escaping the numbers

Anyone who knows me well knows that the world of numbers leaves me slack-jawed and drooling. Anything more complex than a baseball line score or a football stat sheet causes my math-averse brain to actually float up out of my skull and leave for a coffee break until a book or other text-heavy document finds its way back in front of my eyes.

Those of you who have followed my many posts about training for the upcoming 10-mile leg of the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon Challenge know that I have taken my antipathy towards numbers and have applied it to my running regimen. Since running became a regular part of my life 18 months ago, I haven’t once tracked anything other than distance. (Treadmills are the exception to this rule, though I run on them infrequently. In any event, I’ve learned that treadmills vary so much in terms of how they track time and distance that the numbers flashing on the LED display in front of me really don’t mean much of anything anyway.)

When I started training for the SDTC, I continued my numbers-agnostic practice. But now, thanks to a move to a new home and town, I’ve taken it to another level.

In my old home, I clocked several different routes. I had 1.5, 3, 4.5 and 6.5 mile routes. I had a .5 mile extension that I could throw on to certain routes depending on how I felt. I always knew exactly how far I was going and could return to my house secure in the knowledge that I had covered “x miles” worth of ground.

But as I noted last week, the move to a new home threw my training schedule into disarray. Before Labor Day, I had spent most of the previous 3 weeks doing absolutely nothing. That left me with about a 7-week window to train for the hilly 10-mile course in La Jolla. One way to take on this challenge – probably the smarter way – would involve a calculated, hyper-aware processing of data to maximize the chance that I get through race day in optimal fashion. But I’ve chosen to take another path – probably the dumber way – because it’s the only one that will get me to race day psychologically intact.

When I ran in my new neighborhood for the first time, I did so without a pre-planned route. I left my house, took a right, and plodded along for what seemed to me like an appropriate amount of time. While the lack of numerical certainty gnawed at me during the run, I told myself that I’d clock it in my car later that day and accepted this less than scientific approach to training.

But upon returning home, I failed to climb in my car. And when I hit the pavement again after one day off, I took a slightly different route and eventually returned home having pledged to myself that I would clock both routes so that I could proceed with greater clarity on my next run. However, once again I didn’t find the time to do it.

This led to my third run, which – shorn of any knowledge about distance – morphed into a long fartlek workout. Since I didn’t know where mile 2 ended and mile 3 began, I kept myself interested by running hard to particular landmarks, then slowing down until the next flagpole or mailbox, and then speeding up again. Notably, by the end of this run, I no longer had a burning desire to understand the distance I had covered.

Yesterday, I took yet another slightly different route, focusing primarily on my form and breathing. Beyond adding a short loop that incrementally increased my total distance to 2 blocks more than the unknown mileage logged the previous days, I barely thought about how far I was running at all.

When I kicked off my running reboot, the adjective I used to describe my feelings about getting ready for the SDTC was “terror”. If I counted the number of days left that I had to run, the distance I was capable of running then, and the distance I would need to cover by late October, the math overwhelmed me. I had little confidence that I could get myself to a place mentally where I could complete the 10 miles.

But a little over a week later, stripped of any numerical basis, I know that I’m logging enough time and miles to prepare me for race day. I won’t be fast and I’m sure I won’t feel so hot by mile 8. But following the less (running) is more (distance) theory that my friend Axel espoused to me last week while simultaneously eliminating the one measure – total distance – that I had been clinging to for the last 18 months has reduced my anxiety level about the upcoming race more than anything else I’ve done.  Though I don’t think this is an application of the less is more philosophy that I’d choose to extend to any other area of my life, the less I know about my running, the more confident I am that I can handle 10 miles.

Real runners may be shaking their heads in disbelief as they read this. Phrases like “rude awakening” and “naive yahoo” probably float through their heads. I get that. To become an elite runner, to “improve” by some objective measure, you actually have to, well, measure what you’re doing. But that running worldview is diametrically opposed to mine.

I’m not running to improve. I’m not running for a time. I’m running because I believe, at age 43 – yes, the clock just flipped another year – that running is a good thing for me to do, both mentally and physically. That’s it. So I will continue my numberless experiment and apply it five weeks from now. And on a course where I will run by giant signs informing me how many miles I’ve run and wearing something on my shoe that measure my time with crystal-clear accuracy, I will remind myself that the numbers don’t mean anything to me: it’s just doing it that matters.

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