First Experiment with Quantified Self

As someone who works in technology it’s no surprise that I am typically an “early adopter” of technology. I bought my first PC in 1984, became hooked on my first PalmPilot in 1997 and followed similarly with Blackberries, iPhones etc. Cameras and music players are no different. I also love trying new “apps” and truly delight when they improve my life in ways both small (Paybyphone Parking in SF) and large (Facebook). So given my commitment to exercise I was logical that I should try out one of the wearable devices

I tried on various wristband devices by JawBone, Fitbit,and Nike but really didn’t like the wristidea of seeing one of these on my wrist all the time. Plus, I have extremely small wists and they look ridiculous on me not to mention feeling annoyingly large.

When I read about the Fitbit One which has pretty much all of the physical features of the wrist models(actually more than the Flex) in a form factor that can be worn attached to clothing I thought I would give it a try.

Two months in I must say I’m not won over.

First off, I believe there needs to be a significant benefit to the device if I am going to deal with yet another thing that needs to be kept track of, managed and kept charged. Larger  benefit required if the designers force me to use a dedicated charger instead of micro usb  – I really do not relish one more charger to take with me when I travel.

So what have I found to be the benefits? The Fitbit one is light weight and comfortable to wear (easy to clip on bra, waistband). The charge is long lasting – at least I don’t need to bring the charger for a short trip. The Fitbit amazingly survived a trip through the washer and dryer.  My floors climbed are tracked. Living in a three-story house, it turns out that when I am doing chores at home I can get a surprising amount of exercise – this was interesting. The most important benefit is it is always on (at least if I remember to wear it which has not been difficult) – all of my steps are tracked unlike an app like RunKeeper which you need to start and stop

On the other hand there are several drawbacks and limitations. The Fitbit is useless to monitor my exercise classes – I enjoy a variety of dance, conditioning, crossfit, barre and power yoga classes and they barely register on the Fitbit. Yes I know I can manually log them but that defeats the point of wearing the device. I wish it came in a light beige color – the dark colors show through my clothes. Accuracy has not been great – I hike many trails where the distance is known to me and the Fitbit consistently give me about 15% extra miles. Perhaps this is because as a small person I take more steps to cover the same distance?

I also bought the Aria scale. Nice looking device and an improvement in usability over our Tanita but also not much value add beyond the independent device. I don’t need an app to tell me if I’m gaining or losing – the scale plus my second grade math skill does it independently.

Bottom line for me is that I found this experiment with quantified self devices to be interesting and educational but not compelling. I exercise for my own health benefit – physical and mental, not because I’m competing with anyone so the gamification and social elements were not interesting to me. Most of my exercise is hiking, where I know the distance, or exercise classes where the device isn’t very useful. For new hikes I can use the iPhone to know the distance if that’s important to me. I do find it interesting to use the Fitbit to learn how active I am when I’m not doing a formal workout but I haven’t found that information to be anything that changes my behavior. This was in contrast to what I find to be the best food journal app on the market – MyFitnessPal. A couple of weeks of tracking my food in MyFitnessPal showed me my trouble spots (who would have imagined a medium CineArts popcorn without butter has 760 calories?) and helped me achieve my weight goal.

It’s not that quantification is useless. Quantification of health data does matter. Calories matter if you are trying to manage your weight and apps can be helpful if you enter correct quantities. How far you hike or how many steps you take in a day absolutely matters if you are counting on that activity as part of your exercise and fitness plan. The question is if regular use of the device adds enough more quantification data than you have without to justify constant use – so far for me the answer is no but I’m curious what others think about this.

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Mount Whitney – We Summited!

On Sunday 7/29 our Aspen vacation ended and we traveled from Aspen via Denver and LAX (where we met up with Adam) then drove to Lone Pine.  A big driving day but uneventful.  We arrived in Lone Pine about 7PM and had a surprisingly excellent dinner at Seasons in Lone Pine.  Lone Pine is a dusty, desolate feeling “one traffic light” town so gourmet Elk in dried cherry sauce with a nice glass of Zinfandel was a pleasant surprise.  The Comfort Inn was, well, reasonably comfortable.

