#Januwordy: The Deceptive Course

Since Saturdays oft entail an early start and a lot of running (almost six hours on trails yesterday), I’ve decided that Saturday will be my “rest day” from Januwordy. For Sunday, I’ll pick from the four prompts of the weekend (or something else if I’m not feeling them). This post brings together two: “deceive” and “course”.


Around the time I started driving regularly, MapQuest became a thing. It was a fantastic tool. Plug in the start and end points, choose the route, and print out the turn-by-turn directions. No more squinting at maps with small markings and using measuring tools to figure out distances. A few years later, I had a GPS gizmo in my vehicle, so I didn’t even have to print anything. Within a few more years, my phone had a GPS transceiver and Google Maps on board. Over time, more options and information were added to Google Maps, and it became a useful tool for driving, and in some locales, public transit, walking, and biking.

We’ve come to rely on these devices and applications. They’re wonderful tools not just for getting from point A to point B by the fast route. Through integration with other apps like RunGo, MapMyRun, and GarminConnect, we can plot our own course, meandering through places, playing with distances and elevations, choosing routes to take us by points of interest.

These technological solutions work great—when they have good data. Good data abound in municipalities and places that are easily accessible by car. If you begin to venture into more “remote” areas, natural areas and forest accessible only by foot or bike, the data quality at the heart of Google Maps—and thus the utility of the tools relying on it—begins to break down.

Here is Google Maps view of the trail system in a Washington state park.

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Admittedly it carries more detail than I might have expected. But let’s take a look at another representation of the same area (from AllTrails).

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The first thing you might notice is that Google’s version is missing several trails. You might also notice that Google’s version lacks a bit of detail in the trails it does have, essentially showing a smoothed curve version of the trails.

There are two problems here.

The simplified map means that you will come to intersections that don’t exist or look different in Google’s map. Trails are confusing enough as is, and unknown forks become more challenging to navigate. It looks like the mapped course goes straight, but is it the one to the left that heads down hill or the one to the right that heads up the mountain and sort of parallel?

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Even if you’re paying attention or have an app/device to tell you you’re off course, you’re still spending time retracing your steps and adding distance beyond what you planned.

The other problem is related to planning. Hiking and biking trails tend to wind a bit and have switchbacks to take you up and down hills (the 10-15% grade on switchbacks is probably preferable to tumbling down a 40% grade for the most part). Google Maps lacks a lot of that detail, which translates to shorter expected distance than actual distance—sometimes by more than 10%. From a physical fitness and planning perspective, that might not mean much when you’re talking about three or four miles, especially if they’re flat. But 10 or 20 when you’re heading up and down a mountain? That kind of accuracy probably isn’t dangerous if you prepare for the unexpected (as one should on trails), but it can be painful.

The truth is, even good maps suffer these issues but to a far lesser degree. And of course no map is immune to trail changes—washouts, closures, detours, reroutes—that haven’t been reported yet.

This turned a bit more technical than I’d planned, and if you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Somewhere in my head (which is currently muddled by running 28 miles with 5500 ft vertical gain over two sessions in ~26 hours), this connects to life more broadly.

Throughout life, we often look for guidance, something or someone to show us the way to where we need or want to be. Advice can be incredibly valuable but also unwittingly deceptive. Sometimes advisor doesn’t have (and never had) the full picture, either of the individual or the environment. Sometimes the landscape has changed. New paths have emerged, while others have become more difficult to traverse. We can fall into a false sense of, perhaps not security, but knowing. We come prepared to face challenges, even planning for the unexpected. Yet somehow we still fail to account for errors between the expected and the actual and are surprised by how long (or how far) the planned course takes us. We also might not appreciate the physical, mental, or emotional toll that it’s going to take.

Even the best laid course, perfectly executed, won’t match precisely with the plan or the vision. Some of its error in the tools we use to plan. Some of its error in the tools we use to measure our effort. Ultimately we have to decide how to manage our expectations and what metrics truly matter.

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