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In these days of information overload, is it better to tune in or tune out?

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Illustration by Meg Bisharat.

Eric Wilson emerged from the darkness of a nighttime forest in Northern California and sprinted through the finish chute of last November’s Rio Del Lago 100-mile race. Wild-eyed and open-mouthed, his face expressed elation because he placed fourth in 18 hours 45 minutes—more than four hours faster than his previous best 100-mile time.

How did the 48-year-old runner from Oakland, California, nail his sub-19-hour goal? Entirely alone and unplugged.

Wilson wore no earbuds to listen to music, carried no phone and used neither a pacer nor a crew. His Garmin GPS watch died on the course, forcing him to gauge pace by feel. He trained solo for months, disconnecting from his running buddies and their shared Google Docs training log, so he could follow his own schedule and not feel pressured to run on rest days. Although he routinely uploaded data from his Garmin to the Strava training app to log his miles, he paid little attention to what other runners posted on Strava. His Facebook account stayed dormant for months.

“I felt giddy,” he said after the race. For most of the miles, “no one was around me, and I hardly talked to anybody. I wanted to totally immerse myself in the moment.”

When Wilson passed runners on an out-and-back portion, he saw some of them using their cell phones,  “literally stopped on the trail making a phone call, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Farther back in the race, Patty Osorio-O’Dea made steady progress toward finishing her first 100-miler. She drew support not only from a crew and pacers, but also from many friends she connected with through social media. These friends cheered her on virtually, and she pulled out her phone at an aid station to post an update to Facebook—just a quick note about music (“Tom Sawyer, Rush at mile 55”), which was shorthand to let everyone know she made it past halfway and was in good spirits.

Related: It has never been easier to share your training with the public. But should you?

Unlike Wilson, Osorio-O’Dea extensively used devices and leveraged online encouragement both in training and on race day to maximize her motivation and enjoyment of the experience. Interacting with trail-running friends online and exchanging data and comments with other runners through applications like Strava and Daily Mile helped her prepare and execute her ultra trail races last year.

“I’m motivated by people verbalizing support. It helped me to feel like I have people behind me, and, also, I used it to be accountable to myself,” said Osorio-O’Dea, 43, of El Cerrito, California. She loves her Garmin watch and heart rate monitor because “I like to measure if I’m progressing, and to look at information to see if there’s something I could do differently to improve.”

A decade ago, a solo, unplugged trail runner like Wilson would have been unremarkable. Today, he appears to be the exception, and a runner like Osorio-O’Dea more the norm. Online socializing, new media channels and tech gadgets have become woven into the fabric of the sport, significantly altering the way runners train and interact with each other. But is that a good thing?

Then and Now

Ten years ago, newcomers to trail running got information mainly from print publications such as this magazine and Ultrarunning. A handful of pioneering websites and online discussion forums for trail runners grew more by word of mouth than by search engines.

Back then, runners were prone to write race reports and share them via email. Embedding photos in the text and converting the report to a PDF was a big deal. They sometimes sent the email with the disclaimer, “Please don’t feel like you have to read this,” as if sharing a narrative about reaching a finish line risked coming across as too extroverted or boastful.

Then, starting in the mid-2000s, personal trail-running blogs like Scott Dunlap’s (atrailrunnersblog.com) burst on the scene, followed by professional blogs like iRunFar.com. Bloggers elevated the sharing of race reports and news about the sport to a popular hobby and, eventually, to a cottage industry.

“The truth is, ultrarunners have been ahead of the technology curve for the past 20 years,” says Andy Jones-Wilkins, a well-known blogger and seven-time top-10 finisher at the Western States 100 Endurance Run. “It all started with Stan Jensen’s website (run100s.com) and the Ultra List (a listserv). Then came the blogs, which gave regular people insight into the minds and training methods of the elites and allowed the common man to make a name as a writer/runner. Facebook and Twitter simply increased that reach exponentially.”

Information-sharing and community-building snowballed not only with trail runners’ use of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also through a growing number of trail-running podcasts, YouTube channels and live coverage of trail races through Twitter and new-media startups like UltraLive.net and UltraSportsLive.TV.

Related: 4 must-have mobile apps for trail runners

Last summer, for example, when Anton Krupicka attempted to traverse Nolan’s 14 (14 14,000-foot summits in Colorado in one 60-hour push), the experience became a new-media event filmed for his sponsor’s YouTube channel, tweeted for his fans to follow, written about by bloggers and debated in comment fields. An untold number of fans, likely in the tens of thousands, connected online to vicariously share Krupicka’s pain. Perhaps they also learned something valuable about the difficulty of mountain running when he quit less than halfway through.

Too Much Information?

Eric Schranz, co-host of UltraRunnerPodcast.com, started running trails and racing ultras midway through the past decade’s information and technology evolution. He says there was enough—but not too much—online information and networking available to motivate and educate him.

