Running Unplugged

Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

As the caravan of cars, trucks, and shuttle buses neared the remote trailhead start ofOctober’s Bizz Johnson Express Half Marathon in Northern California, I started rifling around in my duffel bag to ready the few items I would need for the next 13.1 miles. Only half focused on the contents of the bag, I paused when something felt amiss. I turned my complete attention to the bag with a concerned look. As I emptied the bag, my concern was replaced with sheer dread as I realized what was missing. My Garmin. It was sitting, charging, on my dresser at home.

My breath shortened. My heart rate steadily climbed. Beads of sweat collected near my temples. I freaked out.

I needed my Garmin! After a brief—okay, maybe not so brief—pity party, I focused on the reality that no amount of temper tantrums would miraculously produce a pace watch and that I would be running without it on this day.

At the start line, my stress returned and I casually sized up other runners who hadn’t forgotten their pace watches—“Maybe I can run with some of these guys for a while and watch their splits and times,” I thought. My plan was dashed just minutes into the race by the realization that, despite a relaxed pace, I was alone at the front of the pack and building a strong lead. I slowed and instinctively looked to my wrist, which only served to further frustrate me with the reminder that my Garmin wasn’t there. By mile four I must have looked at my bare wrist 100 times and to the winding trail behind me nearly as often to see just how far back second place was. Neither produced the information I was after. No Garmin. No other runners in sight.

Then something happened. Peering through the trees at the golden autumn meadows, I forgot about my Garmin. Watching the first rays of sunlight dance across the occasional stream, I forgot about second place and what sort of lead I held over him. For the first time in a long time, I breathed deeply of the cold mountain air, listened to birds as they welcomed the morning, felt the trail twist, climb, and tumble under my feet, and watched the world around me awake to a new day. As my most vital running accessory sat idle at home, I found myself enchanted by the movement and my surroundings—the romance rekindled in my love affair with running.

Since that race, I make it a point to occasionally force myself to ditch the Garmin and just run. During these outings, I’m free to go as fast or as slow as my heart desires, free to stop and play with the occasional neighborhood cat, free to take off down a new trail or street, free to go out of my way to splash through puddle after delightful puddle—all things I would never dream of doing during a specifically timed and measured training run. And, paradoxically some might say, such unplugged runs have become vital to my training—not because they prepare me to maintain a strong pace through the final miles of a marathon, not because they condition me to keep from going out too quickly in the early miles of a race, but because they remind me why I even bother lacing up in the first place: Because putting one foot in front of the other in rapid succession is so vital to who I am as a person. Minutes, miles, and music, on the other hand, are not.

Judging from the opinions of fellow San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors, the dread I once felt when faced with running sans my favorite gadget is common among runners, though not without good reason. Ambassadors Courtney Alev,  Mark Holland, Laura Langerwerf, and Nancy Peck-Cook are more or less just as connected to their Garmins as I once was. “I can’t live without my Garmin,” Nancy says. “I never leave home without it, [but] sometimes, I put it in my pocket or cover it with my sleeve and try my hardest not to look.” Mark’s attachment stems from the spreadsheet on which he tracks all of his workouts. Laura also likes to track her workouts, “I want to know everything about every run,” she says. “I use MapMyRun if for any reason I don’t have my Garmin with me.” And Courtney, who doesn’t always concern herself with time or miles splits, likes to have her Garmin to at least keep track of distance.

Ambassador Chris Kovalchick is at the other end of the spectrum and generally goes gadget-less on all but tempo runs, interval and track workouts, and new routes that he would like to know the distance of. “There is nothing better than running with nothing,” he says. “[It] allows me to focus on everything else—posture, form, the world around me!” Ambassador Westley Lashley, like Chris, also foregoes gadgets during outdoor runs in favor of listening to his body and surroundings. Ambassador Michael Kahn became a believer in gadget-less running much the same way I did. After inadvertently misplacing his Garmin before a half marathon, Michael set a two-minute personal record. “Apparently I was capable of more than I gave myself credit for,” he says.

The simple truth is, pace watches have undisputed utility. There is no way around it, most of us want to run faster—whether it’s faster than yesterday, faster than our last race, faster than the Boston Qualifying Standard, or faster than the guy or gal next to us—and pace watches are invaluable tools that help track our progress toward getting faster.

Other gadgets, namely iPods and various music players, have a somewhat less tangible use. Sure, music makes long, lonely miles go by faster, but it provides little if any assistance in moving more quickly and can even be a malady on busy streets where runners need to listen for traffic, and on race courses that discourage and even forbid the use of music players. Fittingly, runners are more willing to forego tunes as they trot. “I often leave the headphones at home and just listen to my feet,” Laura says. “It’s a soothing sound.” Ambassador Eric Jorgensen often ditches his headphones “to embrace nature [and] worldly sounds,” and Courtney prefers solo runs with music but takes her headphones off for group runs.

Many runners, especially women, wisely carry their cell phones for safety. A string of sexual assaults along a popular Reno, Nev. running route in recent weeks serves as a reminder that the streets we run aren’t as safe as many of us assume, and even on the safest streets, accidents can and do occur. This takes the cell phone out of the realm of running gadget, making it a safety accessory along the lines of lights and reflective gear during nighttime runs. Many cell phones today, however, do much more than send and receive calls and text messages, and if you use yours for music or to track runs, it still qualifies as a gadget in those capacities.

How many among us went on their earliest runs with a pace watch, iPod, or phone? The run that led to my first marathon included no such gadgets, hell, I wore a cotton sweatshirt for goodness sake! It took six months of actual racing before I decided to purchase my first Garmin and it was more than a year later before an iPod made its debut in my running life. This, and the Garmin I forgot in October, reminds me that at the end of the day, all I really need to run is inside me and cannot possibly be left at home on the charger. In fact, the only charging it needs is the occasional reminder that running is fun, exciting, and often enchanting, courtesy of an unplugged run.

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