ABC/running watch

I ran a 5k last year with Emily, even though I hate running. I agreed to that one both because I was tired of watching her run races and because it was on the airfield at NAS Whidbey Island. I think I ran a kilometer or two before I had to walk a bit, but it wasn’t that bad. At her urging, I have ran a few more races since then, switching to 10k races (where possible) a couple of months ago when Emily switched to half marathons, and I will attempt my first half marathon this coming weekend.

We have both been using the Fitbit app to track our runs and to watch distance and pace while running. That works alright, but it is asking a lot of each of our phones to play music and record a GPS tracklog at the same time — crashing is not infrequent. I’ve also had my eye out for a reasonably priced ABC watch for hiking and climbing but have not found anything that didn’t cost more than my cell phone (or my laptop, to be honest).

Until I got a good deal on a refurbished Garmin Fenix. This thing is a tech geek’s dream come true, and possibly a non-tech person’s nightmare if they try to mess with the configuration too much. It’s awesome. Here is what I did and you should do to this thing:

  • First, forget the manual for the most part and read DC Rainmaker’s review instead. Because the review has not been updated for the last few major firmware versions, skim that site’s reviews for the Fenix 2 and Fenix 3, too. One thing that makes the original Fenix such a good deal is that the price has dropped, but Garmin continues to update and support the device. Of course, you can read Garmin’s manual, too, if you are so inclined.
  • Second, create an account on Garmin Connect (and add me as a contact there if you want to).
  • If you use a Fitbit to track your daily activity, create an account on FitDataSync.com. Connect that account to your Fitbit account and your Garmin Connect account. Note, though, that steps recorded on your Garmin device will appear in your Fitbit account but will not count in Fitbit competitions.
  • Fourth, install Garmin Basecamp on your computer. Connect the Fenix to your computer and run Basecamp to install any available updates.
  • Fifth, install the appropriate Garmin app on your smartphone and log in with your Garmin Connect credentials. Using the Fenix Bluetooth connection, sync it to your new watch.
  • Sixth, set up the data pages for each of the activity profiles you want to use (running, hiking, mountaineering, skiing, etc.) Turn off the damn keypress beep in each of them. Configure each of them for when you want the Bluetooth connection to your phone to be active. Reorder the menu. See this post on the Garmin forums for more explanation of the various data fields, and for the Excel-based profile builder in case you really hate doing that much editing on the watch itself.
  • Finally, give that thing a better base map. I combined a western-Washington portion of a Fenix-specific Open Street Maps basic map (available on the gMapTool site) with the Washington portion of the very awesome Northwest Trails map (download at GPS File Depot). This post tells you how to combine two maps into one and copy them onto the Fenix to replace the stock base map. While the combined map looks pretty plain on the computer and falls short of the color topo on my handheld GPS, it is perfectly detailed for the screen and fits in memory on the Fenix. Even if you do not want to mess with making a custom combined map, the maps above and others available online can make better base maps than the stock one, depending on your planned usage — just be aware of the file size and limit geographic coverage appropriately.

That done, it’s time to go running or hiking or climbing. Record some activities. Try the LiveTrack feature, as if anyone on Facebook is really going to sit at their computer and watch you run for a couple of hours (if you are doing anything worth watching, you won’t have cell service anyway). Sync the watch to your phone (it’s buggy on mine, but it works if I reboot the watch to reestablish the Bluetooth connection), and check out your activity details on Garmin Connect.

Some problems noted so far: Without a smartphone connection, I’m not sure how I would sync activities, courses, etc., between the Fenix and Garmin Connect; the latter tries to use Garmin Express, which states that it does not work with the Fenix [EDIT: See note below]. Editing and testing profiles and data pages takes some patience and experimentation. The GPS fix when running in thick woods is okay but not great. The Connect app on Android constantly complains if it does not have a Bluetooth connection to the watch (even when I’m not using the watch or the app), so I had turn off its notifications in Settings>Apps. The app lacks a “sync now” button, as does the phone, and syncing does not update the “your last sync was xx hours ago” unless it has activities to download. Garmin Connect, whether on the app or in a browser, lacks the ability to use social-media and email accounts to find connections, and searching for connections is next to useless due to its broad results and poor detail; you would really have to talk to someone about their active account in order to find and connect with them.

EDIT: The error in Garmin Express stating that syncing the Fenix requires use of another Garmin app is fixed in the newest version of Express, so I was able to sync it through my PC and upload courses. Course upload apparently does not happen through the Connect app on Android phones. However, uploading two half-marathon courses through Express partially bricked my Fenix and caused no end of cursing the day before an overnight trip to do one of those half marathons. Soft resets and attempted hard resets did not help. What finally worked was forcing the unit, connected to my PC, into USB mass-storage mode by holding down the Up button while the unit was starting up (after first holding down the light button long enough to get it to power off). First, the words “software loader” appear; keep holding down the Up button, and the Fenix will eventually show up as a drive on the computer. Then, delete all of the GPX files on the device, because one of those being corrupted is what causes the Fenix to freeze at the first boot-up screen (Garmin logo). I also read online that people left their Fenix powered on and connected to the charger all night and woke to a working device, but I did not take the time to try that.

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