“Now, with the ability to share and see everything, there’s so much information and strong opinions that it’s hard to crystallize what you’re really looking for,” Schranz says. That’s one reason he creates a daily news digest on his site to distill the sport’s myriad other online news sources.

The increasingly commonplace practice of “crowdsourcing” advice about running—that is, posing a question on the Internet and receiving multiple answers within minutes from multiple sources—has become a valuable way to gain answers to questions about gear and race courses. But, says Schranz, an overwhelming number of conflicting replies can also be a waste of time and lead to more confusion than clarity.

When Schranz’s calf flared up, for example, “I put the issue to my friends on Facebook and was showered with advice from every angle,” he recalls. “‘See a PT. See a doc. Use compression. Ice it more. Dude, don’t ice it! You need heat! Get a massage. Let it rest, but not too much.’ And on and on. I obviously couldn’t undergo all of those ‘treatments,’ so I vowed never again to crowdsource a medical issue.”

Some trail runners still choose to ignore all this chatter on the Internet. Rory Bosio, winner and course-record setter of last year’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, is proof that you don’t need to be in the loop online to win on the trails. The 29-year-old who lives near Lake Tahoe, California, says she doesn’t follow blogs or social media, because “I don’t really care how other people train or where other people went running, and I don’t feel comfortable putting myself out there.” Trail runners like Bosio may seem more rare than they actually are, because by nature they keep to themselves.

Bosio also doesn’t use any devices other than an iPod on occasion for music to help power her hill repeats. She used a GPS watch and heart-rate monitor in her first couple of years of ultra training, “and then I got sick of wearing them, and I think I have a better feel for things now. I don’t ever really wear a watch. …  Whatever keeps you motivated to get out there, that’s great, but for me, I find having to download data and process it is another time waster.”

To Each Their Own

As Bosio and others illustrate, runners’ personal use of devices and social media, and their reactions to its effect on the sport, are as varied as the runners themselves.

Some “old-school” purists decry the way many runners seem attached to their phones on the trail, seeing it as antithetical to the sport’s connection with nature and its spirit of tough self reliance.

Gary Cantrell, race director of Tennessee’s 100-mile Barkley Marathons—arguably the most difficult ultra-trail race in the world—urges runners to leave their iPods and smartphones at home. In a recent column in UltraRunning, he mourned “the passing, almost unnoticed, of one of the central themes of ultra-distance running: the ‘loneliness of the long-distance runner.’ Indeed, the passing, during this age of technological wizardry, of any form of solitude, anywhere.”

If you’re preoccupied with recording and sharing the experience of running, Cantrell said during an interview, “You’re missing everything that makes it enjoyable—the being alone, being out there with your thoughts and seeing what’s around you and really experiencing it. You can’t record an experience and have an experience at the same time. Now, for a lot of people, it’s not real unless someone knows they’re doing it.”

On the other hand, many ardent ambassadors of the sport view devices, data and online networking as overwhelmingly positive both for individuals and the community.

“The growth of social media, powered by the accessibility of smart phones, has been great for trail running,” says Dunlap, the trail-running blogger from Woodside, California, who works in the high-tech field. “You can share your adventure in words and photos and have it there to reflect back on. When you can’t be at a race, you can follow along and have 50 to 100 people along the course send you updates. Online resources have been a big driver of our sport’s growth—you can only view so many awesome photos before it motivates you to get off the couch and get in the game.”

In addition to blogging, Dunlap posts frequently to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and LinkedIn, and experiments with just about every new device, “because I’m a nerd,” he says. He recently began testing applications for athletes of Glass, the wearable computer with optical display that Google is developing, for a few companies. He’s also trying out Omegawave, a heart-rate monitor/EKG “that tells me each morning if I’m showing signs of overtraining.”

Dunlap relies on his iPhone 5 during runs as a multi-use tool—a camera, music player and map—and uses the Strava mobile app to track and motivate his training. “When I’m cranking out a busy work week it’s important to me to see six to seven logged runs—it’s proof that I am making the right choices,” he says.

Dunlap and others who embrace new technology say they actually relish solitude and quiet on the trail more than ever, because it’s the only time in their day when they take a break from the fast pace and distractions of being online.

Jones-Wilkins, for example, updates his social-media streams throughout the day, uses Strava as a training and social networking tool and virtually connects with hundreds of trail runners who read and comment on his weekly column on iRunFar.com. But he uses running for mindful reflection and welcomes that time alone and offline.

“As technology has become more ubiquitous, I’ve become even more adamant about keeping it out of my running time,” says Jones-Wilkins.

Beware of Overtraining

Many trail runners view this increase in connectivity and information as both a blessing and a curse.

“What is so magical about ultrarunning are the relationships you form at these events and races—getting on the trail, doing something epic with other people—and social media is my way of staying connected with these people. That’s inherently positive,” says Joe Uhan, a top competitor and coach from Eugene, Oregon, who integrates social media and apps into training, socializing and coaching.

