to.  In fact, I know several people who would not go out for a run if their mp3 player suddenly broke or were out of juice.

But I decided to put aside this overblown philosophy and run with this shiny new device anyway.  I already own a Garmin Forerunner 405, so I wasn’t looking for how many bells and whistles the MOTOACTV had or whether it could sand my floors.  I was instead out to see if this watch could do everything my Garmin could do and if so, whether it’d be a suitable replacement.

The device itself is pretty small and sleek.  It would attract a few glances if you wore it around the office as a regular watch, but it’s no bigger than most gaudy watches out there anyway.  However, a Garmin Forerunner 405 is still, I believe, the more fashionable of the two (Garmin +1).  Setting it up was simple, though not as idiot-proof as iPods or iPhones are.  After downloading the proper software and installing the most recent drivers, it was simply a matter of plugging it into my computer via USB and setting up my preferences.  The Garmin syncs up wirelessly (Garmin +1).  The MOTOACTV comes with a clip so you can use it like an iPod nano or strap it onto the sports wristband and use it like a watch.  However, if you do the latter, you still have to plug in the headphones to your wrist, which seems weird until you’re running and you realize it doesn’t get in the way.  The Garmin doesn’t have a built-in mp3 player so you’d have to double-up with a nano or a GPS-enabled smartphone (MOTO +1).

Acquiring satellites was quick and easy.

The MOTOACTV’s interface is backlit and very bright.  I’m not sure how long this would last in a marathon or a long run, but I took it out for a two hour run with GPS and music enabled and the battery was still over 70% when I finished.  Tinkering with the settings isn’t the most intuitive task.  It has a touch screen, but the way you access menus (which involves swiping left and right) isn’t immediately apparent.  I’m not one to use instruction manuals and tend to rely on my intuition with electronics to figure things out.  After a few minutes messing around with it, I got a feel for how it worked.  However, I have yet to find out how to set up an Interval run or turn off the autolap feature to hit manual splits, which was painfully simple on the Forerunner (Garmin +1).  That said, I’m sure the function exists, so I can’t fault the product for my intransigence.

So far, it seems like the only thing the MOTOACTV has going for it is the built-in mp3 player, right?  Not exactly.

The default workout screen (Click to enlarge)

What really sells this product, I think, is the web-based interface where you manage your workouts and profile.  It gives you all the information that Garmin does (mapped route, splits, time, speed, elevation, pace, etc.) with many extra goodies, the coolest of which is a distance and pace breakdown by song.  It’s a really neat idea that one could exploit after many uses because it basically tells you, in minutes and seconds, which songs pump you up the most.  I learned, for example, that whenever Rhapsody kicks in, my pace increases noticeably.  Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to not run at a 5:00 pace while singing “For the King, for the Land, for the Mountains, for the green valleys where Dragons fly!”

My music taste is impeccable, so don't even go there

It’s a great concept that you can later summon to improve your results.  If you know you have a particularly intense speed workout that you want to nail, you can arm yourself with the songs that have proven to motivate you.  However, the interface could take this even further.  There’s a “Music” tab that tallies individual songs and how many times you have listened to them (it also tabulates how many miles you have run on them).  It’s a fun stat to see, but I think it would be even more beneficial to show you the average pace that you have run historically for each of those songs.  That way you could see across months of logging workouts, which songs are your top 5 fastest songs.  As it stands now, it will just tell you which songs you’ve played the most (or, in my case, which songs are the longest).

The only "calendar" I could find - and it's not the best design

The website also has “Competitions,” some sponsored by Motorola, others created by users.  These can range from covering a certain distance in the least amount of time to burning a certain amount of calories to actual races.  Each one comes with a leaderboard and members’ progress.  If you’re not feeling like joining a large challenge, you can challenge just a friend.  It’s a pretty neat concept.

The drop-down menu on the left tracks time, distance and calories per song, but not Pace, which would be the most intriguing statistic

However, there are a few areas where it could use improvement.  For starters, there’s no calendar view where you can easily see all of your logged workouts.  Additionally, I couldn’t find an easy way to simply share my workout’s URL without sharing it on my Facebook status (Garmin +1).  I wanted to show a friend of mine how cool MOTOACTV’s stats breakdown was but couldn’t find a quick way to show him my profile or workouts.  I’m pretty sure he would have to join and “friend” me to do so, which isn’t ideal.  I’m one of those people that hates having to create an account and a profile for everything on the internet, so this was a bit frustrating.

But the oddest complaint that I have is that it somehow added a song to my device’s library, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks and Dunn, and played it mid workout.  I don’t have that song on my computer and yet it showed up on my device after a particularly brutal Dragonforce cut.  I would never listen to that song on my own, let alone draw upon it during a speed workout.  So how (and why) did it make its way to my mix?  I demand an explanation.

But when all is said and done, the MOTOACTV seems like a worthy challenger to Garmin.  As someone who never leaves the house without a sports watch, that’s a high compliment.  If I can find out how to create a custom interval run and control my split times manually, then that would be it for my Forerunner.  Not only does the MOTOACTV match it on performance, but it provides a much more sleek and social interface.  Now that I’ve seen the crazy potential in MOTOACTV’s website, I’m almost shocked that Garmin’s website is what it is.  If Motorola’s product takes off and gathers some momentum in the industry, then the ball would be in Garmin’s court to improve their product.  It doesn’t have to have a built-in mp3 player to win me over.  But revamping their website to vary its functionality and diversity would be a great place to start.

At a price point of $249, it’s competitively priced.  Garmin’s most recent running-specific sports watch, the Forerunner 610, has a suggested retail price of $349.99 (the 910XT is $399.99, but is recommended for triathletes).  With all this in mind, I would definitely recommend this product to anyone looking for a new, exciting device to add to their running getup.  Not only will it give you reliable information as you rack up the miles, but it puts it all together with a colorful, dynamic interface.  Finally, with enough use, it will ultimately allow you to target which songs give you that bee sting motivation to charge forward at manic speed.