SPECIAL SERIES : [X]Press Magazine Issue Three: Toys and Technology
Batteries Not Included
The rise of the cyber-athlete

 

On the open plains of Greece, wedged between two tributaries, the sweet smell of fennel fills the air. Wild flowers dot the landscape as pine trees climb into the mountains framing the blue sky. An estimated 6,400 Persian corpses lay dead on the battlefield to the mere 192 Athenians slain. The young courier Pheidippides takes off in only a sheet and sandals, running the 26 miles of unpaved trails to the town of Athens without a single drop of Gatorade, a pair of shorts or encouragement from family and friends.

Marathon running might not be as difficult as it was 2,500 years ago, but have we inundated the sport with so much equipment that we have lost the essence of the race? Adidas recently created a running shoe with enough features to rival TiVo. With magnetic sensors, a 20MHz microprocessor and a mini electric motor that spins at 6,000 rpm, the Adidas-1 will give your old Chuck Taylors a serious inferiority complex.

Age-old activities like walking, running and biking have gone all Jetsons on us. Shoes that think, shirts that measure heart rate and sunglasses that play all your favorite songs are just a few upgrades that indicate it might be high time to chuck that terry cloth sweatband. If man can’t rival machine, he can at least slap enough mini computers all over his sweaty frame to look like one. But can athletes outsmart sore muscles with NASA-developed miracle gels or shop themselves into a faster finishing time with space-aged gear?

The sporting goods industry isn’t feeling any pain. With sales of $52 billion in 2004 (a 4 percent climb from the previous year), pricey high-tech gear is the star player on the court. The $300 brainchild of Nike and Phillips is the MP3RUN, a 256MB flash-based music player that attaches to your shoe. The device knows how far and how fast you run, your geographical coordinates and how much you secretly still love Dave Matthews Band. The info travels to your computer via Bluetooth, where Nike then designs your personal training program.

Before David Ryan received an MP3RUN as a gift, he was one of running’s remaining purists, strapped with nothing but those gloriously short running shorts and a set of wrist weights. Ryan says the pedometer on the device came in handy during his marathon training by taking the guesswork out of once seemingly aimless runs around Lake Merced. He also spent a few hours in front of the computer toying with the training features of the interactive Nike program, but he admits most of the other functions of the MP3RUN went unused.

This seasoned runner’s favorite feature is the smooth female voice that purrs through Ryan’s ear buds when he hits a mile marker, letting him know how far he’s run. “She’s very encouraging,” Ryan says with a chuckle.

The Scott eVest 3.0 is for the runner who’s already snatched up the latest gadgets and still has a cool $350 to spare. With 42 hidden electronics pockets, the eVest allows the user to run wires through the jacket and connect all the equipment to a single hub, creating truly functional fashion.

Ready to go straight to sci-fi? The Tanita Total Innerscan ($700) lets the serious athlete play doctor by conducting a detailed physical scan at home. An electrical current measures weight, body fat percentage, bone and muscle mass, basal metabolic rate, body water percentage and metabolic age.

Machines can’t run without fuel. New sports nutritional supplements come with their own high tech twists and are packed with enough vitamins and minerals to eradicate rickets in a small third world country. The makers of Oxyshot, a cutting edge sports supplement, say it was developed from NASA technology and is the result of years of research and development. Popular with rugby players, football stars and boxers, Lact-Away is an anti-inflammatory supplement made from pycnogenol, an extract of French maritime tree bark. Amino Vital provides performance athletes with 2,400 milligrams of amino acids in one “forest berry” flavored bar.

Professional cyclist “Fast Freddie” Rodriguez is one of Clif Bar Inc.’s high performance athletes. He requested that Clif turn up the caffeine a notch in his favorite mocha gel called “Fast Freddie Expresso,” a flavored organic brown rice syrup that provides performance athletes with calories and electrolytes for long hauls. But don’t look for it in stores anytime soon. Senior Brand Director Steven Grossman says, “the stuff tastes like a mouthful of espresso grounds.”

With all these new goods we should have racers breaking the sound barrier by the end of the decade. Or perhaps we’re running the risk of a major computer crash.

“Advancements over the last 25 years have undermined the act of running,” says Rich Benyo, editor of "Marathon and Beyond" magazine, who is in the midst of his 18th book, “Twenty-Five Strides to Sweeter Running.” Mankind was once capable of running from saber tooth tigers and chasing down antelopes, but now, “people are wearing so much equipment they look like they are going deep sea diving.” According to Benyo, the average marathon time has actually clocked in an hour slower in the last 10 years.

While man seems to be slowing down, the advancements in sports technology are just picking up speed. Shoe design has made huge strides since 1921, when former basketball star Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor became the spokesmodel for Converse’s cutting edge designs. The wildly popular canvas high-top eventually became Taylor’s namesake. The original Converse All Star boasted improved traction and ankle support. “The old Chucks were made with natural rubber,” Robles says. They were a paler yellow on the bottom and gave the shoe its bounce.

The high demand for rubber during WWII gave rise to the synthetic rubber industry, eventually leading track coach Bill Bowerman of Nike to pour the stuff into his wife’s waffle iron in 1970 and changing the look of running’s sole to what it is today. The new Adidas-1 may be the most expensive athletic shoe on the market, but other performance shoes are only a step and a half cheaper, averaging $100 a pop.

Despite the hype, it is widely agreed that the right shoe is crucial for injury prevention. Yet for a select few, the best shoe is no shoe. Rick Roeber plans to have finished six marathons by the end of 2005 and to have logged over 2,500 training and racing miles—and to have done it all barefoot. Roeber says the best way for a runner to perfect her or his stride is by losing all the overpriced padding of running shoes. He says since he tossed his trainers over two years ago, the knee and ankle pain he used to experience has completely disappeared.

“Hundreds of microprocessors are actually in the soles of your feet,” Roeber says.

The folks at Nike don’t think going shoeless is such a shabby idea, but would rather recommend something a little more marketable. The Nike Free was introduced earlier this year as the antithesis of the growingly complex running shoes on the market. Closer to a glorified sock than a shoe, the Nike Free boasts many of the same advantages Roeber says running barefoot has to offer.

“A child demonstrates running as one of the simplest forms of motion lunging forward with his first strides as opposed to steps,” Benyo says. He believes we need to invest a lot more into the act of running, as opposed to the stuff around it, in order to really be able to enjoy it. “Boston Marathon didn’t start handing out water until 1978. Port-a-potties weren’t even invented until the seventies. Before then you had to take a dump at home before you came out to race. Now everyone wants their own toilet.”

Until then, the line starts here, so let’s hope you can hold it. Even the highest-tech gear hasn’t been able to budge our biology, but it may succeed in distracting us momentarily from the aches and pains of a good old, ass-kicking workout.

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