Since Lone Pine is at only about 3500 feet and Adam had not had the benefit of several days in Aspen I thought it would be good for he and I to do a warm-up hike at altitude.  We drove to Whitney Portal, the trail head for the Whitney Trail (8360’).  I also wanted to get a feel for the drive as well as the beginning part of the trail that we would be doing in the dark.  I was glad we would not be doing the lower part of the hike at mid-day as it was quite hot but the trail was well marked.July 31st , the day of our ascent finally arrived. Due to concerns about lightening (20% chance after noon) and not wanting to feel under time pressure we decided to start at 2:00 am rather than our original plan of 4:00.  We were underway close to plan at 2:15. Hiking in the dark with a headlamp was surprisingly easy.  At 90 lumens the headlamp completely lit up the trail.  And the dark meant the trail was pleasantly cool.  We came across several pairs of deers eyes glowingly looking at us.   We took our first break at Lone Pine Lake at the 2.5 mile mark.  After a short snack we resumed.  The sun started coming up between Mirror Lake and Trail Camp. Sunrise was really beautiful and serene.  To this point we had encountered very few people.We took our first major break at Trail Camp – 6 miles up.  We ate breakfast which for me was a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich.  Hit the spot.  After resting about ½ hour we started purifying water for the 10 miles roundtrip to the summit.  It was a mistake to start this after our rest.  I bought a Steripen at REI which purifies a liter of water in 90 seconds.  We each started the hike carryng 5 liters of water and to refill needed to process about 10 liters.  Including getting the water from the lake and purifying that many times we spent about another 30 minutes.  Next time we would deal with water during the rest/snack.  Nevertheless we were more than halfway up both in terms of mileage and elevation and feeling pretty good.After Trail Camp comes the infamous “97 switchbacks”.  While climbing the switchbacks you have a real appreciation of the tremendous work that it took to build and maintain the trail.  The switchbacks, while they feel long, turn a steep technical face into a hard but manageable hike.  2.2 miles and 1700 feet later we reached Trail Crest.  Adam and I were feeling a bit out of breath and lightheaded so we took a rest and appreciated the 360 degree views.    Once I caught my breath (took a bit of time as we were at 13,777’) I realized that yes, I would make it to the top.  I could see it and while the last couple of miles were rocky I knew then it was doable.

The last 2.5 miles were slow.  While there is only a “net” 700’ gain left it is actually 1300’ as you gain and lose 300 along the trail.  The trail was rockier than below but always wide enough that the steep drop offs on the sides didn’t bother me too much. We reached the summit at 11:45am.  It was a real head rush – this time emotional when I looked down to the valley and saw what we accomplished.  We took a few pictures and signed the log book outside the shelter.  All together we spent about 45 minutes on top including a lunch break (second PB&J sandwich) an apple, some Anacin for a mild headache and lots of water.As we started down I realized that I had made a tactical error – either the altitude or the apple or the aspirin had made me nauseous.  This persisted until Trail Crest making the first 2 miles of the return the hardest part of the trip for me.   I chewed a couple of Pepto Bismol and finally felt ok by the time we started down the 97 Switchbacks.  I didn’t use them on the ascent but decided to use my hiking poles on the way down and found them quite helpful.  We were all totally out of water by Trail Camp.  This time we set to work purifying water right away.The final 6 miles from Trail Camp to the Portal was uneventful – just long.  By this point in time we were simply in tired achy feet mode.  Fortunately none of us were suffering from anything more acute – no injuries nor, amazingly, even blisters – just tiredness.  We made it to the trail head at 7:45pm – before sunset.  Total time -  17.5 hours.  I still can’t believe how long it took us but I suppose we really didn’t have a time goal, particularly on the descent once we were off the summit.

