Why tech makes running races magical

Credit: Pixbay

There's a saying in the running world: 'If you don't make it to the start, you can't win the race'.

OK, I made that one up. But it does make sense, and it's one that was fully relevant to my attempts to complete the Royal Parks Half Marathon this year.

Here was the issue: the week before the race, I'd checked online and there were going to be massive rail disruptions. I had a wedding to go to the night before, I had to be in Hyde Park at 9AM on a Sunday, and that's apparently the day when all rail companies think it's funny to do engineering works or run no services and WE DO ALL LIKE A GOOD LAUGH RIGHT?

In short - I was screwed. Do I go home after the wedding and risk being massively tired and have to get on a bus for two hours? Or stay at a friend's house nearby where there were no trains I could see?

Let's all hear it for tech. A quick jaunt around Google Maps on my phone and I realised that if I drove a little further into London (no drinking, I'm racing remember?) I could pick up a lovely tube train and go straight to the start line (well, one change, but what's that among friends?)

It would still mean staying over somewhere else and a slightly early start, but 7AM is a lot more palatable than a time where the sun is still asleep.

There's no way this would have been as easy for the previous generation. It would have been calls to stations, umpteen maps, hoping for parking - I tapped a touchscreen a few times and even found a free carpark from the Parkopedia app.

Technology rules.

But I was still cutting it fine to get to the start of the race, so I decided to save time by avoiding the bag drop. This meant getting creative with what I could fit in my Buddy Pouch (you'll remember this purse-like accessory from last week) so I could a) make it across London's transport network and b) not be weighed down over the next hour and a half.

That's where I have to give a high-five to Apple Pay on the iPhone. Well, in reality it's contactless technology in general, but this way I didn't have to stuff a card in there as well.

With a phone I was able to get across London's Oyster network, check the train times on the way in, buy a snack and even have a tune-pumping machine for my run. I could have theoretically done this all on the Apple Watch… but no amount of convenience would convince me to use that to track race instead of the Garmin.

Web of worry

So there I was at the start line. Dressed in a Spiderman compression top (don't pretend you're not impressed), getting ready to go. I fired up my Garmin, getting the signal beautifully quickly for once, and then it was a case of just worrying about the amount of fluid I'd taken on board and wondering if I was going to need a pit stop on the way around.

On the way in I'd also crafted a playlist that I hoped was going to get me to my goal of a sub-90 minute half marathon. My previous best from earlier last year was a shade over the 1hr 30 mark, so I was hoping that I could nip underneath that for the first time.

In terms of pacing, again this was something that was really helped by tech. I used the Smashrun race predictor, based on my 5K race pace, to discern what I was capable of for a half marathon pace, and decided that something around 1hr 28 was probably do-able. Maybe. Sort of.

The thing was, I'd trained for pace in the lead up, doing a lot of speed training in the previous 12 weeks, and trained for endurance with some long, long runs too. But I hadn't fused the two together, and I was nervous.

My playlist was designed to start off with meditative sounds, designed to calm the brain and stop me from haring off, before gradually increasing in tempo and energy - with the most adrenaline-packed songs for the final efforts.

The race began, and things started off fine. My pace needed to be about 4:09 per km to hit my target, and I quickly lopped out the first two km in under four minutes each. This was fine... just race excitement and then I started to ease off and settle into a nice rhythm.

However, there was something amiss. After a lot of racing, you start to get a feel for your pacing, how fast you're going and where your heart rate should be, and my times and pace didn't seem right. The thing is GPS watches have the capability to be too fast or too slow if they're not tracking properly, and over 21KM that can be a big miss overall - the only thing that stresses me out about running technology.

I started trying to work out how far behind I was if I was being tracked too fast. Was I on for 90 minutes? I kept getting mixed up, and people started to pour past while my energy was directed to a part of my brain I hadn't expected to use.

'Screw it', I thought, just as a little bit of Basshunter popped into my ears. The 5K mark said I was ahead of pace. The halfway mark said I was about 500m behind.

That's not the kind of worry you want mentally. So I just clung onto the pace I was doing, hoping desperately that it wasn't going to be all wrong.

Holding out for a hero

The second half of the race is a kind of blur. I started to feel the fatigue setting in of keeping up this pace, entering a territory I'd never tried before. The music was working well though, the efforts to keep motivation through sound working well (and the Plantronics BackBeat headphones again sticking delightfully in my rubbish ears).

The best thing about the whole day was the Under Armour Spiderman t-shirt I was wearing. Not only does it make you hold your pose better as a compression top, which in terms helps lower fatigue, but the crowd LOVE a superhero. Kids want to high five you (there was an adorable moment where a child ran across to his Mum and Dad to shout 'Look, look, there's Spiderman!').

Anything like this can help get you through a race - getting your mind into that chilled, happy space and ignoring the fear that you're about to blow up is a great thing - and I'm sorry to the man I was running next to about nine miles in and I started body-popping a little.

Daft Punk came over the headphones, and it felt like a body-popping moment. You can't ignore that.

The wobbles began at the 19KM mark though. I was starting to drop pace and fell below my average pace target for the first time. Thankfully, as it was in Hyde Park I knew the area well (it's where I go at lunch for normal runs) so I knew there was only so long left to grit, and one little hill left.

But that little hill hurts a lot more after nearly an hour and a half, compared to the warm up on a normal lunchtime. I could see the finish line a long way in the distance, and I needed something. I needed to go where the lightning splits the sea. I needed a hero.

There's nothing quite so magical as crossing the finish line at full sprint with Bonnie Tyler screaming into your ears - especially when you look down and see that the watch is telling you 1hr27.13.

Thanks tech. I couldn't have done it without you.

Gareth Beavis
Formerly Global Editor in Chief

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.