Breaking the Time Barrier

A wonderful thing happened -- the wristband on my Timex Ironman watch broke. So my watch stayed behind when I headed out the door with my dog just before dusk to run my favorite local trail.

I was primed to get outside and run because I had just returned from a several days of travelling in a car and sitting around a conference table discussing contentious stuff like health care reform. Before I started up the trail, I reflexively pulled back the sleeve of my windbreaker to reset the stop watch function, having forgotten it wasn't there.

I time runs out of an old habit. I keep a notebook log where I record the place, distance, time elapsed, time of day, temperature, and other noteworthy events, like animals sighted. But I didn't need the watch. I have run that trail so many times that I know the approximate times, plus or minus 30 seconds or so, that I will arrive at a certain tree, rock, or turn.

And I hadn't run too far before I realized how nice it was to not have it. It was great to just be out there running. The sun was setting, throwing dark shadows on the mountainside and chilling the air. My feet crunched rhythmically over a thin crust of metamorphosed snow from a storm a week earlier. I passed one trail marker after another oblivious to the time.

Athletes in general, and runners in particular, tend to suffer a little obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to time. You pick up a Runner's World and the pages are riddled with references to race times, splits, interval targets, and records. People are introduced by name, age, and his or her PR in the 10K or marathon. Much of the information, whether on training or nutrition, is mainly intended to shave minutes and seconds off a race time. Many of the interviewees are happy or sad based on time or eagerly looking to the future to see if they can beat a time.

On the cover of Trail Runner magazine, you always find a runner passing trough a spectacular landscape, like the Dolomites in Italy or vast aspen stands in Colorado. It conjures visions of stories about beauty and adventure waiting inside, but most of the pages are devoted to recaps of ultramarathons and finish times. Pain, injury, and disorientation from sleep deprivation or dehydration are frequent topics. It is the only magazine where you'll find the exact time it took a guy to run all the way around Grand Teton National Park or through Death Valley. In its pages, ultrarunners bag distances like hunters bag trophy elk heads.

It dawned on me as I trudged along the trail that a focus on time can be a barrier to the sheer fun of just running. Time can put unnecessary pressure and expectations that lead to disappointment. I recalled that I have found myself pushing harder up a hill to reach a marker because the watch indicates I'm off a certain self-expected pace. Running can lose its stress-busting magic if you create additional stress by focusing too much on time. Looking at a watch distracts from enjoying the beauty of a place, its contours and attractions.

And no doubt many injuries and illnesses (including mine on occasion) are caused people pushing too hard, day in, day out, to cover a certain distance at a pace that is too fast for them. Healthier runners are probably slower runners. Obviously competitive athletes need to train hard for events that are measured in seconds, minutes, and hours to win scholarships, money, and endorsements. But most of us are better off keeping the time obsession in check, especially TOJs, who should know better because any high stakes are purely imaginary.

Running without a watch let's you tune into your body, detached from the monotony of measured time, and find a pace that ebbs and flows naturally with the terrain, distance, and your biorhythms. Your body is rich with sensory information that goes far beyond numbers blinking on a screen. You can feel when to run hard and when to back off. It doesn't take a watch to know how you feel.

Back home, after my dog and I finished the run, I opened my log. In the column where a time is usually entered, I put a quick slash. I'll get a new band for my watch sometime soon -- don't want to late for a meeting! But nearing a new year, I resolve to run more without it. Each slash will indicate runs that were fun and timeless.

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