Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Opting Out Of Running 2.0

nike-plus-ipod-sensor I love running. It’s a good way to shake off the sedentary lifestyle of a desk-bound reporter: All the physical and psychological stresses of the workday unspool over the course of three or four miles, and when I finally cross the finish line, the endorphin buzz is narcotic. I feel not only exercised, but exorcised, purged of the quotidian bullshit that makes some days a chore to get through.

During the winter months, I pound out my miles on a treadmill at the local gym. The statistics – distance covered, time elapsed, calories burned and speed in miles-per hour – are displayed before me in rows of red diodes. But when it’s warm enough, I’ll take to the trails of Cape Henlopen State Park, where I can run for an hour without knowing how far I’d run.

Nike +, a pedometer billed as a personal trainer, was supposed to change that. The selling points told me I’d receive time and pace updates every 100 meters, store my workout data and even upload it to an online database. Should my pace flag, I could activate a pre-selected “power song” to get my splits down.

It didn’t work. Half of its failure can be blamed on the software; the other half is all mine. I don’t think I wanted Running 2.0.

For the iPod Touch, Nike + is a simple lozenge as big as the last digit of your thumb. Nike intends for the sensor to be sold with a Nike + shoe, which sports a cubbyhole in the sole. For those of us who prefer running shoes that are actually worth a damn, placement options are many and varied. Some plop down $8 for a little purse to attach to the laces; I simply slipped it under the tongue.

The Nike + software comes pre-loaded on every iPod Touch and iPhone; it’s simply a matter of switching it on and getting it to shake hands with the sensor. With everything configured at the trailhead, I chose my power song (“Everlong” by the Foo Fighters), fired up my running playlist and took off.

I was feeling great. On bad runs, your stride feels stiff and desynchronized, your legs wooden stilts; you get it done without much joy. But on good runs, your every exhale is perfectly timed to a footfall, to an arm-swing, to the reassuring lactic burn in your calves. This was a good run. A happy sweat broke along my brow when something occurred to me: I wasn’t getting distance updates.

I tottered to the side of the twisted around my iPod armband. I wasn’t getting distance updates because Nike + wasn’t recording distance. I checked my shoe. Sensor: check.

I hit the big, red button to end my workout. A female voice offered my time and pace – seven minutes and thirty seconds, at a seven-minute-per-mile pace. I tabbed over to the workout history, where I figured the distance might be recorded.

Nothing. No distance. Not even the time and pace Nike + had just happily chirped.

As an attractive woman power-walked by, casting a worried glance at the man swearing at his arm, I resynchronized the sensor with the program and took off again. But my run was ruined. The music was heckling, not encouraging; my feet slapped clumsily at the blacktop. I started sweating like a fat kid playing dodgeball. I yanked the ear-buds; they jumped at my collarbone until I skidded to a halt thirty minutes later and mashed the End Workout button. I heard the distant, tinny voice intone my time and pace before forever forgetting both.

In accordance with Apple’s simplicity-above-all design mandate, the Nike + software has few settings to jigger around – fewer variables to change, and fewer things I could be doing wrong. My troubleshooting efforts began with my dripping sweat on the instructions manual and ended five minutes later when I chucked the lozenge into the woods (it was the endorphins talking; I waded into the shrubbery to retrieve it).

The sensor had no problem connecting with my iPod, and so far as I could tell, nothing was obstructing the signal. By all accounts, Nike + was working just fine. It seemed to think so, anyway. Betting on Operator Error, I browsed the Nike and Apple message boards.

Turns out, I’m not the only one howling over Nike +. Complaints stretch back to the device’s debut three years ago; the most recent crop sprouts up in June, when Apple rolled out its new iOS4 operating system for its iTouch devices. Before installing iOS4, many users wrote, things worked fine – then sensors failed to connect. Runs went unrecorded. Audio is spotty and variable. A list of complaints complied by a Nike representative was posted to the Apple forum; for a device that comes pre-installed on the hardware, it seems far too long.

Complaints lit up the Nike forums, too. Nike representatives responded with apologies: they only manufactured the sensor, and had nothing to do with the software. Apple handled that.

And from Apple? Silence. At time of writing, Apple has yet to post an official response to the Nike + complaint thread.

I wasn’t going to wait for increasingly-malevolent Apple to condescend with a patch. I squeezed the sensor back into its box and got my $20 back. Driving to the Nike Outlet, I wondered: did I really want a synthetic voice piping up every 100 meters? Did I want the sound of the trails – cicadas and crickets in the underbrush, dragonflies zipping over the marshes, raccoons crashing into the shrubbery – muted by the same jock-rock I’ve already heard a thousand times?

I’ll bring my music to the gym, where my sonic options are the Foo Fighters or the soccer mom grunting on the treadmill next to me, and my distance is served up in cherry-red diodes. As for the trails, I don’t need to know how far or fast I’m running. Not that badly.