I Can Fix This: 2016 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

This is a post about how to inject some much-needed vitality and vigor into the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon. But first:

#TeamChance

For their third year, the Jackson Chance Foundation partnered with the Humana Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon as an official charity and asked me to be their running coach. I happily accepted and once again created running programs, led weekly runs, and provided tips on training and preparation. The foundation’s goal, in their own words:

“Jackson Chance Foundation’s (JCF) mission is to enrich the lives of families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) by allowing them to spend more time with their baby. JCF created the NICU Transportation Program to partner with hospitals and alleviate the transportation expenses of all families while their child is in the NICU by providing parking and CTA/Metra vouchers. The programs are fully funded by JCF. Currently, the foundation’s program benefits the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Jackson Chance Foundation is an Illinois non-for-profit, tax exempt 501(c) (3) organization.

By contributing to the Jackson Chance Foundation, you help families be with their critically ill child, thus enriching and potentially extending their life.”

For donations or more information, please visit their website.

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Another Year of Wondering, Where’s the Rock?

It was a beautiful spring and early summer for training, and throughout it I had the pleasure of exploring Chicago’s Lincoln Park with runners in tow, learning about them as people and enjoying the city’s pristine parks and lakefront path. There was actually one run where I mentioned to Alan, who would join almost every organized run, that I was looking forward to spending some time outdoors, given how lovely the weather was. The conversation paused for a second as we both realized we were doing just that, in that moment, as we logged miles under the sun.

On July 17, I lined up for my fourth running of Chicago’s Rock & Roll Half Marathon, which until recently was the only 13.1-mile race run primarily within the city’s core. Every other half marathon takes place either Lincoln Park or the lakefront paths south of the city, which are open to everyday cyclists and walkers. The race has changed since 2010 in ways that perhaps indicate broader changes in the running industry.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged.

The first time I ran this race, I was one of over 18,000 finishers, making the race one of the largest in the city and nation. It was the only distance offered, won in its previous and inaugural year by Kara Goucher in 1:08:04, ahead of any other competitor, male or female. There was something electrifying about it, as if the amplifiers in the marketing materials could short circuit and infuse us all with speed.

Since then, the event has seen itself diluted considerably. Although the course has improved, with less of it run on thin, open park paths and more in the city’s famous and dense Loop, the event has lost a lot of its energy. In 2014, the race gave its 13,866 half marathon finishers a half-mile stretch of speakers, all arranged to play the same hard-hitting song to motivate runners for more than the standard 30 seconds it takes to be out of earshot of a performer. I was lucky to run through that section to the galloping rush of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and the thundering sludge of Metallica’s “Sad But True.”  It was amazing and an instant reminder of how races can use creative solutions to not only bolster the race experience, but in this case, elevate and sharpen their brand. Plus, they got Shalane Flanagan to run it, so I was awestruck and giddy to follow in her speedy footsteps.

In 2015, only 12,025 runners made it to the finish line, a slight dip from the year before. I remember feeling like the “rock” had been left out of the experience, with electronica playing constantly during the expo, the speaker stretch now booming Whitney Houston and the organizers tapping Andy Grammer as the headline act for the post-race party. I understood that rock was either convalescent or comatose in popular culture, so I hoped they would at least change the name of the race, like they did for many years with their Nashville equivalent, the Country Music Marathon.  However, they made up for all of this by roping in Olympian and Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi to pace the 1:30 group, which I joined for the first four miles.

This year, it seemed like organizers were out of both ideas and money. There were no big name runners leading the pack, no legends to pace us, no big headline act, no half-mile stretch of motivational rawk, no abundance of bands …

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

Heavy rain on its way to cool off runners

If this is starting to sound petulant, let me explain that these are merely observations and not complaints. After all, I don’t really care about any of this. All I need is a 13.1-mile stretch of road or trail, a few aid stations, and a chip to record my time and I’ll finish with a smile. And an hour and 34 minutes after starting, that’s what I did. But I was left wondering. It’s not necessary that the race director hire Amy Hastings as a pacer, or that Tool play to a crowd of sweaty and tired athletes, or that every mile be dotted with cover bands playing Bon Jovi and the Killers.

