Marathon Training with Google’s “My Tracks” on G1 Android Phone

Okay, first off, my memory isn’t so short that I don’t remember what I wrote in January about the intrinsic rewards of running my own race and the corresponding implication that I would likely never desire to run another marathon ever again. As it turns out, a few months later, though I still believe the first part, the second part has gradually evolved into an actual need to run another marathon.

I don’t feel the need to analyze this swing too much (and I hope nobody else does either), but I can say that I know of three significant reasons for my change of heart:

  1. Running has become much more important to me than I thought it would. I got back into running to get in shape, lose a few pounds, and generally look and feel better about myself. Since accomplishing those objectives, I’ve found how helpful the practice is for mental clarity and focus. That is to say, I no longer see running as a means to an end. It’s become an end in itself for me.
  2. Someone close to me has served as a constant source of inspiration. It’s hard to watch, support, and feel constant awe and amazement for someone so passionate and talented about something you yourself do for more utilitarian reasons and not get swept up in the excitement and feel the need to take your own practice to the next level.
  3. I simply have felt the need, for a while now, for a big hairy audacious goal. I want to do something significant, for myself. I want to chart a course for a distant destination and reach it. I want to see just how far these legs and this heart can take me.

I’d kept this idea to myself for a while, largely because of my previous public stance on the subject, but I eventually let it slip that I was considering training for the BayState Marathon in the fall. I wanted to run a marathon, but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it (financially) by choosing a “destination race” (Lowell is the closest possible location for a marathon for me).

But then I learned that the San Francisco Marathon was scheduled for July 26. And I’ll be at a professional conference in San Jose on July 24. All I needed to do is stay an extra couple nights (one extra night, really, because I probably wouldn’t take the redeye on the 24th) and I could scoot up the coast to see the city by the bay and run across the Golden Gate Bridge. Twice. I registered on Monday.

Here’s a map of the course (view large):

July 26, 2009

But enough of all this apologia, which was necessary to defend myself against possible critique but which isn’t really the point of this post. I really want to talk about my need for a good, geeky piece of training technology to help me reach my goal.

There’s already one Garmin Forerunner 405 in our household, which I desire but which is pretty much always spoken for by its rightful owner. I figured I could get a more economical pedometer or spend somewhere in the range of $160-$200 for an earlier model Garmin, but I did just get a pretty extravagant birthday present, which makes investing in another expensive gadget hard to justify.

But then I saw a way of actually leveraging my pricey new gadget with a free application that could give me everything I need: Google’s My Tracks. The appeal of my phone actually serving as my GPS training partner was too good not to investigate, so I downloaded the application and gave it a spin. I wasn’t disappointed.

As mentioned on the Official Google Blog, My Tracks was developed as a “20% project” with the following features :

  • Record and visualize GPS tracks while running, hiking, biking, skiing — or any other outdoor activity
  • Get live statistics, such as total/moving time, (average) speed, distance, and elevation profile
  • Send performance statistics to Google Docs to build a training history
  • Mark places and describe activities for others to discover via Google Maps

I took it for a spin this morning and found it intuitive and incredibly easy to use. Here’s the information screen and the elevation profile for my run:

My Tracks Stats on G1
My Tracks Elevation Profile on G1

Just about all I’m missing in the stats are my mile splits, which I think I could actually get but haven’t figured out how to do so easily (i.e., without marking each mile manually while I’m running). And the elevation information will be particularly helpful for my training, as I’m actually seeking out hills (without much trouble) to help train for this particular race, which has never been accused of being a flat course.

All this information is great on the phone, but with a few quick touches on the screen, it becomes much more useful as a record. When I was done running, I just selected the option to send the map that was created on my run to Google’s My Maps, and the route went away to look like this:

My Tracks on Google My Maps

You can even click on the route to get the specific stats for the particular run:

My Tracks on Google My Maps

And the same click sends this information to a spreadsheet in Google Docs, recording everything you’d want to track in a training program:

My Tracks on Google Docs

Future runs will feed right into this document, perfect for keeping an eye on my improved speed (that’s the idea, at least) and cumulative mileage.

So, I think I’ve found my geeky running companion for this training round. It’s certainly by no means a watch (carrying it and pressing the touchscreen with my sweaty fingers will be cons I’ll have to deal with), but it will get the job done with a gadget I already own, which makes me feel better about the price of that gadget and happy to not have to invest in another.