(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
May 2002 (retitled in the magazine). Return with me now to the not-too-distant past when watches still had hands. Timing our runs was an inexact act as recently as the 1970s.
We would point the watch’s hours and minutes to 12, wait for the second hand to reach the top, then start running. Later we would grab a finish time within a minute or so from accurate.
Sometimes a passerby would ask, “Can you tell me what time it is?” We’d shrug, leaving the asker to wonder why anyone would wear a watch but not know what time it was.
Only once did my race time come close to matching the time of day. That happened at the Boston Marathon, which began at noon.
Even there, timing was an estimate. Did the hands read 2:48-something, 2:49-plus or 2:50-and-change? I waited hours for the official verdict.
Our old wristwatches weren’t just inexact; they were unreliable. “Waterproof” didn’t mean sweatproof. The stem gummed up with salt until it froze, leaving the watch to die from no rewinding.
Leaping ahead 25 years, we now wear five-function digital watches while running – and still fumble and shrug when asked the time of day. This hasn’t changed, but almost everything else in timekeeping has.
The digital wrist-stopwatch was one of running’s greatest inventions. It gave runners instant and precise race results. These watches created the PR – the precious personal record – by tuning us in to our own times.
These watches have reversed normal economic trends. As they’ve gotten better, they’ve also grown cheaper.
My first digital watch cost about $200, came cased in heavy metal and had a nasty habit of going blank at the worst times. Much better watches now sell for as little as $5.
Top-of-the-line models, still costing less than my original digital, have become onboard mini-computers. They stop time to the hundredth of a second. They count time either up or down, and sound multiple alarms.
Watches memorize dozens or even hundreds of splits. The latest models act as speedometers, calculating distance and pace.
With progress can come problems. Modern watches can make time too important by splitting it too finely and in too many ways. Time can put so much pressure on runners that they escape by going watchless, thereby missing the good a watch can give them.
Like the car and the television, the watch begs us to overuse it. The TV is not to blame for someone sitting in front of it all evening every night, and the car is not to blame for someone driving it on any trip longer than a quarter-mile. The user controls the remote and the keys.
And the watch is not to blame for messing with a runner’s mind. You control time. You decide when to turn the watch on and off, or when to leave it home.
Here are four ways I’ve made friends with the watch to keep time from running me:
Limit the risky combination of known time and known distance to races and a very few extra-special training runs. Knowing exactly how far and how fast you go tempts you to turn even the easier days into races against time. Either run the distance without timing yourself most days, or run for a time period without checking the distance.
Turn the watch on at the first running step, off at the last. Don’t touch it and seldom look at it in between. This extends to checking splits on daily runs, when thinking you’re “too fast” or “too slow” could spoil an otherwise just-right effort. Let whatever happens happen between punching in and punching out.
Run silently. Today’s watches can be programmed to beep at selected intervals. Keep them quiet. Listen to voices inside, not to signals from your wrist, that tell you how you feel, and when to speed up, slow down or stop.
Start over every day. Keep the latest run’s time on your watch until the next one starts. Zeroing the watch at that time is a vital and visible reminder that yesterday’s run is done and gone, and you’re only as good as what you do today.
2018 Update. Okay, I caved. Couldn’t resist the modern GPS measurers/timers that have traveled with me for more than a decade. Now it’s an Apple Watch. But I still try not to take too seriously everything it could possibly tell me. The age-old question remains: Do you run the watch, or does the watch run you?
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]