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

Thu, 06 Sep 2012 05:40:33 -0400

As Times Go By


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the January 2006 issue.)

George Sheehan watched times change, quickly and mostly for the better. The physician-author started running when watches still had hands. He finished when runners wore mini-computers on their wrists.

George 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 gave birth to the most important result: the personal record.

Not many decades ago, the reports on running events didn’t list anyone’s time but the winner’s. The only time of lasting value was the course record-holder’s. Place, not time, was the measure of success. Which meant that very few runners could feel successful. Which meant that very few ran races at all.

Some of us tried to time ourselves, but these efforts were guesstimates at best. Longtime Michigan Runner columnist Scott Hubbard recalls 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.”

I practiced a common pre-digital trick of runners. That was to set the watch’s hands at “12” to start. Sometimes a passerby would ask, “Can you tell me what time it is?” I’d shrug, leaving the questioner to wonder why someone would wear a watch he couldn’t read.

Running self-timing was an inexact act back then. Forget seconds and fractions thereof; you could misread a time by a minute or more. That is, if the wristwatch kept ticking. It you didn’t wind the watch, it could stop in midrun.

Watches of that era claimed to be waterproof, but that didn’t mean sweatproof. Salt would eventually gum up the gears. Hand-held stopwatches had innards even more delicate. Running with one guaranteed an unreliable time. I once ran a “1:55” half-mile time trial this way, when my best true time was 2:01.

Digital stopwatches began correcting such mistakes in the 1970s. I was ecstatic enough with their possibilities to pay $200 for my first one. This Seiko was laughably inadequate by today’s standards, as was the Microsel that followed. The resting mode for both was a blank black screen. You had to push a button to see the dim red readout.

As with most electronic advances, digital watches became both better and cheaper. My current favorite, bought for the price of a fast-food meal, vastly outperforms my original that would have cost 100 times more in today’s dollars.

You can pay, and get, more if you wish. Top-of-the-line watches stop time to the hundredth of a second. They count time down as well as up, sounding alarms at selected intervals. They memorize dozens or even hundreds of splits. They count heartbeats. They calculate distance and pace.

I own various watches that can do any of these tricks. They sit mostly unused, yielding to my basic model that does all I normally ask of a watch: a total time for the day’s run.


Students in my university running class hear a one-minute spiel the first day about their two most important items of equipment. The first is, of course, shoes. And the second? The students usually guess wrong. Later, in the end-of-term quiz, most of them still haven’t accepted my answer.

The question most often missed: “What is the runner’s second most important piece of equipment, after shoes? (a) shorts; (b) watch; (c) headphones; (d) socks.”

Headphones? Luxury at best, distraction at worst. Socks? Never wear any myself. The most common answer I hear is shorts, and it’s wrong. Think about it. They aren’t the only alternative to streaking.

That leaves the watch. There’s no reliable substitute for a digital stopwatch as a competitor or companion on your runs, or as a coach on your wrist.

In lieu of lectures, my students receive a daily one-paragraph lesson by e-mail. One mini-lesson praises watches:

“Time can make you an instant winner by telling exactly how fast you ran a distance, and maybe how much you improved your personal record. Another, more subtle value of the watch: it lets you run by time – by minutes instead of miles. This has several benefits: freeing you from plotting and measuring courses, because minutes are the same length anywhere... easing pressure to run faster, because you can’t make time pass any quicker... finishing at the assigned time limit no matter your pace, which settles naturally into your comfort zone when you run by time periods rather than by distances.”

This lesson goes to students just learning to tell time, runner-style. They also need to know what the times mean to their running. Raw watch-time doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Say the course is new and the distance is odd, such as 3.7 miles. What does a time of 35:00 tell them? I teach them runner-math. It reduces time to a fixed standard – a per-mile pace (9:27 in the example) that can be compared with any distance, anywhere. My mini-lesson on pacing:

“Pace has two meanings, one mathematical and the other physical. The first – a key figure for any runner to know – is a calculation of your minutes/seconds per mile. Divide the total time by the distance (remembering to convert seconds to tenths of a minute; an 8:30 mile is 8.5 minutes). The second meaning of pace is even more important: how you find your best one. On most runs this means pacing yourself comfortably – neither too fast nor too slow. There are several ways to arrive at that pace. The most technical is to wear a heart-rate monitor and to run between 70 and 80 percent of maximum pulse. The simplest way is to relax and let the comfortable pace find itself.”

Time comes for most of my students when “comfortable” isn’t good enough anymore. They want to push and test themselves, to run longer or faster or both. I urge them to enter a race, and a few eventually graduate from there to a marathon. In any race the trick is knowing ahead of time the runner’s best possible pace for that distance. Again the watch holds the answer once they figure out how to read it.


Ask me the most basic training question – “How far did you run today?” – and you’d get a blank stare. My answer would be the wildest of guesses.

Ask that same question in a slightly different way – “How LONG did you run?” – and you’d hear an exact time. I’m not geeky enough to quote it to the split-second, though the watch records it that way.

Time means a lot to all runners, but usually as expressed in comparisons to PRs or in paces per mile. Time means everything to me, because it’s my only way of keeping score. The only time I ever know distance is when someone else measures it at a race, and I’m down to three or four race days per year. The other 300 runs are by the minute, not the mile.

This habit is my most lasting gift from that giant of a coach, Arthur Lydiard. He handed it to me 40 years ago, and rarely since have I measured a training course. I know of no one who has counted more minutes and ignored more miles since the 1960s. Over those years I’ve adopted certain rules of timing:

1. Round to the minute. Seconds don’t need to count in a run lasting a half-hour or more. I ignore the seconds and round down to the full minute, as in a 39:59 going into my log as “39 m.”

2. Start/stop the same place. For me that’s home or parked car. I run back to that spot and stop the watch there, resisting the urge to add one more meaningless minute at the end.

3. Let the watch run. Mine starts with the day’s first running step and ends with the last, with no stopping in between – even if I do for incidentally (at a street crossing) or intentionally (for a planned walk break). As in a race, every minute counts and there are no official timeouts.

4. Save time. The stopped numbers on the watch are proof of what I’ve done. Humble as the time might be, I keep it on the watch until the next run before starting over at “0:00.”

5. Average time. Minutes add up faster than miles, leading to confusingly high total numbers for a week or longer. I don’t list a total but a more useful figure – an average-per-run.

These rules help keep the watch in its place – as a tool, not a tyrant. 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 you stare at it all evening every night. The car is not to blame if you drive it on any trip longer than a quarter-mile. You control the remote and the keys.

And the watch is not to blame if an obsession with precious minutes messes with your mind. You control the on-off buttons.

UPDATE: I now own a GPS watch but wear it only on my longest run each week – or to measure courses for runners in my training groups who insist on knowing exactly how far they go.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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