But when the market is as crowded as it is lately, this race has to double down on its brand or risk runners losing too much interest. Lucky for them, the half marathon is still growing in participation nationwide. The 2015 State of the Sport assembled by Running USA states that “the half marathon continues to grow with an annual increase of 4% finishers (2.046 million, another new high) with an astounding 61% female participation.”

In 2016, however, 11,059 runners finished the Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon, almost 1,000 fewer than the year before and over 7,000 fewer than in 2010. To draw more people to the event in recent years, organizers have added shorter distances and spread them over two days, with a 5K on Saturday and a 10K run on Sunday at concurrently with the half marathon. Across all three distances, there were about 16,500 finishers, still fewer than in 2010.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the increase in participation in the half marathon is not due to a growing field at established events, but with the sprouting of new races. For example, when I started running in 2009, there were only four half marathons in Chicago. Today, there are twelve just in the city, and many more in the surrounding suburbs, the majority of which sport less expensive registration fees than Rock & Roll for obvious reasons.

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

(left to right) Missy, me, Alan

I don’t know if this race is profitable, but I assume it is because it’s now in its eighth year. But as I ran through the course this year and saw how threadbare it was in comparison to years past, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the result of an organization cutting its costs in the wake of shrinking margins. I’m not an economist, but it seems that if the race wants to keep its bottom line healthy, it has to either draw in more people, increase its fees, cut services, or a combination.

Though I haven’t done the research, I’m sure this is not unique to Chicago. The running boom is happening everywhere nationwide and as a consequence, large, established races have likely seen some participation siphoned as interest shifts to newer races with lower fees that offer a similar experience. In order to stay relevant, Rock & Roll needs to do something to either change the game or hone their brand. In 2014, as I ran alongside Metallica’s bluesy thrash, I was reminded of how one great idea can completely change your opinion of an event.

Here are a few suggestions, some free and others unreasonable and cost prohibitive:

  • Upon registration, let runners pick their favorite genre of rock & roll (classic, grunge, metal, indie, acoustic, pop, etc.) and make different bibs for each.
  • Encourage aid stations to theme themselves according to the genres of rock established above.
  • Make Spotify playlists for each genre and share them with runners as they register.
  • Let runners sign up in groups of 3-5 as a “band.” In the results page, have a separate “band results” page that adds up every band member’s finishing time. Encourage bands to dress up and run together.
  • Upon registration, ask every runner to provide a “pump up” song and their target time. At mile 13, have a timing mat that calculates if a runner is going to break that target time, and if so, play 10 seconds of their pump up song to get them to the finish (and I realize that not everyone will get their pump up song played, much like not everyone has their name announced at the finish line).
  • The first seven miles are in the Loop, which doesn’t allow for bands or noise of any sort. Rearrange the course to add more opportunities for music and bands. Music is the brand’s raison d’être, so embrace it!
  • Convert pace cars into a mobile concerts like they do in theme parks and blare some truly sick rock for those willing to run alongside them. Release at variable paces so everyone gets the opportunity.
  • The 90s are back and with a vengeance. I can’t imagine it’s that expensive to hire Better Than Ezra, the Verve Pipe or Third Eye Blind to be your headlining act (also, I heard this year’s band play “Yellow” by Coldplay twice. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is wrong).
  • Hire Pearl Jam to play a 3-hour set afterward.

I look forward to seeing these implemented for the 2017 race. You’re welcome.

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Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer

Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer
Do you run with or without tunes?

I spun the click wheel of my old iPod until I found the song I wanted: “Farewell” by Kamelot, a power metal assault on the senses, fueled by multi-layered guitars, furious keyboards and a galloping double-kick bass beat.  By all accounts, it would be the perfect song to fuel several laps around the track.  I hit “Play” and took off, each step hitting the track as if it were a giant snare drum.  However, this was 2004 and I still had a second-generation iPod that would look like a shiny microwave by today’s standards.  So two laps into the run, the constant shaking had caused the tin can to panic and shut itself down.

