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

Sun, 4 Sep 2005 08:03:06 -0400

Time on Your Side

RUNNING COMMENTARY 587

(rerun from September 2000 RW)

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.

The question means how far in miles. I never have a quick answer. Mine begins with, "Uhh...hmm... let's see," as I work some mental math that's never more than a wild guess.

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.

Time means a great deal to every runner. It means everything to me, because most days miles don't count; only minutes do.

Once a stern taskmaster of mine, time has become a good friend. It used to taunt me with impossible deadlines to beat but now offers a satisfying quotas to meet.

Back when running with a reliable watch first became an option, I stepped into a time trap. Each course was measured, each run timed and each a course-record attempt.

The records fell easily at first. Dozens of seconds peeled away with every running of a course, and I could hardly wait for the next chance to improve.

Speed eventually neared its peak. The records forced me to work ever harder to drop a less and less time. These time trials came to feel like races, which are fun to run sporadically but not daily.

I feared the verdict of the watch, where I either lost the race against time that day or would lose it soon by making the record even harder to break. The time trap had snapped shut.

Arthur Lydiard offered an escape route. The coach from New Zealand told me in a 1970 interview than his runners, once known for their 100-mile weeks, now largely ignored mileage. They trained mostly by time periods, checking their pace for known distance only on special occasions.

Mile-counting stopped for me back then and has never resumed. I started running by time for practical reasons, as a way to keep records without having to measure a course and then to follow it as calibrated.

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

The natural urge when running a distance is to push harder and finish sooner -- to race against time. Every second behind a deadline is a little defeat.

When running to fill a time quota, however, the reverse happens. 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 a quota is a little victory.

Almost any watch will do a basic timing job. All you really need is one that freezes time at the end of your run.

That time is important. It gives a comforting illusion of permanence not found in running by the mile.

The hours, minutes and seconds stand as visible reminders that your effort put them all there. Preserve until your next run, when the watch lets you see how Impermanent your efforts are.

If cheap watches like this had been around when I was still setting PRs (no, we weren't using sundials, but most watches still had hands and went tick-tick, and digitals cost more than a trip to Boston), I might have retired the digital instead of erasing the time. The results would have stayed on the watch face until the batteries died.

But trying to make time stand still this way would have been a mistake. It is just as important to erase times eventually as to save them at first.

Savor time for a while, yes, but also pay special attention to the clearing of the watch. Hold down the button that wipes out those precious, hard-earned numbers and see them replaced with a line of zeros.

This act demonstrates graphically a turning away the past and moving ahead. You now get to refresh your time in a friendly way by running with the watch instead of against it or away from it.

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