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

Thu, 18 Oct 2012 04:44:26 -0400

Stripping Down


(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 September 2008 issue.)

Funny what you see when you take your sweet time to finish a marathon. When you slow down to enjoy the journey (or have no choice about the slowing), you have more time and inclination to look around.

I took five-plus hours to meander through the 2008 Napa Valley Marathon. Some of the sights amazed me, others amused me. I’m not talking about the scenery here, though the vineyard vistas were superb. No, I’m speaking of the runners who surrounded me. Some spent so much time training, then penalized themselves in the marathon itself.

The early miles of this marathon wind through the hills before the valley widens and the road straightens at halfway. Up to that point the Silverado Trail is closed to auto traffic, so we runners had the road to ourselves.

The runners around me acted as if they were following the rules by hugging the right side of this road, many never leaving the bike lane. All but alone in crossing both traffic lanes to save steps, I wondered if coaches still taught this most basic trick.

Running this way is not only legal but expected. Courses are measured on the shortest path that a runner could follow. Anything more than that lengthens the marathon, which is plenty long already.

During the early miles out of Napa Valley, I followed a trail of discarded clothing. Gloves, hats, jackets littered the roadside. Had no one taught these runners – or hadn’t the training shown them – another elemental fact? How to dress for comfort while running, not while waiting for the start.

I wore only shorts and the thinnest of shirts. These left me shivering at the high-40s start. But better to feel chilly before the run than to overheat during, when the temperature would rise to the sunny 60s.

The runners who did, or could, toss aside their extra clothing were the lucky ones. Some had no choice but to wear what they’d started in, having no shorts under the long pants or singlets under their long-sleeved shirts. Sightings along the course that morning showed me runners not only overdressed but overburdened:

– “Woman in Black” dressed for Minnesota in March, not California, and couldn’t or wouldn’t strip. She wore shoe-length pants and wrist-length shirt, an armless vest, hat and gloves – all in sun-swallowing black. She sweat through every layer.

– “Camper Man” looked equipped for a wilderness trek. He wore a backpack – not a portable drink bag (which I saw in abundance here, despite fluid stations every two miles) but a fully loaded pack that clunked against his back with each step.

– “Rule Beater” didn’t quite break the well-publicized ban against iPods (as others did by hiding their music players until the race was on), but bent it to the point of irritating the runners around him. He wore the ear pods pinned to his shirt and cranked the volume high enough for anyone within 10 yards to hear.

– “Phone Girl” took along her cell. Fair enough; the young feel naked without their phones, afraid of falling out of emergency contact. But this young woman held a running conversation, while her shoulders swayed wildly from holding the phone to her ear.

These practices all seems harmless enough, especially when you learn that all of these runners were seen while PASSING me. But they all could have passed, and finished, even earlier without the excess baggage. Every extra ounce counts against you, as does every wasted step.

Some burdens don’t register on the scales but can still weigh too heavily on the mind. One is an obsession with numbers on a watch. Time means everything to me when I run alone, which is almost always. This practice works wonderfully when the distance is unknown and time is my friend. Each extra minute run longer than planned is a small victory.

But in a race, where miles are measured, time becomes an opponent. Each minute raced slower than expected is a little defeat.

At this Napa Valley Marathon I wore a watch that does everything but make me run faster. I hit the memory button at each mile, stopping a split and storing it for later review. From one mile on, I made mental calculations of what final time might result from the early pace.

The time I expected to run slipped a little further out of reach with each passing mile. I thought fleetingly that I’d failed because this marathon had taken longer to finish than any other. Then I quickly decided not to let any watch or clock pass that judgment on me. I’d covered 26-plus miles, and that always is a victory of sorts.

This thought led to a plan that would be unthinkable on my daily runs but makes good sense in a race: Leave the watch behind in my next marathon. Avoid the time-obsessing that comes with looking at a watch every few minutes. Focus on the numbers that really count during a marathon – miles one to 26.2 (or if I slip across the Canadian border, kilometers one through 42.2). Let the final time take care of itself, as the distance does on daily by-time runs.

Going watchless in a race can be as freeing as going distanceless in time-only training runs. I can still “win” races by going the distance, if not by taking less time to do it.

UPDATE: Four years after that Napa race I’ve yet to test my resolve to leave the almighty watch behind in my next marathon, since there hasn’t yet been one. That’s still the plan.

[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 Just released was Learning to Walk. 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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