After we drove back to Lone Pine we stopped in a diner for a quick supper.   We were almost too tired to eat (but we managed) and the guys had milkshakes.  I treated myself to a very large diet coke – quite refreshing.

While the hike was hard I never came close to feeling like I couldn’t do it.  The months of training certainly paid off.  No part of the Whitney Trail was nearly as difficult as the tough parts of Mt. Tallac.  Between Tallac and easily completing the 16 miles of Static Peak at 13k feet I felt prepared.   During the drive home the three of us chatted about if we would want to do it again.  I could see going back to Whitney but might opt to do it over 2 days and camp at Trail Camp.  I think it would be more enjoyable if divided up.   I took about 85 pictures – far fewer than I planned.  For a good part of the hike down I think we just wanted to be done rather than appreciating the scenery – next time I’d like to be in a more observational mode.  I suppose the fact that we were even entertaining another visit after such a long day goes to show what a great experience it was.  Certainly a memorable one.

ICUC and Static Peak

I had the opportunity to attend the “Internet Cowboys UnConference” in Jackson Hole last weekend.  This conference, hosted by Yuval Almog and Yossi Vardi brings together internet and media executives for a conference in the style of “FooCamp” with user generated topics and discussions.  There were great presentations by the likes of James Wolfensohn on the state of the world economy, Adriana Cisneros on the growing consumer market in Latin America and Arthur Sulzberger on the future of Journalism in the internet era.  I let a discussion on privacy in the cloud and there were many other interesting sessions ranging from online education to the physics of YouTube.

The conference sessions go from 2-10 pm leaving the morning for outdoor activities.  For me the choice of activity was a no-brainer.  Being in one of the most beautiful hiking spots in the world I couldn’t wait to get out in the mountains.  Two hikes were offered each day – hard and easy – I opted for the hard hikes.  The first day we took the tram up to the top of Teton Village – this is the main ski area when people talk about skiing Jackson Hole – highest single lift elevation gain in the US.  We hiked down a couple of thousand feet and back up.  Beautiful views and good chance to acclimatize to the elevation.  The second day a small group of us went to the Red and Lavender Hills in the Gros Ventre range.  Incredible views of the Tetons from the other side of the valley and great wildflowers.

I made a couple of comments to Daniel Almog that the “hard” hikes were not very hard and he invited me to join him and a few of his friends to hike Static Peak Sunday morning.  We would need to leave at 5:30 to get back for the conference program as it is an 18 mile hike.  The trail gains a total of 5300’ of elevation topping out at 11,303’.  I was a little worried – my hiking companions were four guys about 20 years younger than me and this was the longest hike with the most elevation gain I had ever done.

Fortunately the trail, while long, was quite smooth until the last few hundred meters of rocks.  (I’m seeing a pattern here of the peak sections being mostly boulders – Mt Tallac was the same).  The trail was incredibly scenic and and relatively few super steep sections.  I found it challenging but doable – I am glad to report I was not the last one to summit.  It was fun hiking with new people – we had many things to talk about – everything from religious arguments – liberal jew (me) v. orthodox (Udi) to how to distribute apps in the education market to favorite hikes and travel destinations.  Here are a few pictures from the trip.

View of Phelps lake about 1/3 of the way upAlmost to the top – just a few hundred meters of rocks with no trail.At the top with a view of Bucks PeakThis was my favorite vista – check out the lake high up!No pictures from the way down.  It’s called Static peak for a reason.  Right after we left the peak we heard cracks of thunder so we jogged the first couple of miles down to get to a safer location.  We finished the hike down at a normal pace – we did get a bit wet and my camera stayed in the pack but it did not put a damper on the day.

Mt Tallac

As I wrote previously we’re trying to get in some longer more challenging hikes in preparation for Whitney. One of the goals is to hike at elevation – this requires some driving when you live at sea level.

