Time gets measured in all sorts of ways. As a runner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the number of minutes and seconds it takes to run between two points, or in circles. As a master’s athlete, I rarely compare my times to those of others. I learned long ago there are always plenty of people who are much faster. Master’s athletes tend to compare themselves to themselves. The personal record is the measure of success or failure, and I spend an absurd amount of time comparing my current self to one that ran a 57-second 400 meters two years ago, or the one that ran a 19:43 5k last fall. At the age of forty-two I am quite lucky to still be chipping away at my times, but this probably has more to do with my late, and recent return to running. Then again, this is the heart of competitive running as an adult; as the aging process is painfully evident on multiple levels, intense, consistent training keeps some of the more insidious effects at bay, and as we age, we can also figure out ways to actually improve physically. Its no fountain of youth, but probably the closest thing to it.
In regard to measuring time, I have been looking at a number for the last few weeks that should be inspiring, but instead has me contemplating what it is all really about, this running. Over the last three years (three years and two months to be exact) I have dropped my 400 meter time from 58.8 to 55.7, a difference of 3.1 seconds. At 58.8 I was covering the track at 6.80 meters per second. At 57.7 that increased to 7.18 meters per second. That means I beat myself by about 22 meters. In a way, I like the sound of that, or better, the image. If the younger me was losing to the older me by that much in an actual race, I would really wish I was as fast as the older me. In fact, in the last 50 meters, I would be dying to be that guy, quite literally.
But a more sober way of looking at the numbers is that I never actually raced my slower self, literally or figuratively. I have enjoyed new prs a few times over the last two years. I believe I improved on the 58.8 by running a 58.2 a month later, then a 57.2 a few months after that in March, then a 56.8 in May, then 56.2 almost a year later, a 55.9 a few months after that, and finally a 55.7 a few weeks ago. In almost every pr race, I was beating my younger self by less than a second, or less then three strides.
This line of thinking leads me to ask myself what it is all about? What is a second worth? I have trained so hard over the last three years, and made countless sacrifices. In order to spend time on the track, other things have to go unattended. I make my wife and children my ultimate priority, so that pretty much leaves work to take the hit, or the home renovation started two years ago. I know I could accomplish much more in my work life, but I choose to run instead. If I didn’t run so much I could finish that damn bathroom tile . . .
So what is a second worth? In monetary terms, I would have to admit its worth about $10,000 dollars, as I know that is what I could fairly easily add to my annual income by working a side job or business. I gave up being a running technique instructor when I started training more seriously, and that was a fairly simple way to make that kind of cash. In time terms, a second is worth about 250 hours, as that is about what I figure I devote in a given year to running. I put a lot of focus on efficiency, so I probably spend less time training than the average athlete. If I combine those two numbers it comes out to $40 per hour, so that is probably fairly accurate.
But money and time do nothing to help me figure this out. Perhaps the value of a second is much, much more subtle. I am in better health. If I have a preexisting heart condition, or high genetic disposition for heart disease, being in better health means just about nothing, but if that is not the case, then I have significantly increased my life expectancy. With two very young children, this is huge. I would love to live long enough to see my own children grow into full-fledged adults, which, given societal evolution, means at least age 25-30, requiring me to live to 70 or so. Check.
But I could be in good health without killing myself over those seconds. Or maybe not. I simply would not currently be at my college weight if I were only running 5ks and marathons. The motivation that has come from toeing the line on a track and pushing myself to run 400 meters is what has led to really monitoring my diet. Being at the level of fitness I am enjoying right now actually makes me feel a little sad and concerned for the average citizen. Its not an ego thing, but rather a compassionate feeling for others, knowing that most people simply will not ever do what I do, and that if I didn’t go to the lengths I do to race I would be overweight and basically aging at a faster rate. This sport is not for everyone. Its a small minority of weirdos that compete in master’s track and field. Yes, there are other forms of intense physical activity, and the small minorities of people who engage in them can relate to what I am saying, and the majority of people simply will not put themselves through the type of exercise that leads to optimal fitness. I cannot even say I am optimally fit, or even close to the kind of physical condition that was enjoyed by most humans a thousand years ago. We simply have no idea just how sedentary we have become until we engage in a serious, consistent, high level training regimen, and then realize it is still just a drop in the bucket compared to early humans. If you think about it, going to the gym for an hour and a half every day is great, but what do you do during the other 22 1/2 hours? Early humans were likely moving all day long. And who actually goes to the gym every day? I don’t.
The health issue is awesome, and helps me grapple with the value of a second, but I am still not there yet.
The value of a second is a fleeting, thin, yet powerful experience of my authentic self. It is a soft glow, emitted by the slow burn of satisfaction after a good race. Running, or more specifically racing, provides the exact type of experience that Kierkegaard and Sartre describe in their existentialist philosophies. Racing provides a “pattern of directly confronting fear” that is consistent with the ideal of existentialism, which is to continually face life’s challenges in order to become the person you want to be, your authentic self (Fitzgerald, Matt, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel). The challenge and fear of trying to run a pr is raw (not necessarily pure), and takes the athlete to rare and special realm of human experience. The pr is a reality, a concrete measurement and comparison, a clear indicator of success, and with every attempt, failure is a clear and present danger.
But its not even the pr, necessarily. Once I ran a good race, heard my time, a new pr, announced over a loud speaker, and then found out that the official time was a half second slower. Later that same day, the first time was posted as my official time. Official is official, so I ran a new pr, but the confusion completely robbed me of the experience I described above. Yesterday I ran a pr in the 800 meters (by five seconds), and I new it the moment I crossed the finish line. The resulting experience kicked in immediately and seemed to simmer longer than usual. I don’t think it was really the time, but rather the fact that it was the first 800 that I really raced. The pr was a given, waiting there, if I would just run the damn race the way its meant to be run.
The clock is just a tool that allows an easy, mindless way of competing against ourselves. If the clock says I ran a pr, I don’t need to think about what I did in the actual race. Was it a good race? Was it really what I am capable of today? Did I do something different or creative? This last question is the important one we might rob ourselves of when the clock takes away the thinking. The experience of authenticity I described above does not require a clock or a time, but it certainly must facilitate having the experience more often. It would be more challenging, and likely less frequent, if the experience always required a deep focus and mindfulness of the event. But then again, if we threw away the clocks and watches, maybe it would force us to make deeper connections to why we run. Its a fun thought, but I am not about to throw away my clock, because I really get off on prs!