By Brian Metzler—Last Thursday, I joined some running friends for an after-work trail run. I hadn’t run with this group in a while, and it had been a while since I started a run from the trailhead where we were meeting, so I really didn’t have any expectations. I wasn’t wearing a watch—I rarely do anymore—but I was pretty sure we’d be running for 45 minutes or so, and knowing the terrain, I figured it would be a robust effort.
Sure enough, we started climbing right away and, although I felt good at times during the first 15 minutes, there were moments during the next 15 minutes or so that I was just hanging on—both physically and mentally. Even though I wasn’t running very fast, my legs were churning and my lungs were burning. It was a grind, at times probably a 7.5 out of 10 on the effort scale.
Although we stopped a few times to regroup and catch our breath, we were soon climbing again. I remember thinking to myself as I was near-anaerobic that this was a much harder run than the easy cruiser I had hoped it would be when I had confirmed on the group’s Facebook page a few days earlier that I would be there.
After about 40 minutes, we finally hit a section of “flowy” singletrack and I was back on my game. Running that section of technical trail with a net downhill profile was a blast. My heart was still racing, but it felt good to go with gravity and push the throttle a bit. My perceived effort was slightly lower, but still high because of the technical features on the trail and the increased speed. I could feel fatigue building in my legs, but I knew I was in the middle of a good run and was relishing in the moment.
When we regrouped again, everyone was smiling, happy to have encountered that short bit of bliss after the previous uphill struggles. What goes up, must go down, though, and within moments we were cruising down a wide path back down to the trailhead.
We had run for a little more than an hour and at the trailhead, we were talking about grabbing a post-run beer at a local microbrewery. I knew the run was longer than I had anticipated it would be, but that was OK with me. It was the best run I’d had in weeks.
Just then, one of my friends, while looking at the Garmin GPS watch on his wrist, said, “Can you believe that was only 5.03 miles?” It hadn’t really occurred to me how long the run was. I was just happy with the effort, but it did seem to be a bit deflating to have run for 68 minutes and only covered a little more than 5 miles. It felt like 7 or 8. That’s how it goes out on the trails, though, especially when climbing is involved. Besides, the length of a Forest Service mile is never exactly a mile, but it doesn’t really matter, either.
Another runner chimed in, sounding a bit disappointed, too. “Really? I thought we ran longer than that,” she said, “but I bet we logged a lot of vertical.” Nope, my friend with the Garmin said, we only covered 1,000 feet of vertical, a relatively low total given the challenges we endured. It was still a good run based on our efforts, we all agreed, but it apparently wasn’t as tough or as long as we thought. Should that diminish what we just experienced, negating the strong effort we each had just put forth?
My friend’s blurting out of the relative stats of our run was completely harmless, but it did shed some light on how technology can change how we train. High-tech GPS watches are great. They can track your mileage, your pace and the profile of the terrain you’re running, if that’s what you want. But that’s usually not what I want, and I’ve found it to be rather amusing (and borderline annoying) at how much some runners rely on them.
I understand the importance of charting workouts, but there are some days I’d much rather run completely unplugged. With all of the electronic leashes the modern world has shackled us with—cell phones, texts, email and social media—it’s hard to escape anymore. I typically rely on my built-in odometer from years of running to guesstimate my mileage on the roads, but mostly I run by overall time on my feet and perceived effort.
Especially on the trails, though, I prefer to run free and engage in the challenges of the natural terrain without any care about statistical details.