Tuesday 14 August 2018

Welcome to Aegina


I take a second look at the jeep, which seems to come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. No lights, no windows, no roof, garbage on the back seat, sand and pine needles all over the floor. The tan Greek in an Hawaiian shirt points to the contract I just signed two minutes ago and puts the bill I gave him in his pocket. I look at the brand new car (probably his) advertising in the front. "You rent the same in blue", he said, before retrieving that one probably from the nearest scrapyard. The same model indeed, with an additional 150.000 km at the meter!

I sight, no time to argue. Milady and I jump into the car. I'm surprised to find security belts! The Greek hands us a sloppy map of the island: "Welcome to Aegina!"

Maybe I'm going a bit fast here, let's rewind a few hours.

6:45 - Vibrations... Ringing... Phone's alarm... Boy it's early! We landed in Athens last night and barely had time to eat something in the city before heading straight to bed. With only two days here, no time to loose, let's make this trip legendary!

7:30 - Breakfast is frugal and we swallow it as fast as if we were at a marathon's last aid station. We are now in the M1 subway up to Piraeus, the docks where depart all ships to the nearby islands. The morning is young but already warm and sunny. It's gonna be an amazing day!

8:20 - A loud siren rings out and the huge ferry slowly exits the harbour. The salty wind is lashing my face, while Athens is going away behind us. I move to the front deck, where I can already spot Aegina on the horizon. Shaped like a triangle with a size of about 10 x 15 km, the island is the closest one to Athens and can be reached in 45 to 90 min. We chose to cross the sea on a ferry, slower than hydrofoils, but this way we can enjoy the view from the sunny deck. I lean over the sea, hoping to see some dolphins, but I guess we are too close to the coast.

10:00 - The jeep coughs a cloud of black smoke and valiantly climbs the road leaving Aegina Town. After being scammed like rookie tourists, we head East for some adventure. Hair in the wind, bumpy and dusty road, trees all around us, I feel like exploring Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park. I wouldn't be surprised to bump into a T-Rex at the next corner!

We follow the main road up to the hilly center of the island. The church of Agios Nektarios emerges out of nowhere. This is our first stop and we park the jeep under the trees. "Did you lock the doors?", asks milady. I laugh, looking back at the open-air jeep.

10:30 - The ancient cathedral, named after the most widely known Greek orthodox Saint and the little monastery of Agia Triada located right above it are important pilgrimage sites. Christians travel from far away to prey in front of the saint's tomb, for healing reasons and to ask for his blessings. We visit the cathedral where a group of Romanian pilgrims are having an office. Then we climb the stone steps surrounded by colourful bougainvilleas up to the little monastery. The place is stunningly quiet, except for the crickets singing. We enjoy a moment of peace under the olive trees and we feel completely rested when we head back to the jeep.

11:15 - The adventure goes on, as we drive down the hill towards the East coast. I'm surprised to meet so few cars and tourists. Despite its proximity to Athens, Aegina is well known for its peacefulness, even in the hot season like today. The landscape around us changes, as we reach the other side of the island. Pine trees, rocky roads and cactus bushes. Suddenly, the shining blue sea appears on the horizon, as we drive downhill towards Agia Marina, or second halt.

11:45 - We drop the car on an abandoned parking under the burning sun. At least, looking at the jeep, I'm confident no one will want to steal it. Alright, time to do some good to the environment and use our feet now! Aegina features a wide range of hiking trails. The island is fairly small and most parts of it can be explored by foot. We couldn't therefore spend the day here without going out for a walk!

We cross the charming center of Agia Marina, filled up with tourist shops, bright colourful clothes and stands of fistiki, the locally grown pistachios, speciality of the island. I buy a straw hat to an old Greek lady who says I look good with it, who am I to question that? We follow a narrow stone path uphill and exit the village.

12:45 - After hiking out way up under the striking sun, we reach our destination: the ruins of an ancient temple, dedicated to the goddess of Aphaia. With 2500 years old, it is one of the most preserved temple of Greece and forms a mysterious triangle with the Parthenon and the Sounion. Most columns are still standing while the roof and the constructions around have collapsed. We explore the quiet place, amongst a handful of tourists. The temple is built on a hill, the panorama around it is breathtaking and we could see the whole island, if Mount Oros in its center was not blocking the view. Not cool Oros, really! Below the horizon, the sea is sparkling and calling for us. Alright, we've been to church, we've done history class, now it's about time to get lazy!

14:15 - We're back to Agia Marina, following the same route weaving under the pine trees full of noisy crickets. We avoid the main beach, too crowded, and head straight to a narrow cove between rocks, where locals seems to have a good time. Surprisingly, there is no way to reach it and we have to go chest deep into the water, backpack over the head, up to the thin strip of sand!