Yesterday we hiked what I believe is one of the more spectacular hikes I’ve ever done – it is called Mount Tallac. The entrance is near the south shore of Lake Tahoe. It is about a 5 mile hike to the summit and gains about 3500 feet of elevation topping out at nearly 10,000 feet. Good overview of the hike is here.

The beginning of the trail is in the trees – gorgeous scent of pine and other parts of the forest. It is part of the “Desolation Wilderness” though it is definitely not desolated in the summer – we saw lots of hikers. Picture at the entrance About 2.3 miles in is Cathedral lake – pretty stop and Adam took a swim here on the way down.

The mile after Cathedral Lake is tough – very steep and difficult footing. In fact the footing on most of the trail is challenging – lots of loose rocks. About three quarters of the way up you are treated to this view:

Unfortunately you look up and still need to climb this part to get to the summit.The reward is great at the top – we took a long break and had a picnic lunch. I make a low-carb exception after a 5 mile climbs J.

The loose rocks made our descent a little slower than we expected but all in all a wonderful day. This is definitely going in the books as a must repeat hike.

Recent Reads

I love to read but somehow startup life plus family and a bit of exercise thrown in gets in the way of reading as many books as I’d like.  A beach vacation like I had last week is a welcome exception to the pace.  I read four books – all quite different.

First was the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I love reading the books my kids are reading – it’s a great basis for conversation.  The premise of the book is very dark but I love the female hero.  Great summer beach type of book – super fast and fun read.Next up was You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett.  It is actually a collection of nine short stories.  He does an amazing job of bring tremendous depth and complexity to characters in this format.  The stories are fundamentally about the pain of mental illness.  A bit of a depressing topic as most of the stories were presented as fairly hopeless but the book is hauntingly compelling.  Many of the stories stick with you.  They left me with many questions.  How can we treat mental illness better.  What are the causes?  How do we treat the mentally ill in our midst yet how should we?  Hanslett deserves all of the praise and awards he received for this collection.I spent the most time then reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick.  I took several history classes and generally enjoy reading histories and biographies.  Somehow I had not read in this much depth about this part of early-colonial time.  The period is fascinating.  Not surprisingly, the Pilgrim – Indian – Thanksgiving story is way more complex and interesting then we were all taught in school.  The conditions the Pilgrims faced on everything from the voyage to the early days was harrowing and more than 50% died in the first 6 months.  The political skills of the original Pilgrims allowed them to live in peace with the Indians for their first half century in the US.  Interestingly racism took hold and obscured political subtleties on both Pilgrim and Indian side leading to the very bloody and long King Philip’s war.  All the familiar figures are there – William Bradford, Miles Standish, Pokanoket Indian chief Massoit, Squanto, and Edward Winslow, but Philbrick focuses on also on less celebrated figures like Benjamin Church and Massoit’s son Phillip who were key players.  Overall a good history that reads with the intrigue of a novel and exposes an often overlooked period of history.

Last on the list that I just finished up on the plane is David Kessler’s End of Overeating.  Kessler, a Pediatrician and Lawyer is formerly FDA commissioner under presidents Bush and Clinton and and was dean of Yale and then UCSF schools of medicine.  Refreshingly, this is a health book that is not trying to sell you something.  The premise of the book is that the food and restaurant industries put an incredible amount of fat+sugar+ salt in their food which conditions us to eat more and changes our brain circuitry leading to patterns of overeating and obesity.  There are examples of processing to make foods “hyperpalatable” with literally insane amounts of fat and sugar in the products.  He then talks about both theoretical and practical ways people can break out of the overeating habit.  Kessler’s writing style is good – and the book is organized in such as way that it flows well.  Given the epidemic levels of obesity and obesity-linked health problems I believe this is an important book to read.

Training Hike – Black Mountain Trail

As part of our training for Mt. Whitney I’ve been working out regularly during the week – typically 5 miles before work – but we really need to get in some longer hikes to prepare.

