“RaceRunner: can an old-school runner learn to love the smartphone app?” – The Guardian

The app offers to ‘gamify running’ by pairing runners to race each other wherever they are in the world. A self-confessed sceptic gives it a go

‘I didn’t like RaceRunner much at first. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to not like me either.’
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

OK, I’m biased, I won’t lie. I really wasn’t expecting to like RaceRunner. It’s everything I’m not keen on: it’s smartphone-centric, it involves teaming up with unknown “buddies” and it treats the notion of solitude (“Never run alone again”) as some kind of malady.

Here’s the two-line pitch: “We have gamified running, and have made it more stimulating and engaging. How? We pair users up against each other, and through the app they run virtual races in real time, anywhere in the world.”

So, why the knee-jerk antipathy? First, I don’t want my running “gamified”. I like it just the way it is: shoes on, door, run, door, shoes off, done. Positively ungamified, in other words. Second, I’m not keen on pairing up with others. In a social media age, this clearly marks me out. But I quite like a bit of solitude, especially the running kind: that private, rhythmic space where you can detach, de-stress, drift off, daydream.

What I wasn’t expecting, I confess, was RaceRunner not liking me very much. We got along tolerably well at first. My inaugural matchup was over before I knew it. I pressed “Run”, the app linked me up with Myrtie in Kingston, Ontario, and an Americanised female voice said “Go”. And so go we went. We raced the default 1km (you can change the distance, but I was still to work that out) and then we were done. The app compared our times, stored our respective routes via GPS and invited us to “share” (I didn’t; I don’t think Myrtie did either).

Second time out, I thought I’d try racing against myself. The app allows for such an option, but I sense the algorithm doesn’t really approve. Running solo? No. That’s old, analogue style. All the same, afternoon jog completed, it offered me a breakdown of our time together: route, overall time, splits, calories burned, military bases reconnoitered – the usual drill. Yet again, the software was keen for me to share. Once more, I declined.

When I set off the third time, RaceRunner had clocked my type: resistant to change, socially recalcitrant, digitally unreformed. So it decided to trip me up. Literally. Forty minutes into my off-road run, eyes briefly on the screen to check my pace, it sent me sprawling on a tree root. Screen smashed beyond repair. My phone battery, clearly in cahoots, then decided to pack up. That was when the rain started.

Chastened, I brushed myself off and decided to start afresh. A clean slate. I would take RaceRunner for what it is and would see if we could get along. That was two months ago. Things have, I’m pleased to say, improved. We are not in perfect algorithmic sync, but we have come to a mutual accommodation.

In essence, this is where we’re at: I put on my shoes, open the door and head out as usual; but I take my phone with me and, after a couple of kilometres’ warmup, I open the app. As well as offering to find you a race buddy, RaceRunner invites you to join pre-programmed races. These range from 1k to a full marathon. The idea is that you race in your own time, wherever you happen to find yourself. At a certain date, the race closes and winners (and losers) are announced. This is the option I generally choose.

I treat it as interval training. On an average run, I clock up eight to 10km. What I don’t habitually do is push myself. Which is where RaceRunner comes in. Depending on my energy levels, I click on anything between a 1k and 5k pre-programmed race. This encourages me to go faster than I normally would, which has undoubtedly added to my overall fitness and speed.

So is that a good thing? My instinct is to say, “not really”. Times have never much interested me. In fact, before my encounter with RaceRunner, I had only the vaguest sense of how much ground I covered. Of personal bests, I know nothing and have never cared. I still don’t.

Nor do I have any intention to enter any non-virtual (real life) races any time soon. Were that to change, however, then RaceRunner would certainly make for a good training aid. Likewise, if I were someone looking for a prod to edge me off the couch, then its friendly interface and amicable competitiveness would provide the perfect stimulus. But that’s not me, either.

This all sounds rather negative, which is unfair. RaceRunner is a neat idea and marks a genuine advance in the crowded running-app market. That said, if you want to run with someone, then running with a friend in person, shoulder to shoulder, can’t be beaten. That isn’t always possible, however, which is when running with Myrtie in Canada becomes a feasible alternative. Here we are, more than 5,000km apart, and we’re racing against one another in real time. It’s novel, at the very least.

Just because I’m not RaceRunner’s target audience doesn’t mean I’m inured to its gamifying charms. Yes, I like running by myself, with no phone in hand and no mind to my time. Yet what my app experience has taught me is that running is not as binary as I had imagined. I’ve enjoyed being pushed. I’ve valued the frisson of competition. I’ve even enjoyed the possibility – loose though it is – of virtual companionship.

All the same, I miss my solitary running. What’s more, I fear if I keep with the running app thing much longer, it will suck me in and I’ll never find my way back. So, with a tinge of regret that surprises the pre-RaceRunner me, I think it is time we parted ways. Although not before I’ve snuck in one last 5k race. Who knows? If I’m lucky, maybe Myrtie will pop up and join me.

Reference – The Guardian

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