Ten minutes later, I'm in the salty water with mask and tuba. Coming from the South West of France, I am used to the cold rough ocean. It's always a surprise how warm and crystal clear the Mediterranean is. We can see underwater far around us. Milady joins me, struggling a bit with her tuba. Fishes flee around us and hide in the seaweeds. I'm a bit disappointed that in spite of the water clarity, there is not much to see around. But we do enjoy a well deserved swim and the view of Agia Marina and the hills around.

16:00 - You can be in the most romantic place in the world, when hunger strikes, nothing else really matters. We head back to town (again reaching the shore with the backpack over the head) to find a place to eat. But the village is really tiny, offering only expensive restaurants or cheap fast-foods. Since our mind is set on seafood, we decide to resist a bit more and drive to the next beach area we have in mind. Of course, not before ransacking the main street shops and stocking up with fistikis, pistachios products and fresh figs.

Our faithful jeep is still there (what a surprise, who wouldn't want it!?), its seats in real fake leather melting under the sun. We manage somehow sit and drive back to the main road, the cool sea wind in our hair. No roof, no window, best air conditioning ever!

16:45 - The journey goes on towards the South of the island. I read somewhere that the beach of Marathona is beautiful, thanks to the lack of tourists preserving is wilderness. Let's have a look, we still have a couple of hours before us. We exit the main road and head south on a small route crossing tiny villages. Milady and I are discussing the pistachios subject. Aegina is famous for its fistikis and exports loads of them. How come we did not see any plantation until now? Where are they? Suddenly, while stopping at a crossroads, it hits me and I point at the trees around us. What I mistook for leaves were actually red grapes of small olive-shaped berries... Raw pistachios! We have been seeing those trees everywhere along the road since we left town this morning. The whole island is a plantation!

17:15 - We dump the car when reaching Marathonas and walks up to the village, that is, a few houses along the main road following the coast. Hunger is back and it's about time to eat something, as we haven't since breakfast this morning. We can't resist sitting at one of the beach restaurants, under the olive trees, barefoot in the sand, with a magnificent view of Agistri and Moni, the nearby islands. We are starving and I keep myself from ordering the whole menu. Our mind settle on feta puff pastry sprinkled with pistachios and fresh fried seafood. Man it's good to feel alive! We stay here a long time, simply enjoying the moment. Then, after asking the dishonest waiter to recount the bill a few times, not willing to pay for extra bread, water and new tires for his car, we walk up to the beach for a last swim under the starting sunset. The area is indeed a bit wilder than Agia Marina, with very few tourists, therefore peaceful and quiet.

19:15 - Time flies way too fast when you enjoy such beautiful places. Why isn't it the same on Monday morning at work? With deep regrets, we have to leave and head back to Aegina town, or we will miss the boat and we will have to spend the night in the jeep! A magnificent sunset tears the sky apart, with a bright coat of red, blue and yellow paint, as we drive along the coast up to town. Time to put some gas in the greedy jeep and we bring it back just in time. The Greek inspects it thoroughly, to check if we did not add a new scratch to the twenty existing ones... Are you kidding me now!? We walk along the harbour, shopping for some more fistikis and waiting for the boat. The sky turns dark blue and ochre, as the sun is disappearing behind the hills of Agistri, over the horizon.

20:30 - Cuddled to each others on the back seats, the humming of the hydrofoil's engine and the waves rocking us gently, we fall asleep at once. In 40 minutes we will reach Piraeus where we departed this morning. That was thirteen hours ago, yet the day has passed like a flash of lightning. Maybe we'll stop by in the old town to get some Greek yogurt with honey and nuts. But for now we get some well-deserved rest, the head filled up with sweat pictures of our first day to Aegina. Next time I promise, we'll bring the running shoes :)

Saturday 11 August 2018

Test of the GPS watch TomTom Runner 3

 Cet article est disponible en français ici.  


After 4 years of wandering around with my faithful Forerunner, I had to change it this year, not without disappointment, since the battery barely holds two hour now and I couldn't find a 42 km long prolongation cable! Therefore, my goal for the next one is to get a reliable product with advanced functionalities for an entry-level price. I give myself a budget of 150 €. Last I've heard, I'm not Kilian Jornet, so I don't need to give out a rent for a watch!

I considered different models and set my mind on a Tomtom Runner 3, for one reason mostly: it is offering a navigation option, that you usually only find on state-of-the-art models like the Garmin Fenix. With prices ranging from 89€ (no cardio), 125€ (cardio, my version) and 199€ (cardio + mp3 player) it is one of the cheapest GPS watch currently on the market. Let's see if it's worth every penny.