It wouldn’t be until eight years later that I would go out on another run while listening to music.  My reasons for eschewing an mp3 player in those early days as a nascent distance runner were twofold.  Normal headphones fall out of my ears with just a gentle nudge and I was too lazy to buy specialty sports earbuds.  Secondly, there might be a scientific explanation for this, but covering my ears with anything warms me up considerably.  As someone who sweats just thinking about the sun, I opted to keep my ears well ventilated.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my head is a quiet echo chamber when I lace up.  I always manage to find the right song from the mental jukebox, but it can’t just be any enjoyable tune.  There are two characteristics it must have.  It has to be good enough that I can listen to it on repeat for an hour and its tempo has to line up with my gait so that each footstrike is a (half/quarter or full) beat.  For example, “The Takedown” by Yellowcard could get me to conquer a small country but my feet can’t sync with its beat.  Similarly, “Tucked Away” by the Goo Goo Dolls might not rile up a Viking horde into battle, but it matches my cadence perfectly.

(It only sounds OCD when I spell it out because I’m pretty sure this is how most runners behave … right?)

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Eventually, I started using an mp3 player for the stationary bike at the gym but it got to the point where I would simply not exercise if the device was out of power.  My running buddy at the time would also completely forego runs if his Nano were out of juice, which led me to believe that it was possible to become so attached to running with music that the two could become indivisible.  The idea of being so dependent on a shiny box of circuits, which could literally decide whether or not to run, was so crazy, that I almost felt indignant toward those who behaved in such a way (and we can ignore that this describes exactly how I am about my Garmin).

But my sneer wouldn’t have very much company.  A quick glance at the treadmills of any gym will show that pretty much everyone is listening to something while they run.  Nine out of ten runners that I see on Chicago’s lake front path have a pair of colorful cables wired into their ears, feeding them whatever catalytic melody gets them moving.  On a few occasions last year, I took a shiny new MOTOACTV player to the lake to try it out and write a review.  For those select runs, I was part of the music movement, experiencing firsthand what the vast majority of runners do every time they lace up.  The results were remarkable.

Evidence From People More Reputable Than I

It didn’t surprise me to learn that the scientific studies on the issue almost universally support music’s positive effects on athletic performance.  A simple study out of the University of Texas A&M had students running a maximal 1.5-mile run with and without music.  Not only did they find that they finished the run faster while listening to music, but their level of perceived exertion was kept constant.  In other words, they didn’t notice how much faster they were, most likely because their brains weren’t focusing on the body’s natural feedback.  This latter finding intrigued me because the fact that they were faster shouldn’t surprise anyone.  But in knowing that the students themselves didn’t feel like they were running faster lies the real potential for performance enhancement.

The 2012 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

The 2013 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

But perceived exertion is so subjective.  Although the students ran the course faster, it’s possible that they had higher heart- and sweat rates while listening to music but simply didn’t know it because they were being distracted by the tunes.  A study by Brian Matesic and Fred Cromartie published in the Sport Journal in 2002 has compelling evidence against this claim.  In their study, they actually measured trained and untrained students’ heart rates as they completed laps around a track both with and without music.  Predictably, lap times were faster while music was playing.  But even more fascinating was the effect it had on their heart rates.  “Among the untrained runners … a significant relationship was found, namely that average heart rate fell by almost six beats per 2.5-min interval when music was played.”  Trained runners also exhibited a drop in heart rate, but only by less than 3 beats per interval.

These findings therefore suggest that music has not only a psychosomatic effect on the subjective experience of running, but can provide an actual physiological advantage that can improve performance.  As I ran on the lake path with my MOTOACTV blaring fast songs into my head, I was experiencing this boost in real time.  I felt like I was out for an easy run, barely breaking a sweat, only to realize I was flirting with the 7-minute pace barrier, which is usually reserved for intense tempo runs.  The chorus to a mosh-worthy song would kick in and I would find myself running 6:40 splits as easily as ordering a milkshake.  Not only was I faster, but I felt like I was barely trying.  Why wasn’t I doing this all the time?

