By The Numbers

This isn’t a running blog (or a cycling one), even if I tend to get likes from some quarters every time I talk about my running practice. Reading this article about Strava the other day really got me thinking, though:

‘Richard Askwith, a British writer and fell runner, is the author of Running Free, a book about the over-commercialisation and datafication of running. He gave up running with a smartwatch years ago. “I think if I was constantly wanting to tell other people about my runs I would be losing out on the experience of the run itself. If you’re running off-road, then you’re inhabiting your environment and you’re sensing how your step feels and you’re thinking about where your next step is going to go. Then if you want to think about how much effort you’re putting in, you just sort put your foot on the pedal a bit, but it’s all subjectively measured.”’

Most of my running years were definitely analogue ones; I would keep track of my times on various courses, in terms of noting what time I left and what time I returned, and hoped to stay within certain parameters. In my college years, my criterion for being entirely happy with my fitness was being able to run ten miles in less than seventy minutes – with the routes generally not being completely flat – and not feel completely wiped out afterwards. In the last of the three marathons I ran, in London, I know what the official time at the end said, but I was also aware that it had taken me almost ten minutes to get over the starting line, since those were the days before personal transponders.

My very first ‘racing bike’, which I got when I was eleven, had a mechanical speedometer on it, and I spent several years tracking my speed as I rode to and from the nearest towns – in ways that probably did not enhance my safety. This was also true of the computer I had on my commuting bike in London, where I kept an eye on my average speed, and hoped for a series green lights over the five miles (I think my record time set on a homeward journey was at 6am after a night-shift at the BBC). On my road bike, I tended to clock segments – how quickly did it take me to climb Box Hill, or later, the climbs from Highway 1 to the Ridge on Mount Tam, or to the summit of Tam or Diablo?

So I am very aware of the lure of quantification, even though I eventually let it go: I was only ever competing against myself, and at the age when I figured I wouldn’t be getting any faster, I lost interest in that.

These days, both with running and cycling, I am happy to set myself a course and see how I do: can I get over Mount Davidson on a run? How do I feel as I tackle the Headlands? I like to challenge myself still, but I am very glad not to be in thrall to the competitiveness Strava offers. As the quote above suggests, there is being in the moment, and there is being focused on something else, and the former is everything my practice has taught me – both in running and in meditation (and the running and riding came first, of course!)

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