The Inland Paddler: Oh Garmin! Don’t Fail Me Now!

I am a slave to the data.  I live and die by my metrics. And I am addicted to wearables. Even though there is clearly a limit to how many you can actually wear at one time. (Or is there?)

I have tried and tested most of them, including the Big Three – the Apple Watch, Suunto Spartan and Garmin Fenix. The one that I absolutely cannot live without is the Garmin Fenix 6X. I cannot bear for it not to be on my wrist.  Over the course of the development of the Fenix series, Garmin has made updates and added features that will pretty much do everything. There was a time when the Whoop strap provided sleep and recovery data Garmin did not. Not any longer.  Sleep algorithms and respiratory rates, along with HRV and and other recovery metrics are now on par in the Fenix. Garmin’s app offerings through the Garmin Connect store provide almost all the customization I need when it comes to tracking all the data from ALL the paddle sports I do, whether it is surfing and kayaking, sup and outrigger.

An invaluable Training Tool

Most importantly, I can add and edit all my custom Paddle Monster workouts via the Connect app and sync them directly to my watch.  No need to plug into the desktop anymore.

If there is a downside to the Fenix, it is that because of the size and weight of the watch, sometimes the heart rate data might not be as accurate when I am just using the wrist based heart rate monitor.  Also, once water gets between that sensor and my skin, HR accuracy goes out the window. That’s not a problem for sup or the ski, but it does interfere with my OC workouts because the left hand is submerged half the time. No big deal, I just wear a chest strap.

I am also 100 percent dependent on the buzzing and vibrating and counting down the Fenix does when I am doing interval workouts and it signals to me that it is time to switch gears.

Say it isn’t so!

Imagine, then, the state of mind I plunged into last week, when just a day before the Virtual Molokai to Oahu weekend was to start, Garmin crashed.

At first, it looked just like a normal maintenance thing. No biggie. But when the outage stretched from Thursday into Friday, and none of my data from the watch was syncing to the app, well, that was a great big red flag.

Sure enough, and soon enough, all the tech websites were buzzing with the speculation that Garmin had sustained a major ransom wear attack. Garmin was silent.

The first day or two I was okay. I had my Whoop strap and Oura ring to show me how my sleep and recovery were doing. But as Sunday approached and I started to prepare for my 16-mile solo VM2O, I started to worry.

I could still use the watch, no problem.  The outage did not affect its ability to record. I wanted to do the 16 miles not for time but as a training paddle, with intervals. But, because of the outage, I could not create a new, three and a half hour interval workout and upload it to the watch.

Using an interval timer app on the iphone was a no go.  None of the apps I have would let me do a session that long. Plus I did not want to drain the phone battery in case of an emergency.

So, I decided to get out the Suunto Spartan Sport and update the firmware. Surely by now, Suunto has made the necessary improvements to be at least a little on par with its number one competitor, right?

Make no mistake, since getting scuba certified years ago, I have been a big Suunto fan.  They still make the best dive computers.  One of the best sports watches I ever owned was the Suunto Ambit 3. But when Garmin came out with the first Fenix, Suunto was caught with its pants down.  It rushed to market its Spartan Ultra and wow, what a huge disappointment.  Ever since then, Suunto has been playing catch up, or perhaps has given up trying to catch up and its trying to carve out some niche for itself.

I am here to tell you, it’s not working.

The biggest flaw of the Spartan Sport is its inability to allow you to create and upload your own interval workouts.  There is an interval option but it is rudimentary.  It is not at all able to accommodate the kind of interval heart rate training required for the kinds of racing most of us do. In my consternation over this, I did some research. Suunto’s explanation for this is that “most people don’t need or want that kind of feature.”

Anyone who is serious about any kind of endurance activity and training most certainly does.

Oh, and that rudimentary interval function that is available? Only in certain pre-set sport activities. It is not available for kayaking or sup. You cannot even add the interval field on the watch in that activity.

Now, I will say this- the wrist based heart rate monitor is perhaps a bit better than the Garmin. And the “create a route” function on the Suunto app is easier to use than Garmin Connect’s.  But those are small pluses that are outweighed by the rest of the Fenix’s superiority over the Spartan.

Suunto also has mucked around too much with its app platforms. The original MovesCount app developed with the Ambit series was great. Hands down better than the earlier iteration of Garmin Connect, both in function and user experience. You could add your own workouts, you could add apps.  But no more.  MovesCount is gone. The Suunto app is confusing and incomplete in design and user experience.

Of course the Spartan Sport is about half the price of the Fenix. And Suunto has replaced the Spartan line with yet another series of sport watches, further complicating things. (To be fair, Garmin most certainly has engaged in this confusing bit of marketing as well.)

After spending almost all of Saturday trying to force the Suunto into something resembling my Garmin, I gave up. I did take it with me, as a back up and just to see how it would handle a three and a half hour paddle. While heart rate data was pretty much the same as the Fenix, the battery drain on the Suunto was remarkable. Both watches were fully charge. After my workout, the Fenix had about 80 percent battery left.  The Suunto was down to 50 percent.  That tells me that it would not last through a Chattajack experience.

It was at least a day after my VM2O that I could even upload the paddle to Connect.  Garmin’s functionality has slowly been coming back on line. As of this posting, everything seems to be back online.  It took a week, but it seemed like an eternity.

What I learned through this exercise is just how really robust Garmin’s Fenix series is when it comes to data and features. I appreciate it’s flexibility and customization even more than ever before. And there is even more I can do with it, I have only scratched the surface, even though I have had it for a while.

The other thing I learned?  I am definitely more dependent on it than I thought I was.