After all, the effects were real and significant.  During the course of my research, I noticed that many authors were citing Brunel University’s Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a leading researcher in sports psychology with a keen interest in the effects of music on performance.  In one of his many studies, he notes that music “promote[s] an ergogenic (work-enhancing) effect.  This occurs when music improves exercise performance by either reducing perceptions of fatigue or increasing work capacity. Typically, this results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength.”  Earlier I noted that I only run to songs that match my gait.  Karageorghis goes on to explain that “[s]ynchronous music use (i.e., when an exerciser consciously moves in time with a musical beat) has been shown to provide ergogenic and psychological benefits in repetitive endurance activities.”  In other words, matching music to your gait can improve your endurance.  In his studies, this can mean a difference of 15%.  It can also make your movements feel more natural, thus increasing your efficiency and delay fatigue.

So music not only has the potential to make you faster and lower your heart rate, but it can control you like a witch doctor and improve your form?  That’s perhaps taking it a bit too far.  But the idea that your body can latch onto a beat, run consistently to it and thereby increase its biomechanical efficiency is fascinating.

Of course, not all studies show the same results.  In a widely cited 2010 study from John Moores University in Liverpool, cyclists exercised while listening to pop songs at varying tempos.  Some listened to the songs in unaltered states, while others listened to the same song but sped up or slowed down by 10%.  Predictably, they found that those who listened to the “fast version” cycled faster and enjoyed the exercise more than those who were subjected to the slower version.  “Paradoxically,” experimenters noted, “[participants] did not find the workout easier … but [the up-tempo music] seemed to motivate them to push themselves.”  This goes a bit against the earlier studies on perceived effort being lowered by music.  In this case, having fast music made the athletes accept an increased level of effort and discomfort in exchange for a more enjoyable exercise session.

But what if we were to knock up the tempo more than just 10%?  Does this boost still apply in the upper echelons of training?

Karageorghis’ studies focused primarily on what he called “exercise participants” rather than elite or professional athletes.  However, the many benefits of music are not strictly reserved for mortals.  Matt Fitzgerald, a prolific runner, correspondent for Active and Competitor, and author of many books on running, met with US 50k record holder Josh Cox and Olympian Kara Goucher to learn that they too need an extra jolt now and then to get through particularly brutal workouts.  In a very revealing moment during a 15-mile tempo run, he witnessed as Cox turned on an mp3 player midway through the run, as if asking for a stamina-boosting fix.  Fitzgerald did the same at his next marathon, where he noted that “[i]t made a difference. The pain I experienced in the last 5 miles was no less severe than in any other marathon I’ve run. But the music made the pain more bearable … I’m convinced I wouldn’t have finished as strongly as I did without the iPod.”

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the great Haile Gebrselassie, the Emperor of Distance Running, the Smiling Assassin, says he listens to the late Scatman John’s eponymous hit “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-ba-dop-Bop)” for intense runs because it puts him in the kind of mindset that grants him access to new gears.

“Especially in harder workouts,” Fitzgerald writes, “like Josh Cox’s epic tempo run, the right music almost seemed to act like a (fair, safe, and legal) performance-enhancing drug.”  It’s no wonder then that mp3 players are banned for runners competing for prizes in all major US marathons (though that has more to do with the USATF ban on two-way communication between athlete and coach, which could be done through a cleverly re-engineered iPod … and literally as I type that, I realize that I just described an iPhone).

It really makes you wonder whether Gebrselassie or world-record holder Patrick Makau could run a marathon under 2:03 if they were allowed a Nano with their favorite pump-up jam blaring from mile 20 onward.

Science says: unlikely.

According to Karageorghis, “the benefits of listening to music decrease with the level of intensity of the running. The faster you run, the less effect the music has.”  While music can serve as an effective distraction for those of us on a long run or during those middle miles of the marathon, elite athletes run at such an unfathomably intense level that anything shy of complete focus would prove deleterious.  Citing Karageorghis’ 2009 study, the New York Times notes that “when you increase the speed and intensity of a workout, ‘perceptions of fatigue override the impact of music, because attentional processes are dominated by physiological feedback.’”  In other words, no amount of Blink 182 can get Dathan Ritzenheim’s mind off the strains of running a 4:53 pace for over two hours.

