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

Thu, 04 Sep 2014 04:49:25 -0400

Timeless Racing

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from August 1997.)

Our earliest habits die the hardest. I come from a time-conscious tradition, modeling myself after a track-fan dad who taught me to read his stopwatch soon after I learned to tell time.

Later, while racing on the track myself, I plotted and recorded splits down to the tenth-second for every half-lap. This habit didn’t transfer well to the roads, and especially not to my first marathon.

I ran it at Boston, which then drew checkpoint lines at odd places such as 6.7 and 17.6 miles. Translating these splits into pace per mile and projecting a final time overtaxed my midrace computing skills.

So I ran blind, holding the pace that felt right without knowing exactly what it was until the marathon ended. The final time surprised me by being more than a half-hour faster than my training had led me to expect.

Hopes immediately grew. I thought: if this is possible without knowing pace, think that can happen with planning.

My marathon splits were never this unplanned again. I’d write them on my race number or on tape stuck to the wristband of my watch. They would never let me go as fast as I had while trusting instinct to set the pace at Boston.

Splits seldom come up exactly as planned, meaning they’re less likely to improve a race than to disrupt it. “Too slow” a split causes an unwise acceleration beyond that day’s ability. “Too fast” a split causes an unnatural holding back.

Mark Nenow ran the fastest 10K pace in U.S. history, on the track and on the roads. Yet he never thought much about his pacing.

Nenow’s plan was simply “to stick my nose in it and run with the leaders as long as I can. That way I either make a breakthrough or die like a dog.”

He once set his 5000 PR on the way to a 10,000. If he’d known it was this fast, he might have thought death was imminent and backed way off the pace. Instead he held it, breaking through with almost a minute’s improvement of his 10K time.

This timeless approach to pacing impressed me when I heard Mark speak of it in 1984, the year he set a U.S. 10K road best that still stands. But I wasn’t yet ready to leave my watch at the starting line, or to wear ear plugs and blinders to keep from hearing or seeing any split times. The old habit of checking progress reports dies hard.

Recently, though, a race gave me no choice about running timeless. This half-marathon neglected to mark any of its miles or to post any clocks along the way.

I joined the complainers that day as we ran along not knowing the score. Without the usual time reminders, I had to fall back on instinct and into the pace that felt right.

This race turned out to be the best I’d run at any distance in the 1990s. As in that long-ago Boston Marathon, the internal clock worked better than the one on my wrist.


Racing days are behind me now. But each year I coach dozens of runners for marathons and halves. A common concern of theirs is, “What should my pace be?”

Checking it is too easy, with GPS watches as standard equipment. But the per-mile time selected is too often wrong.

Runners tend to base it on an arbitrary race-time goal, usually a round-numbered one such as a 4:00 marathon. Then they work backward from there, figuring each mile must take 9:10.

This is faulty math for two reasons. First, not all miles are equal in any marathon. Crowding may slow the early ones, and fatigue the late ones – meaning the middle miles must compensate.

Also, these calculations are based on what runners HOPE to do, not what they really can. I’ve found with the runners I coach that the single best predictor of a race result is the pace of their longest training run.

Nearly everyone comes within a few seconds, minus or plus, of that figure. For instance, a runner who trained at 9:00 pace can expect to finish a marathon between 3:50 and 4:00.

I tell our team to relax in training and let what happens to the pace happen. Then let the resulting pace reveal race-day potential. It usually plays out this way whether or not these runners obsess over split times.

[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 PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, 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.]

Previous Posts