Time On My Feet

March 5, 2021

Continuing our Mighty Masters series, Jon Waldron, Director of Coaching Programs and veteran runner, muses on the importance of time spent running. So many of us are constantly thinking about pace and attributing the value of a run or workout to speed and number of miles on our watch. Jon's words are especially impactful as we are all navigating running in a pandemic that has upended feelings of stability in every part of our lives.

It was a sweltering Sunday morning, and I was about ten miles into what I had hoped would be a twelve-mile run on the usual Battle Road loop. Although I had only a couple of miles to go, I was not at all sure I would finish without walking. Not only was it the longest run I had attempted for many months, but it was about the hottest and most humid day of the summer to that point. Although I was shirtless, sweat just wasn’t evaporating in that thick haze of warm, moist air, and it served only to coat my skin with a slimy glaze. I felt like the contents of a simmering pot, a briny stew of my own making.

The feeling had not been a sudden revelation, exactly — I had had plenty of time to appreciate the evolving heat index since I had been running alone for the previous hour. Sadly, my pace was at least a half-minute slower per mile than that of my companions, with whom I had set off so long ago. I ran alone without distractions, without ambition, without any pretense of virtue, determined only to continue reducing the distance back to the parking lot that would mark the end of this particular long run.

“I sure am suffering,” I thought to myself.

“I think I’m enjoying this,” I thought to myself.

“Well, which is it?” I demanded of myself, thinking that it was perhaps not a good sign that there were two voices arguing in my head, and neither one seemed to belong to me.

Then a Zen-like thought floated into my consciousness: there was really no difference between suffering and enjoying; each contained the other, and they were different ways of describing the same reality. It felt profound, but I couldn’t rule out that the heat had simply addled my brain to where it could no longer make distinctions.

In any case, I managed to finish that run, and then another equally long run the following week, and then another two weeks later. And in the process of these long, slow, mostly solitary slogs, I began to realize that I was feeling a sense of accomplishment merely for the time I was spending on my feet, a variable that had never seemed particularly important before. Here was a new, interesting aspect to running that didn’t depend on pace or distance, but only on how long I was willing to exist in that state.

At some point many years ago, it occurred to me that the most important variable in my running – or anyone’s, really — was time. As a younger runner, time always involved the idea of pace, and the value of every run, every interval, every race was assessed by the pace at which it could be completed. If I ran faster than I expected – in a race or a training run — I always felt good about the run and good about myself. If I ran slower than expected, I felt frustrated with the performance and annoyed at myself. I trained hard at paces that were out of my comfort zone so that I could someday achieve a faster pace. I did everything I could to shave a few seconds off my pace from the previous week, month, or year. Even as I aged, and my PRs receded out of sight, I always felt like I could improve in the short-term, and so I continued to focus on pace like a maniac.

But, of course, I always knew that it wasn’t about pace only, it was about running that pace a lot so that one’s body adapted, became more competent at any given pace. There were optimal paces for aerobic development, for V02 Max, for threshold runs, and for speed, and they all had to be done repeatedly to stimulate adaptation. To train, therefore, I needed to set aside sufficient time every day to log the runs that would change me.

True, Roger Bannister had been an exception who had managed to train on his lunch hour, but who could hope to emulate Bannister’s schedule, condensing our training into such short, intense bursts of premium effort? Runners like me needed more time. Time to worry more about my times.

Years went by, and as I entered older age groups, performance began its inevitable decline. Nevertheless, the formula for training stayed the same. Pace and volume, time and time – these were still the most important ingredients to be manipulated in the pursuit of training goals. There was no reason to question this self-evident truth.

And maybe with better luck or better genes, my body would have continued to respond to the formula, but changes to my cardiovascular system throttled my pace, and the nagging physical problems have forced me to keep my running mileage low, so what variable was there left to manipulate?  My recent long runs have suggested a possibility: maybe, just maybe, with all this time on my hands, there was something to be said for extending time on my feet.

As a training concept, “time on one’s feet” seems to be more folklore than science. I’ve occasionally encountered the idea that if one’s target race is going to take so many hours, then there is value in training to be on your feet and moving forward for about that same amount of time, more or less ignoring your pace.

For example, if a runner hopes to complete a marathon in three hours (~6:53 per mile), the theory suggests that the runner would obtain a valuable training benefit from being on his or her feet for three hours, regardless of the distance covered. Can that be true? Is the benefit the same whether the runner covers 24 miles (7:30 pace), 22.5 miles (8:00 pace), or 20 miles (9:00 pace)?

But I wasn’t training for a marathon or even a half marathon, so what was the advantage of time on my feet? Perhaps the advantage was that running slowly was no longer a disadvantage. The slower I ran, the fewer miles were required to run for a longer time. Thirty years ago, a 12-mile run at a normal training pace would take me roughly 80 minutes. Fifteen years ago, the same run would take me roughly 90 minutes. These days, it’s easily 1:45, and if I try to run faster, I only end up running less. In the future, that same run might take me two hours or more. Who knows?

One thing that stops me from embracing the benefits of slow running is that it feels like giving up.  It’s encouraging to think that I’m able to run for a couple of hours, but it’s hard not to feel that I’ve abandoned my “natural” and more virtuous running pace in favor of this new habit of shuffling. It’s not that easy to abandon a lifetime of valuing pace, in favor of valuing elapsed time.

Another thing that makes it hard to embrace slower running is that my mind operates differently when I’m not focusing on effort, and the experience is not satisfying in the same way. When I settle into just-keep-moving-forward mode, I find my mind and my attention to the task wandering. It’s as if the whole point of running has become to forget that I’m running, which leaves a lot of mental space for other thoughts to creep in. Is this what those who run only for fitness or recreational feel all the time? If so, maybe I’m just becoming a recreational runner in my old age.

In “recreational” mode, I’m much less inclined to anticipate the finish line so as to give my best effort. In other words, I no longer need or rely on that wonderfully sensitive intuition that calculates how I should spend my energy if there are five miles remaining, or two miles, or a half mile. All runners have stories of being misled about how far they had to go, and usually the experience exposes how finely we judge our effort to match it to the task remaining. But in this shuffling state I’ve recently adopted, other than some muscular aches and pains, there seems to be little difference between how I feel at any point of the run. If I reached the end, and it turned out that someone had moved my car to a lot a couple of miles away, I imagine it wouldn’t make much difference. It all seems slow and interminable.

Some time ago, my friend Tom Dmukauskas completed a 100-mile race in about 19 and a half hours. It was a wonderful effort, made possible by many months of planning and preparation, as well as by a wealth of experience gained from previous attempts at that distance. In the course of the race, he improved his position steadily. Fifteen miles in, he was only 72nd, but at every checkpoint his place was higher. He eventually finished 19th, averaging a little over 11-minute miles for the race.

I find Tom’s accomplishment inspiring for many reasons, but especially because it seems to hold so many lessons for anyone facing a challenge that requires a longer attention span than the ubiquitous 5Ks that saturate the running landscape. And even though I live in the land of the 5K, and race that distance more often than any other, I am pretty much out of opportunities to improve my training approach for that or similar short distances.

Although I will never do a 100-miler, or a 50-miler, or any kind of ultra, I see that I have a lot to learn about patience and applying steady, if not speedy, effort over many hours.

Being on your feet at all is good, and staying on your feet is better. Someone who has regained their health is aid to be “back on their feet,” and maybe that’s me right now. In any case, I think I’ll try to stay on my feet a little longer, maybe even aim for a new personal best for how long I can make forward progress.

As I continue to slow down, I feel that this might be the one arena where time is actually on my side.

— Jon Waldron

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