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March 25, 2017

How a little bit of data ruined my morning run

Since I was 21 years old, I’ve gone through long stretches where I have “run” outside for exercise — in quotation marks because I am passed by people who are running so slowly that I feel bad for them until I remember that they passed me. I’ve gone years running infrequently, and then other years I’ll run 3-6 days a week. But three things have been consistent throughout this: I don’t like running, I always run the same set route, and I have always run for distance, not for time: I set a course and don’t care how quickly I complete it.

That’s almost true. I care enough that I time my runs, but I don’t try to run faster in order to beat yesterday’s time. It’s just a little bit of long-term quantified knowledge that gives me a rough indication of what sort of shape I’m in as a jogger.

Beyond that smidge of data, I have gone out of my way to be data-free about my route. I don’t know how long it is. I therefore don’t know how long it takes me to run a mile. I therefore don’t know where the halfway point is, or the quarter markers. (My route’s a loop, so the halfway point is not obvious.)

Until today.

My Pebble smartwatch is declining, so I looked for a running app on my phone. The one I rather randomly chose gathers info beyond the duration of the run, but I just wasn’t thinking well about it when I plugged in my my headset, picked some upbeat music, and set off this morning.

“You’ve run one mile,” said the woman’s voice in my ear when I was a block away from the pond. I cannot unhear where the first mile marker is. And because I didn’t want to stop to fiddle with the app, I also know where the second mile marker is. And I know my home is 0.03 miles short of being the third mile marker. I also know how fast I run.

I don’t want to know any of this, although the distance and my speed are both a little better than I would have guessed. So, yay for being marginally less pathetic than I’d thought?

The real problem is knowing where those mile markers are.

I’ve tried lots of other sorts of exercise, and I haven’t stuck with any of them. They’re too boring, they take too long to get to, or — this is the crucial one — they involve counting. How many laps? How many reps? Am I at the twenty minute mark yet? It’s not the numbers that bother me. It’s knowing that there’s some knowable quantity I have to complete in order to be done. Doing a countable exercise is like watching a clock tick. You want to slow down time? Pay attention to it.

Running wasn’t like that. Now it will be. I’ll know when I’m at the one-third mark, and, more to the point, I’ll know when I haven’t even reached the one-third part. This little bit of data turns the entire run into a set of tasks that must be accomplished in sequence — a set of tasks that at any moment during the run I know have not yet fully accomplished.

For the past forty-five years, I’ve managed to run with some regularity by running through space. Now I’m running through time, and that takes much longer.

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