So why do I still, in spite of all the studies, insist on running without music?  What kind of idiot would forego such a simple, free and amazingly potent enhancement?  With the ever-growing catalog of fast, heart pounding songs out there, why bother sticking to just the sound of wind, breath and cars?

The Verdict

“Music is a legal drug for athletes [and like] any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.”  Like Fitzgerald, Karageorghis uses the uses the word “drug” liberally – and not altogether jokingly – when describing the effect of music on the run.

All serious runners are intimately familiar with the body’s remarkable ability to condition itself to increasingly tougher training loads.  It’s therefore not a stretch to say that listening to music during every single run will eventually attenuate its jolting effects.  In fact, it might even make it so running without music would have negative effects both psychologically and physiologically.  After all, if the cyclists in the Liverpool study came up short in performance and enjoyment when the music was slow, what if the tunes were shut down completely?

That question will be left to other studies to explore.  As for me, I could say that I’m perfectly content with the sounds of my body, the pavement and the world around me.  Like journalist Matt Kurton, I could take the free-spirited approach that tends to characterize the stereotypical trailhead and say that “listening to birdsong and rainfall rather than Bill Withers and Radiohead, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”  But that’s only half the story.  I run without music because, so far, I actually enjoy just running.  I fear that if I were to start adding fast songs to my weekly mileage, no matter how much faster they make me, I would risk eventually losing the enjoyment of plodding along to my own beat.

It’s very easy to talk about this topic and divide people into those who leave the tunes at home and everyone else.  Karageorghis has his own categories for it: associators, who focus inwardly and dial into their exertion; and dissociators, who look for external stimuli and distractions to get through the activity.  Given the vast wealth of runners out there, I think this black and white sorting is too simple.  After all, even the most insistent purist will probably find themselves kicking a little harder as they pass a rock band playing their favorite song near the end of a marathon.

But if it were completely up to me?

Where It Gets a Little Wacky

One day ...

One day …

I would want a music player to seamlessly gel with my body, wires and hard drives meshing in perfect symbiosis with my neural circuitry.  In the last third of a long race, I would turn it on with simple taps to my palm (or temple or shoulders, naturally I would know the best spot after several weeks of beta testing) and I would instantly hear songs playing in my head in beautiful high fidelity.  The device would know the tempo of each song and calibrate each selection according to my cadence.  Changes in speed would result in real-time changes in song.  As I ramp up, 311’s “Down” would lose its zip, prompting the device to intuitively segue into Yellowcard’s “Breathing.”  Once the effects of the SoCal quintet’s infectious pop-rock have been exhausted, the player would kick it into high gear with Amon Amarth’s “Live for the Kill” because nothing lights a fire under my ass like Nordic death metal.

Finally, when there’s only five minutes left until the finish line, the iDan would unleash its wild card, the song that I only play in a car if I have a wide open road ahead of me.  Sure, it’s a frontrunner for the dorkiest song you’ve ever heard and the band likely met while LARPing in an open field, but on the run it’s like an injection of ox blood and shark teeth:


(Only partly ashamed to admit that I love, love this song)

Once this musical singularity happens, I’m pretty sure you’ll see me destroying PRs left and right.  My blood would be tested by anti-doping officials, displayed prominently in museums of human achievement and used to make redwoods reach maximum height in just weeks.  But as long as man and machine remain separate, I’m happy just listening to the sounds of a person putting one foot in front of the other.  There may come a day where I’ll channel my favorite metal gods for the last haul of a marathon, dialing down my perception of pain while putting a little more spring in my step.  Only time will tell.

Do you listen to music while you run?  Do you do it because it helps you pass the time?  Or because it makes you feel like a demigod?  Are you as OCD as I am or can you run to any beat?  What song makes you want to start a bar fight with a wolf?  Did you know that “Bye Bye Bye” perfectly [N]syncs with my cadence?  Might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie.

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.