By Jacqueline Alnes
January 29, 2018
Like many runners, I have jumped into committed, long-term relationships with a series of timepieces. In high school, as a gangly freshman, I rocked a boxy, bigger-than-my-wrist Forerunner 205. During my brief stint as a Division 1 athlete, I briefly flirted with a GPS-free Timex Ironman, trusting the dozen beeps of GPS watches on teammates around me to track distance. And after a three-year relationship with my Garmin 10 ended, I now sport a Garmin 230.
Any relationship produces ephemera, and flings with watches are no different. In high school, my coach distributed log sheets where I recorded every split of every mile and interval I ran. Every day. For four years. Looking at my binder now, I can tell you that at the age of fifteen, I was running 56 to 63 miles per week alone, only the exclamations of my GPS to keep me company. From those thousands of miles tread through suburban developments and along the bayous of Texas, I learned two things: my watch could keep me company and my watch could make me successful.
In high school, I ran through “mud,” “WORST WEATHER EVER,” “my toe bled a lot,” and “OW!” (I wasn’t the most articulate at age 14, okay?) and still succeeded later in the season. I have always trusted training plans rather than my own body. This wasn’t a problem until a couple months ago, when I found myself lying on the x-ray table at an orthopedic clinic. While training for a marathon, I had been heeding my watch’s command instead of listening to murmurs of pain in my shin. My pursuit of splits landed me with a stress reaction, eight weeks off and no marathon.
I can count on one hand the number of times I have run without a watch in the past thirteen years, but after recovering from my injury, I began to wonder about the health of my relationship with mileage and splits. Is timing my runs helping me or hurting me? Does a run really count if it’s not timed? Who am I as a runner without a watch to tell me?
After one sweet eight-mile farewell run, I split up with my beloved watch for one week.
Here’s what I learned.
I Ran Slower (I think, anyway)
The morning after the breakup, I hesitated to leave the house. Watching bad rom-coms and eating chocolate sounded better than running alone. But the sun seeped through my kitchen window and the grey winter sky blushed into blue, and I found myself stepping out into my neighborhood and falling into a familiar stride. I passed the same bus stop, chain restaurants, and reclusive herons at the pond that I see nearly every day, but something felt different.
On my normal runs, my watch acts like an overbearing coach or an ultra-competitive frenemy. Even on easy days, when I know I’m supposed to hit slower times, I find myself pummeling down the sidewalks around town, chasing sub-7:00’s. Not healthy, I know, but there’s something about coming home from a run each day and writing down quick splits that makes me feel like a real runner.
Without a watch, I relaxed into a pace. While I can’t verify that I actually ran slower, I can tell you that I felt like a snail out there. My legs felt leaden (a product of running hardly any distance for nearly three months), and I listened to them. When three bluebirds flit across the sky in front of me, I slowed my stride to watch them swoop and nestle into a tree. Rather than racing pedestrians on the path ahead, I kept to my own pace. As the days passed, I grew more and more okay with the idea that I was running solely for the experience rather than a set distance or time. If the run wasn’t being recorded, I didn’t feel the need to impress anyone.
My Routes Changed
Call it a rut or falling in love with what’s familiar, but I have run the same route every day since moving to this town nearly three years ago. I know the dips in pavement, wave hello to the same set of pedestrians, and am aware of every quarter, half, and mile mark. As happens in many long-term relationships, I got comfortable in a certain routine.
Without a GPS, without a timer, I felt free to break away from what I knew. I veered onto the local cross-country course, allowing myself to loop around a hilly mulched path without caring about how my pace would decline. In my neighborhood, I found a new and lovely street. Another day, I avoided the wind by strategically cutting turns from my route.
Each run began to feel like a first date, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in quite some time. While I know I’ll still revert to my comfortable routes in the future (the equivalent of take-out and a movie on the couch), I enjoyed testing my legs on new hills, sampling roads, and breaking away from what I knew.
I Fell in Love with Running Again
When I first started running in middle school, I ran with no concept of time or distance. Instead, I was swept away by the slow-burn of muscle, the feeling of a light summer breeze against my face, and the sound of my feet whisking along. After being introduced to a watch, I lost some of that initial romance. I felt constrained in a way, locked down by the times that appeared on my wrist’s small screen.
In my week without a watch, I felt uncomfortable at first. What did my runs mean if I wasn’t timing them? How would I know if I was getting faster? I wanted some tangible representation of my progress and success, a list of mile times and distance to add to my calendar at home. Without splits, I wondered if I should even bother running at all.
As the days ticked by, I was reminded of why I initially started running so many years ago. There is an immense feeling of freedom that comes with putting one foot in front of the other. Without measurement, I allowed myself to sprint in spurts without caring about when or why I slowed down. I’m sure I’ll rekindle my relationship with my watch in the next few days, but this past week reminded me of who I am as a runner beneath the surface level statistics. I ran solely for the pleasure of weak winter sunlight warming my back, my shadow chasing me, the sound of my feet a song.
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PhD student writing a memoir about her experiences with running and illness. Bakes almost as many homemade cookies per week as miles run. You can find more of her work at www.tinywrites.com.