Looking at the various Bay Area Hiker websites we found a great hike close to home called Black Mountain Trail.  It is 9.7 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 2420 feet.  By way of comparison – Whitney is 22 miles and about 6000 feet gain (and at altitude).  This hike has gorgeous views of Los Altos Hills in the beginning then the entire south bay area for the end of the hike.  The last mile, in particular, when out of the Oak tree area and in the chaparal has wide open incredible views – today you could see from downtown San Jose up to San Francisco. Near the peak is a set of tv/radio/cell towers.   At the peak you can also see west to the Pacific but today it was obscured by clouds.

We’re also trying out and getting used to our gear – day pack with 3+ liters of water in a Camelback and hiking boots.  My pack was very comfortable – my boots not so much.  No blisters, just achy feet – kind of like after skiing.  Unfortunately I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to better my situation.  I tried a bunch of boots from REI and Zappos (many don’t come in my size since my foot is a 5.5 but none were better.  I plan to also bring my running shoes and wear those for part of the hike.  I tried hiking with poles a couple of weeks ago – I found them sort of a nuisance – but based on many recommendations to use them I will give them another try.

In terms of muscle fatigue and aerobic capacity – I felt pretty good at the end of the hike – could have gone longer except for my feet.  Next weekend we’re going to go up to Kirkwood to do a 15 mile hike – that one will be at altitude.  Not as high as Whitney Portal but close – that should give us a much better sense of how ready we are.

Back to my weekday routine tomorrow – I will try to add in some evening bike rides – with the late sunset I might actually get out of work on time to do that.

Training for Mt. Whitney

I’ve blogged in the past about my morning workout – hiking with friends outdoors.  And now that we’re in the nice summer weather it’s been great to spend more time outdoors.

I wanted to have a goal in my exercise program and inspired by a lecture given by Alison Levine  my husband Steve and I decided to set our goal as summitting Mt. Whitney.  A little bit about Mt Whitney is here.  It is of course the highest peak in the contiguous US at  14,500 feet.  Interestingly, during the summer months, when the snow is melted, it is considered not to be a “technical climb”.  Trail head to summit is 11 miles each way with an elevation gain of about 6000 feet.

As much as I like hiking, my Great Neck (Jewish American Princess HQ) origin didn’t lead me to be big on camping.  Hike hard outside during the day then sleep/shower indoors is my preference.  It turns out that Mt. Whitney can be done as an extreme day hike lasting about 18 hours.  It is easier to get permits doing the day hike and the whole process is simpler in terms of gear and supplies.  So that’s our plan.  Getting permits is actually a democratic lottery system.  We applied and got our second choice date – July 31 – very lucky.  We particularly wanted this date as it directly follows our family vacation where we will be in Colorado for a week.

Now that the wedding has passed we are training more seriously – trying to step up our regular workout schedule.  Adam will be joining us for the hike – he of course has the advantage of youth and is in the midst of summer football workouts.  All three of us need to increase the duration of our workouts and find some opportunities to workout at altitude.  My normal weekday morning hike is 3-5 miles and weekend is 6-7.  I’m trying to increase the weekday amount (more challenging with work schedules) and do at least one 10-12 mile hike each weekend.  One of our favorite weekend hikes is Windy Hill.  That trail is 6 miles and 2000 feet gain – usually takes us a little less than 2 hours.  Steve figured out that if we can do that 3 times in a row – it is a similar length and elevation to Whitney – though of course much easier by being at sea level.

Weight lifting twice a week is part of the routine.  My trainer Matt MacNamara at SterlingWins has me doing a fairly traditional set of strength exercises.  I’m trying to push this harder but mostly be more consistent. I’m not a huge road biking fan but to break up the hiking I’m trying to do one ride per week – we have a great 20 mile loop through Menlo Park/Portola Valley/Woodside that I enjoy.

I’ve always liked hiking in the hills near my home and in the mountains when I travel.  In future blog posts I’ll talk more about the specifics.  I’m really excited about this challenge.