Running Away From My Phone

Photo by Chris Lawton

At the starting line of the New York City Marathon, nobody else seemed to be running naked – except me.

I run naked. By “naked,” I am referring to the concept of running without gadgets. So I was shocked when, at the start of the New York City Marathon, I did not see a single person without a cell phone out. Tech was everywhere. One woman burst into tears of frustration when she could not get a cell signal to send a snap of her starting the marathon.


On the Verrazano Bridge, which comprises the first two miles of the race, people who had just started their race stopped to climb onto the barriers in the middle of the bridge to take selfies.

Further along, I had a horrific flashback to the days of middle school “Red Rover” when three women in front of me linked arms and stopped mid-race for a photo. In my finisher’s photo, the man in front of me is stopping his tracker on his cell phone. I’m upset because he missed his photo op, but mostly because he ruined mine.


Of the over 51,307 people who started the 2017 New York City Marathon, a reported 5,389 were using GPS tracking apps on their phone. I saw folks on phone calls, taking selfies, and preparing their various running apps and watches to track the 26.2 miles ahead of them. In recent years, there has been a sharp decline in the number of people who run races completely free of any gadget.


Like many people, I first got into running as a form of therapy. It was the one place I could go to leave my phone behind. No matter how hectic the day was, for an hour or so I was unreachable. When I started running longer distances, my reprieve got longer. Soon I was off the grid for hours at a time. What I missed were mostly unimportant distractions, and once people became acclimated to me being unreachable for certain periods of the day, they’d wait more patiently for my response.


I’d miss the occasional lunch invite or email from my boss, but I never missed an emergency or a call that couldn’t wait a few hours before returning it. It was then that I realized that you’re as available as you make yourself, and the people who matter will respect and adjust to that, even though we’ve all grown accustomed to immediate response times.


When I began running with other people, I assumed that this would be a widely-shared mentality. But I soon realized that using running as a form of technology escapism was not as common as I thought. The age of tech abundance has not spared the running community, and my new friends were running with just as much technology as they surrounded themselves with every other hour of the day.


At a New York Road Runners group training workout in Prospect Park, I recognized the beeps of Garmin watches every time we stopped a segment. When I asked someone if they liked having a watch tracking them, they joked “How else would people know that I went for a run?” Others said that if they were unable to acquire a GPS signal, they wouldn’t start their race: “If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.” Indeed, Strava (a popular app that tracks biking and running workouts via GPS while also functioning as a social network) has a cult following.


Other phone-based trackers include Nike + Run Club, Runkeeper, Runtastic, Fitso, Rungo, and RunSocial.


Not only are people using their cell phones while running, but they’re also purchasing brand new technology simply to track their activity. The wearables market clocked in at $3 billion in 2016 and is estimated to have sold 310.4 million devices in 2017. Although this number includes items like Snapchat glasses and the now-defunct Google Glass, smartwatches are well over half of the market, and are ubiquitous among younger, active populations. As of 2014, 48% of wearable users were between 18 and 34 years old.


Part of this reliance on gadgets is habitual. I use my cell phone for everything else in my life, so it would make sense to make it part of my race training plan as well. My running partners didn’t all of a sudden have a smartwatch, a heart monitor, and seven apps on their phones to track their running stats. Reliance creeps up on you.


At first, they just liked to listen to music while running, which meant headphones and an iPod. Enter Spotify, which requires having your phone on you. If you’re going to have your phone anyway, you may as well download a few apps to log your activity. Since your phone is also a camera, maybe you stop a few times to take photos. And maybe when you use that camera you see that your friend texted you, and you take a minute to respond.


Point being: it’s a slippery slope.


This is not to say it’s only the running community guilty of bringing tech and gadgets into sports. When Strava debuted, it was designed for the biking community. Swimmers, rowers, hikers, and many others have embraced tracking and monitoring devices on their phones. Activities that once provided an escape from the increasingly tech-saturated world have now merged with it.


I started running because it gave me an hour of blissful, technology-free time. I wasn’t running to share it with the world or to garner virtual encouragement. When I got my medal after crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon, I simply bowed my head and appreciated the moment fully: I had done it.


I waddled out of the park with thousands of others, many of whom were struggling to get service, or attempting to contact family members before their phones ran out of battery. The last thing on my mind was checking who had emailed me, or what texts had rolled in while I’d been away from my cell. I enjoyed a few more unplugged moments before meeting my parents at a predetermined spot, taking a few pictures (as parents do), and plugging back in.


There are certainly benefits to using technology when you run, but there should be some point in your life (whether it’s running or not is up to you) where you are inaccessible to the outside world. You deserve some time to be detached.


If I run a marathon but don’t track it on any apps or post it on social media, let me assure you, it still happened.


Did You Know?

  • 51,307 people started the NYC Marathon in 2017 and 98.9% finished the race. (Runner’s World)

  • Half of wearable users are between 18 and 34. (Nielsen)

  • The wearables market is worth over $3 billion. (Forbes)


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