1. Unboxing - The first impression is pretty good. The watch is smaller and thinner that it looks on the pictures. With 50g, you barely feel it at your wrist. It is composed of two parts, the bracelet and the watch case, that you need to take apart to charge it or connect it to the computer. It contains a square control pad too, with four buttons, that you use to interact with the watch and that I find more intuitive than the usual side buttons. The bracelet looks resistant, we'll see on the long term, and the fixation system is really well designed. The watch fits well around the wrist and does not move.

2. Test run - The Runner 3 is packed with options. I will need more that a stroll in the park to examine it from all angles. Fortunately, I got the watch just on time for my last long run (40 km), before tapering for the Eco-Tail de Paris (45 km) in three weeks. I'm ready, let's try this baby outside!

It's Sunday morning and I'm waiting in front of the door for the GPS signal to start my long run. Like most watches, the Runner 3 pre-loads the satellites position when connecting to the computer and the QuickGPS is fast. I get a green light in barely 15 seconds.

3. Interface - Let's check the interface first. It's a cold and sunny day. The readability is very good. The contrast of white text on black screen makes it visible from all angles with little sun reflections. The watch displays three data: a large one in the middle, that you can change during the activity using the control pad, and two smaller ones at the bottom, that you can configure beforehand. A fourth data would have been nice, as runners often check at least time, distance, pace and heart-rate during a run. Finally, you can find on the top bar the usual symbols: satellite, heart-rate, Bluetooth and batterie life.


4. Heart-rate monitor - Home is where the heart is, let's have a look at mine! Wrist cardio monitors are becoming a standard and the Runner 3 goes with the flows. A sensor and a green LED are embedded on the back side of the watch, in contact with your skin, and measure the blood flow. Good-bye itchy chest straps! Still, for testing purposes, I take my old Forerunner and strap with me, for comparison. The heart-rate value of the Runner 3 is pretty accurate, maybe a little optimistic and a few beats below the one I get from my chest strap.

A graph analyses my progression and what cardio zone I am in (Fat burn, Cardio, Performance, etc.) I just notice a delay after sudden accelerations. The watch needs some time to notice the change and even after, the value stays 10 to 20 bpm below the strap one. The watch seems to smooth the heart-rate variations, which is fine on a steady run but not for speed work. In that case, it would be probably wise to buy a compatible strap.


5. Navigation - It's about time to test my favourite option! Perfect timing, as I'm on the starting line of the Eco-Trail de Paris, 45km of muddy and poorly marked-out trails in the middle of the woods. TomTom Sports lets you upload a GPX file, that will be sent automatically to the watch next time you connect it. It's fast and really handy. Using an online tool like Wandermap, you can create a route and send it to the watch. See my Turtle Run article in this edition for example.

I downloaded the GPX route from the race website and sent it to the watch. I can now select it before starting the activity. There are four navigation screens, rights from the main one, corresponding to three levels of zoom (close-up, surroundings and complete route) and a metric compass.

The map is simple, just a little arrow representing you and a white line marking your progression. If you pre-load a route like I did, it shows up as a grey line that you can follow (or not, if you are a rebel like me!). All in all it is extremely simple and efficient. No directions calling, no notifications, no display of the surroundings. Just the bare necessities! I keep an eye on my progression all along the event, and avoid this way to take a wrong path or miss a turn. I just regret that I don't get notified when I step out of the route. But let's be honest, we all hate to hear the GPS repeat "make a U-turn when possible!"

6. Batterie Life -  Second aid station, I'm running out of stamina. What about my little friend? One of the main decision criteria for me in a watch is its autonomie. Who cares about having the best options when your watch dies on you half way through the race? TomTom guaranties a battery life of 9:00, with GPS and cardio monitor on. When I cross the finish line of the Eco-Trail de Paris, after 6:15 on the way, my watch still has about 10% of battery. Therefore, I guess the real autonomie would be around 7:00 to 7:30. You can increase it to 9:00-10:00 by deactivating the heart rate monitor if you don't need it. Overall it should be enough for races up to 80 km, but not above. It is unfortunately impossible to charge the watch on the way using a power bank.

7. TomTom Sports - Back home after my muddy adventure, I connect the Runner 3 to the computer, via the USB cable (also used for charging). The activity is sent in a few seconds to Tomtom Sports, Strava, Relive and all connected services. The smartphone app can do the same via Bluetooth. I take a quick look at the interface, quite pleasant, with pastel tons and cartoon pictures. It's like watching the Disney channel!

The menus are refined and simple, with the usual post-race stats, graphs, maps and everything you need to keep track of your adventures: distance, time, pace, elevation, heart-rate, splits, etc. Altogether, it looks rather intended for the casual runner than the professional one. The dashboard is a bit messy and cannot be configured, like on Garmin Connect. On the map, the precision of the route I travelled is pretty accurate, overlapping with the roads and forest trails most of the time.