Yet Uhan also recognizes drawbacks to following others online, chief among them the danger of overtraining. If you follow elite competitors on blogs, through social media updates and on apps like Strava, then Uhan believes you are at risk for training too hard and getting injured because you might infer that you have to train like the elites to be successful. As a coach and physical therapist, he feels some of these athletes train at a level that’s unsustainable.

Related: It has never been easier to share your training with the public. But should you?

Even though he objectively knows how to avoid it, Uhan admits he’s not immune to overtraining caused by virtual peer pressure. He says he looks online and thinks, “I only ran 50 miles this week and that guy’s doing more. … It’s motivating to know what others are doing, but at the same time there’s a lot of negative pressure” to copy and surpass others in training rather than listening to one’s own body and sticking to a consistent, personalized plan.

“Sometimes you have to ignore what you’re taking in,” Uhan adds. For example, he admires and follows Nick Clark, the Colorado runner who won last year’s Wasatch Front 100 and finished a close second overall in ultrarunning’s famed “Grand Slam” (four specific 100-mile races in the same season). For a while, says Uhan, “I had to quit reading Nick’s blog, because I can’t read how many damn miles Nick Clark is running this week or it’ll make me want to crawl into a hole. I just had to focus on what I’m doing.”

On the flipside, tech that helps fine-tune training can help prevent overtraining, Uhan says. Uploading data from a heart-rate monitor and Garmin, then monitoring it month to month, can help runners stay true to their training objectives and prevent overtraining. The key is to interpret the data objectively to make sure you don’t abruptly alter your plan and don’t train too hard, too soon.

For some, however, this data stream carries the potential to cause as much harm as good. “I have a love-hate relationship with Strava,” says Schranz. “I love to be able to peek into people’s training, and I love the competitive aspect … but for people like me who have a desire to compete with ourselves or with others, it’s a hindrance because I feel like I can’t go out on easy runs anymore or my ‘average pace’ [as displayed on Strava] will go down.”

More Tech on the Trails

Distraction is the other main drawback to using devices during a run. If you’re pausing to answer a text, to adjust a sensor or to upload a photo to Facebook, then you probably can’t reach the state that psychologists call being “in the zone” or “achieving flow”—a satisfying state of full immersion and focus on a challenging activity.

“When you obsess with data and how things might look on Facebook, you may be forgetting to just be in the moment and let the experience feed your spiritual self,” says Dunlap.

Going off the grid for an extra-long trail adventure can be the perfect antidote to an overreliance on staying connected and quantifying every mile. “It’s an absolute joy to power down my phone,” says Marathon des Sables champion Meghan M. Hicks, senior editor at iRunFar.com and a Contributing Editor to this magazine. Hicks is on Twitter and other social-media platforms throughout the day for personal and professional use, but she disconnects periodically for days at a time to run and backpack in the backcountry [see “Into the Wild,” Issue 93, January 2014].

“But I will tell you I’m excited to turn my phone back on [after an extended outing],” says Hicks, “to catch up on text messages or to hear how friends did in a race. … It’s a real gift to be connected and see details of people’s lives you would never know otherwise.” Her advice to runners who struggle with dependency on a device: “Get from it what you want, and then put it away.”

Soon it may be more difficult to get offline and run in a natural state because we’re on the cusp of “an unprecedented era of data creation and accessibility,” says Dunlap, and  “the ubiquity of sensors is going to sneak up on all of us.” Many trail runners will start wearing micro-devices with apps literally woven into the fabric of running clothes. “Smart socks” and “smart shirts” are coming to market that have sensors seamlessly integrated to measure things like foot strike, heart rate, breathing and stress.

And it’s a good bet you’ll soon spot runners wearing Google Glass on the trail. In late 2013, Strava and Google began promoting the Strava app for Glass, which delivers real-time updates on pace, distance and competitive challenges for a run segment—all hands-free, simply by looking up and talking to the glasses. In addition to receiving instant feedback about the run and information about the trail, runners with Google Glass could take photos and videos, conduct research, send messages, make calls, and share online all the data and images from their run, every step of the way.

Related: 4 must-have apps for trail runners

Dunlap predicts trail running will become more popular than ever, not because of these high-tech options and online networking, but because of the increasing need to get way from them. “Much like the Fat Ass races of today, I think a ‘no tech allowed’ race is in our future,” he adds, “and that’s one I would definitely do!”

Bay Area trail runner Sarah Lavender Smith is grateful she’s the mother of two teenagers who clue her in to what’s trending. You can find her online at TheRunnersTrip.com or @sarahrunning.

This article originally appeared in April 2014 in our inaugural special issue, DIRT: The Trail-Running Life. Want more stories like this? Subscribe now and get DIRT 2015, a $10 value, free with your subscription.