During the course of human history, there have been certain technological advances that have fundamentally transformed our species. The GPS is one of those inventions. Over a remarkably short period of time, the majority of the population of first world countries has developed a dependency on the GPS. Without a soothing voice on the dashboard instructing them at every turn, some people can no longer find their way to and from work. The ability to read maps, or to give or follow directions is decaying. Tales of drivers running into lakes, or perishing in high mountain passes, at the direction of their GPS are hardly apocryphal.
With so many ultras taking place in remote locations, the vagaries of the GPS have begun to come into play. At one recent ultra, a number of runners were 15 miles away, on the other side of a mountain, gathered around a forest service gate in their cars, when the race started. Their GPS had correctly calculated the shortest route to the starting line. However, it had failed to make any allowance for the fact that that route required crossing over a mountain on a remote, and gated, four-wheel drive track. Mapless, and clueless, the runners were unable to figure out the 40-mile circuit around the mountain on actual roads in time to start the race.
For runners, GPS dependency does not end when they arrive at the venue and ready to run. The danger of leaving the grid is avoided by the wrist GPS. I have not yet heard a soothing voice emanating from the wrist GPS, telling the runners when and where to turn. But it does emit a periodic beep to inform everyone around that the wearer has completed another mile… a GPS mile.
These days, every race director knows about GPS miles. There is no avoiding it, as the traditional post-run requirement is that every runner tell the race director the actual race distance… per their GPS. None of them seem the least perturbed by the wide range of distances obtained by those GPS measurements. They are, seemingly, all correct, while the given distance is wrong. As best I can tell, the GPS mile is somewhere between eight and nine tenths of a mile as measured by a steel tape, a wheel, a surveyor or even a laser beam. Even at a race held on a paved, certified, one-mile loop, the race director was accosted by runners during the event, swearing that the loop distance was far more than a mile… their GPS measurements proved it.
A more cynical person might conclude the manufacturers of wrist GPS systems have decided their market share would not be enhanced by a product that ever told a runner that they had run a lesser distance than they expected. The low end of the margin of error needs to fall above the distance that can be obtained using cruder methods of measurement… such as a steel tape, a wheel, a surveyor or even a laser beam. It should come as no surprise that it is increasingly popular to record training miles based on GPS readings. This is possibly the most efficient method of increasing your training mileage that has ever been devised.
Of course, the wrist GPS does much more than just inflate the runner’s training mileage. It can produce a handy map of the run to impress your friends, create elevation profiles, reveal the average pace per GPS mile and even, through some mystical process, reveal how many calories have been burned. While I have yet to hear a soothing voice instructing a runner to “turn left, now,” I am sure that is coming. For the sake of everyone, I hope when that day comes, the instructions are given through an earbud, or else the cacophony of possibly conflicting directions at the start of an ultra might just drive everyone insane. And runners trying to make a discreet pit stop will be revealed by a soothing voice in the bushes calling out “recalculating.”
One thing is certain; there is no turning back. We are rapidly creating a world filled with people who no longer relate to archaic concepts like maps, road names and compass directions. This is a world filled with promise for GPS-less Luddites like myself. Should anything ever happen to the satellites that have replaced any natural sense of direction, we will be the most powerful people in the world, and the fastest ultrarunners. We will be the only ones who know where we are, and can find our way to the finish.