8. Activity Tracker - If you are interested, the watch can be used as a daily activity tracker too, counting your steps, checking your heart rate, analysing your sleep and texting your mom what time you go to bed! I don't like being told what to do, so I deactivate it to save on battery.
9. Additional - As said, the Runner 3 is chock-full of tech and options, that I had the pleasure to discover along the way. I won't detail them all here, but to name a few, the watch includes more than 50 workouts, you can create your own, define training goals, run against yourself or calculate your fitness age and your VO2max. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the watch is waterproof 5ATM, a good thing when you've got mud up to the chest!


10. Conclusion - I have been using the TomTom Runner 3 for four months now. Let's sum up its strong and weak points:

+ Competitive price around 125 € (Amazon.de, March 2018)
+ Thin and light, intuitive interaction using to the control pad
+ QuickGPS fast, about 10 seconds to acquire a GPS signal
+ Good contrast, screen readable even by sunlight
+ Built in heart rate monitor reliable most of the time
+ Very useful navigation option with just the bare necessities
+ Good batterie life suited for runs up to 80 km
+ User-friendly interface on the TomTom Sports website and app
+ Countless workouts, goals and modes included

- Only 3 data displayed at once, only 2 configurable
- No recap screen displayed after stopping the activity
- Heart-rate monitor not suitable for speed work
- No notification when we step out of a pre-loaded route
- Online dashboard a bit messy and not configurable
- Phone notifications only for calls and sms

To conclude this test, I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the TomTom Runner 3. For an entry-level model with a price below 150€, a friendly interface and an arsenal of options, it does not compare unfavourably to its state-of-the-art expensive rivals. For me, it is now a reliable comrade in arms that will stand by my side on all upcoming adventures, that I won't forget to share with you!

Feel free to check my blog for an extended review of the watch (in French).

Monday 6 August 2018

GPS Art Run #1 - Slow as a turtle

"Daddy, your drawing is ugly!" 

Kids always tell the truth. I look at my screen my 4-years-old son is pointing at and smile. He's got a point, my last long run displayed on Strava looks more like my shoelaces or a forgotten spaghetti. Like all running dads, my dream is that one day my son will join me on the trails and share my adventures. But at this age, it's hard to catch his attention, especially with route recaps like this one...

That's when the crazy idea hits me. What if that picture were the origin and not the result of my run? In other words, how could I create epic traces and run them? After all, I do it all the time, when I'm planning my long runs on my computer. But I never really paid attention to what my route looked like... Until now!

That's how I end up spending my Sunday morning looking closely at the street map of my neighbourhood, trying to make a funny shape out of the maze of streets around. The task can be tricky, depending on where you live. I imagine that US cities and their countless parallel streets would offer very different possibilities. Finally, I see something emerge, a reptilian head and a crafty eye. The rest of the body quickly follows, I have it! I rush to Wandermap, the routes creation tool I use to organise my runs and I sketch my new little friend. In a few clicks, he's ready and I download the GPX file into my watch. Let's go for a 14 km turtle run!

The next step is easy: run! There are a few things I need to watch out though. Most important, I try to stick to the route, as a single orientation mistake would ruin my drawing. To create closed loops like the turtle feet, I need to run twice around certain areas, so I try to stay on the same part of the sidewalk, to avoid double lines. Sometimes, I need to reach a point to close a loop, like the turtle's neck or eye, and immediately go back to keep drawing the rest of the body, which brings me some very odd looks from the natives watering their garden. I must look completely lost!

The drawing is showing up bit by bit on my watch and after a long straight line, I'm reaching up my starting point and closing the loop. Done! Now let's head back home and have a look.

The masterpiece is displayed on my screen. I already saw the route while creating the GPX file, but this time, it's the real deal! I'm actually looking at my last run's trace, and the result is pretty good. I managed to draw clean lines, overlapping nicely on the segments I had to run twice. Since I stopped a few seconds at each corner, I'm getting nice right angles instead of rounded curves. As long as I don't zoom too much on it, the trace really looks like hand-drawn. This might vary from one GPS tracker to another though and my watch is quite precise.

This was a very fun run, surprisingly easy to organise. With a quick search for GPS-Art online I discovered that it is actually a trendy thing. All around the world, runners and cyclists scribble the earth with funny shapes. What are you waiting for? Open the map of your region and get creative. Once you have found an interesting route, you can send it to your GPS watch or load it on your phone, using one of the countless apps like GPX Viewer and hit the road. I like to think that one day, secret government agencies or aliens will stumble on our race recaps and rack their brains out to find the hidden messages behind them!

"Look at the nice turtle daddy made this morning!" I proudly tell my son. He frowns, "That doesn't really look like a turtle!" Humph... I guess I will have to do better next time ;)