Coming to the Dark Side…

Darth Bob…  Has a nice ring to it… no?

After many years of training seriously for distance events, I have succumbed to the dark side.  For years I would pat my trusty Timex Ironman watch and scoff at the techno runner boys and girls fussing with their GPS units before every run, waddling around trying to get a signal or getting dropped halfway through a run.  I used to say it was just one more level of crap to manage and I loved the simplicity of just running, biking etc. without obsessing about times, splits, etc.  Especially once I started training for and competing in triathlons, which add levels of crap to manage on par or above any other sport, I used to think that I couldn’t possibly handle anything else.  Hell I usually forgot to set my watch during races…

But I have slowly warmed to GPS units over the last couple of years.  Not because I’m a stat monkey, but because, especially since the first of the year, I want to get serious about “training”.  Since I don’t have a coach to be my stat monkey, I need to track my training better than I have in the past.  I also need to track more/different stats than I have in the past as well.  Things like bike cadence, interval splits, heart rate, that weren’t important before are now some of the more important indicators of training progress.  But I had no way to track them.  So after some thought (and an admission that I was going to catch hell for finally gettiing one) I decided to upgrade from my trusty Timex.

In looking at what was important to me I came up with a few criteria.  The watch had to be durable, waterproof (swimming), and track the stats I needed.  Software and battery life were also considerations as was the all important price.  I knew I was pricing myself up the food chain when I said the word “waterproof”, but it’s what I needed so my choices came down to the Garmin 310XT and the Timex Ironman GPS.  In reading about both of them they are both big, clunky, feature rich tools that are designed well.  Garmin is the big boy on the block and has been in the GPS market the longest.  Timex has had their watch on the market for just over a year.  The reviews of the Timex, early on, told of a watch that didn’t work very well.  Inaccurate and prone to lose signal (or just not find one), it didn’t seem like a good choice.  That and it was only about $50 less than the Garmin.  But I read a couple of recent reviews by pro triathletes that recently switched to the Timex and spent some time working with the guys at Timex to make the watch better.  Their take was that, yes, when the watch first came out, it wasn’t so good, but the firmware upgrades Timex has made over the past year have made the watch MUCH better.

I tried on both watches and they are, indeed, HUGE.  They make my mens Timex Ironman watch look like a womens watch.  And they are heavy.  I had to make a choice so I decided to be a homey and stick with my brand and I bought the Timex (the $50 rebate also helped… heh.).

My review… so far.

After reading about all the features and incredible configurability of this watch for twenty minutes or so I realized that I was drooling and very close to blacking out, so I just decided to set up the watch basics first and add new features a few at a time.  I’m not going to go in to every little detail, you can read about that elsewhere.  Let’s talk setup and usability.

First, download the manual from Timex’s website.  The one that comes with the watch was written by tiny little elves and is impossible to read.  My big, fat hands can’t even hold the book, much less turn the pages.  Speaking of downloads, I also downloaded the software for the watch, which is pretty decent and I have as yet to fully explore it, AND download the firmware update for the watch.  By all accounts it improves the accuracy and functionality of the watch A LOT.  For example, my first run with the watch was with a friend who has a Garmin.  His watch and my watch were within 2 hundredths of each other on mileage.  The rub on early versions of this watch was that it measured short.  If mine does, so does the Garmin.

Once I got a manual that was actually made for human beings to read, I discovered the source of my only setup irritation.  The big boy manual stated clearly (in a font size larger than 4 points…  I have 44 year old eyes… please…) that the watch would AUTOMATICALLY set the time (which I had been trying to set manually for a half hour and was feeling REEEEALLY stupid for not figuring out) once it synced up to a satellite for the first time.  Since I was playing with setup while buried in the bowels of my house, the watch couldn’t get a signal.  So I walked outside with it and after about 15 seconds it found a satellite and solved my time issue.

The watch has a “Performance” mode that tracks one sport at a time and allows you to toggle between workout types and even set up custom workout types.  This is the standard mode and the one I use the most.  It also has a “Multisport” mode, which you can configure to track a triathlon or duathlon, including transitions, with the touch of a button.  I really like this feature BUT, the one issue I have with the watch makes this mode a button fumbling challenge in the delirium of a race.  My only real problem with the watch so far is the placement of the buttons.  Where the Garmin has the start and lap buttons on the face of the watch, the Timex kept the old design where the start/lap button is on top but the stop (and in the case of multisport)/next event button is on the side.  While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it is.  The button is too easily pushed by accident during the mad scramble of transition or even just moving around on the bike or run.  The end result in my first race (a duathlon) was a useless event recording because, apparently, I had accidentally bumped the next event button at about .5 miles into the race and ended up with one of the longer transitions in history.

The fix for this is pressing and holding the Enter button for a couple of seconds to lock the buttons, thus eliminating long transitions, etc.  BUT, while this is great for single sports (and worked perfectly the next weekend at a 5K), having to press and hold to lock (while swimming…?), then press and hold to unlock (while trying to run into transition from the water), then press the next event button, then not bumping the button accidentally in transition, then pressing the next event button while running with or mounting your bike, then pressing the Lock button and holding for a few seconds while trying to RIDE your bike…. etc.  Get the picture?  It is either going to take a LOT of practice to get down, or I’m going to abandon it.  We’ll see.  It’s too bad you can’t configure the Start/Lap button to be the next event button so there is less chance of bumping it.

I went to my local MTB park and rode through the woods for an hour or so and never had the watch drop a satellite.  It measured my route and mileage accurately.  I ran the same route on the trail the next day and came up with the same mileage plus or minus a couple hundredths.  Good enough for me.

I played with the navigation functions of the watch which, by most accounts, are rudimentary, but fun.  I was easily able to plot points and then get back to them later.  It’s odd having a compass on your watch.  The watch will “map” your path, but it is pretty much meaningless.  Just a shape drawn on your watch or computer screen but there are no maps to overlay it on so it’s just a shape.  Still wondering if I’m missing something here…?

The battery life so far has been fine.  A full charge will power the watch for several days and has more than enough life to run through a single day endurance event.  I wore mine and set it to performance mode and left it running all day just to see what would happen.  I was at about 50% battery life after about 12 hours.  Since none of my races are more than 4 hours, I figure that is good enough 🙂

The software installed fine on my Windows Vista (yeah… I know…) home computer and my Windows 7 work machine.  Syncing is easy and automatic.  Training Peaks iPhone app is… OK.  It’s easy to enter data, but finding and reviewing workout details… not so much.  In it’s defense, I’m still playing with it and trying to figure it out so I can’t call myself qualified yet.  But I have seen better, more full featured (and, yes, free) apps for tracking and reviewing your workouts.  We’ll see how it goes.

In all, I’m excited about the tool.  Button fumbling aside, it works, it’s configurable to meet all of my workout needs and I have found it to be as accurate as any other GPS waatch when I compare with them after rides or runs.  I am looking for a heart rate monitor and cadence sensor to add to the mix.  Since the watch uses any ANT+ sensor I am free to use Timex, Garmin or any other I can find.  I will say it was disturbing to be in a crowd at the start of the duathlon and look down at my watch and see it picking somebody else’s heart rate.  Dunno who… but they were working WAY too hard.  RHR of 110  before the start?  Excited?

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