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

Fri, 28 Dec 2001 22:30:55 -0500

Taking Time

RUNNING COMMENTARY 392

For someone who never wakes up with an alarm clock and who wears a watch only one hour in every 24, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about time. Here's a loosely linked collection of recent musings on running timing:


A YOUNG South African runner labeled his letter "strictly personal and extremely urgent." He pleaded poverty and asked if I might send him a stopwatch.

Note that he didn't ask for shoes or clothes, or articles or books. His first choice was a watch.

I might have ignored that request if he hadn't written the magic words to describe himself: "journalism student." The watch went into the mail.

Don't think this overly generous. The watch cost no more than the postage to send it.


I TELL the students in my running classes that the watch is their second most important piece of equipment, after shoes. This becomes a question on their end-of-term quiz.

Another possible answer is "shorts." When students who make this wrong choice protest, I tell them they can run without shorts -- wearing long pants or tights -- but they can't tell exactly what they run without a watch.

Almost any digital watch will tell good time. The cheapest source I've found is Walmart, where watches regularly sell for less than $10 and go on sale for as little as $3.95.

Few students ever buy watches of their own. Instead they borrow from my supply.

At the end of each term I give the loaners away as prizes. Students call them "ugly black watches," but never turn them down once they learn how much a runner's times mean.


A BRIEF HISTORY of time, as runners take it: Through the mid-1970s this was an inexact act. We wore watches with hands and didn't trust their accuracy to within a minute.

Then came the digitals, which defied normal economic trends by becoming both cheaper and better through the years. My first digital watch, bought from from Seiko, cost about $200. This model came in a bulky metal package.

Microsel soon issued an early version of modern watches, in black plastic at less than half the Seiko's weight and price. But this model required pressing a button to light up its face with red numbers.

Then came Casios -- which were cheaper yet, and more readable and reliable. Now you can buy even better watches at places like Walmart for the price of a fast-food meal.

Fancier, and pricier, watches act as onboard mini-computers. They do far more than keep track of time. But how much more than that do we really need?


GEORGE SHEEHAN called the digital wrist-stopwatch "running's greatest invention." Not one of the greatest but number one.

This watch gave runners instant and accurate results. It really created the PR by making us more aware of and putting us more in charge of our times.

Top-of-the-line watches stop time to the hundredth of a second. They count time either up or down, and sound alarms at selected intervals.

They memorize dozens or even hundreds of splits. They count heartbeats. The newest models now act as speedometers, calculating distance and pace.

Some runners may want to know some or of all this. I don't. All I ask of my watch is that it let me start, stop and reset the day's running time.


LIKE OTHER good inventions, the running watch sometimes goes bad. Like the car and the television, the watch begs us to use it too much.

The TV is not to blame if someone sits in front of it all evening every night. The car is not to blame if someone drives it on any trip longer than a quarter-mile. The user controls the remote and the keys.

And the watch is not to blame if an obsession with precious minutes messes with your mind. You control time.

You decide when to turn the watch on and off. Or when to leave home without it, letting the run go timeless.


MY FELLOW columnist Scott Hubbard set off these musings with a piece he wrote for Michigan Runner magazine. He told of timing his runs in the 1970s, when watches "had analog faces, weren't very water-resistant and fell apart too soon." He rarely wore one.

Instead, "I'd glance at a wall clock on my way out the door and again on the way in to time myself." Or if driving to a run, he would use the car clock. "Subtraction yielded my running time, [unless] I couldn't remember when I started."

Scott began using what's properly known as a chronograph -- which he still sometimes forgets to strap on for a run. He remains low-tech in his timing, despite working in a running store offering watches that do everything.

All he wants from his watch is all he ever wanted -- a close approximation of time run. Time is only a result of running, not the reason to run.

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