Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 30 Aug 1998 09:53:09 -0400

Miles Don't Count

(from RC 272)

It's a simple question: "How far did you run today?" Runners ask it of each other, and non-runners sometimes feign interest by asking about our distances.

I never have a quick answer. Mine begins with, "Uh... let's see," and I work some mental math that's never more than a wild guess.

The question means how far in miles. I don't know, and don't care to know outside of races.

Ask me instead, "How LONG did you run?" and I'll tell you instantly and accurately. You see, I'm not a distance runner but a TIME runner. This practice goes back to the early days of digital stopwatches.

George Sheehan liked to ask his audiences, "What do you think is the greatest advance since the running boom of the 1970s?" Opinions ranged from better training and races, to better shoes and diets.

"Those are all good guesses," George said. "But I think the greatest advance is right here," and he pulled back his blue sleeve (he always wore a blue sweater) and pointed to his wrist.

"This has made possible the personal record," he said. The sport couldn't have grown as it did unless each of us had a way of telling we were winning.

These watches are at least as good at personal timekeeping on everyday runs. Before digitals, self-timing was a guessing game. Watches with hands were hard to set precisely, and had a bad habit of stopping from shock or gumming up with sweat.

The new watches made possible the reliable recording of time. Race times became instant and accurate, and the ease of timing spilled into my everyday runs. I ran strictly by time periods and ignored miles, the day's run going into my logbook simply as "30 min." or "1:00."

I started running by time for practical reasons. This was a way to keep records without having to measure a course and then to follow it as calibrated.

Wherever I traveled, however unfamiliar the route, time was a constant. Time-only running encouraged me to explore new places without fear of unchecked distance.

I continue to run by the watch for better reasons. These have to do with easing down and making friends with time.

When running by distance and wearing a watch, time becomes your enemy. You try to beat a deadline -- your PR for that training loop or your goal for that day.

The natural urge when running a distance is to push harder and finish sooner. Every second above the deadline is a little defeat.

When running to fill a time quota, however, the reverse is true. You can't make that time pass any faster by rushing, so you settle into a pace that feels right to you at the moment. Each minute above the quota is a little victory.

My preference for time-running puts me in a small minority of runners. New converts are arriving, though, by way of the newly popular walking break.

Walking by distance isn't practical, and often isn't even possible. Say you want to run a mile and then walk 100 yards. Mile-marking at races is spotty, and you'll never see another mark 100 yards later to signal the end of the walk.

Plotting your training courses this way is too much work... especially since it's unnecessary. Easier by far is letting the watch plot the intervals.

Ask me how far I run and walk, and I'll fumble for conversions to inexact distances. Ask how LONG, and you'll hear quickly and exactly my preferred times: run nine minutes, walk one.

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