Competitors by proxy

One of my favourite images – both as a photo and for its rich evocation – is of physical training being carried out by the ship’s company among the massive guns of a Dreadnought-style battleship. Although I cannot find that particular photo, that of boy seamen exercising among the guns of HMS Malaya may give some of its flavour.

Part of the Boys' Division at physical training, exercising beneath the 15 inch guns of HMS Malaya, during the Second World War. Photo by Lt C H Parnall, released courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (photo A 5690), via Wikimedia Commons.
Part of the Boys’ Division at physical training, exercising beneath the 15 inch guns of HMS Malaya, during the Second World War. Photo by Lt C H Parnall, released courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (photo A 5690), via Wikimedia Commons.

They, of course, had no choice. Physical training was mandatory, unless you were sick, or required for more pressing duties. Today few of us, particularly the majority who live sedentary lives in cities, have to exercise any more than is essential to travel in and out of work.

‘Working out’, ‘training’, or whatever, is today something of a wonderfully healthy obsession for many, and now goes foot in shoe with expensive devices to monitor performance, and apps which ensure that the whole world knows how far and how fast you were today.

When those online services falter, there are howls of anguish and tirades of rage. On 12 November, Garmin suffered problems with its Connect service, according to Cycling Weekly, and the denizens of Twitter were quick and expressive in venting their frustration at being unable to upload their latest running or cycling performances.

They clearly had not read the pages of alphr, the excellent online science and technology magazine, whose Editor decided to volunteer his team for a 10 kilometer run. The pretext seems to have been the comparison of different fitness tracking systems, which did not appear able to reach anything like a consensus on what was achieved.

My wife and I are a bit more sedate in our exercise now, preferring a walk on the Downs to vigorous dancing on the pedals up some fearsome hill, and that exercise is closely monitored by our iPhones and my  Watch. Apart from the continuing frustration that I have still not discovered any app which does anything useful with heart rate data from the Watch, I have been generally very disappointed with performance tracking apps.

Almost all appear to want to post my performance data to multiple websites and online services, including Facebook and Twitter, given half a chance. Some of their enthusiasm no doubt relates to the subscription they wish me to pay them for this invaluable service. But I still cannot get my head around why anyone would want to tell the world how fast – or slow – they had been when doing something which is purely for their own personal benefit.

Perhaps we are now competitors by proxy. Unable to actually go and run/cycle/walk with friends because of limited coincident free time, the only way that we can try to better their performance is by sharing electronic records of ours. Services such as Strava are doing very nicely thank all of you who are happy to pay them to make that possible.

A couple of days ago, just as I was turning to walk up the steepest section of track to ascend to the Downs, a youngish couple ran past me, on up the hill. As it cranked up to its peak gradient of around 25%, they fell apart, walked, staggered, stopped for a moment. I carried on walking briskly, until I had almost caught them up. It wasn’t competitive, but I did feel an urge to give them an encouraging – or disparaging – shout. Perhaps I should have hunted them down on Strava, Garmin Connect, or wherever they uploaded their data.

Obviously I still don’t get it.