Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It is what it is

Running is a game of numbers.  We monitor times and paces, often doing calculations while literally on the run (I can run 400m in 1:41 and know near instantly that I'm at 6:44 pace). Many of us also track heart rates, temperatures, wind speeds, humidity, elevation changes, and many other factors, logging them fanatically, and returning to review them regularly, anxiously, so as to answer the unanswerable - exactly how fast am I?

When injured, we attempt to convert our cross-training to running.  How many miles on the bike equal a mile of running?  How many miles of running equal a mile of swimming?   I have a complex formula (on the right) that I use to convert my pool-running into "real running."  However, I ultimately know the truth.  Pool-running ain't land-running, but its own form of exertion.

Put another way, Pete Pfitzinger was once asked what type of run a 2 hour bike ride was worth.  His response?

"It is what it is -- a two hour bike ride."

Yet still we do conversions -- 10 minutes of pool-running equals a mile of land-running.  It's a fiction that gives a metric, and runners are all about metrics and logs and fictions that enable us to get through hard days.

We do similar for races and workouts, trying to deduce equivalencies wherever possible with calculations of the effect on times and paces of different factors, including:
  1. age and gender grading;
  2. body weight;
  3. heat, elevation changes, and wind-speed; and
  4. a plethora of tables, ostensibly for training, that allow one to assess a racing performance at one distance between another.

But at the end of it all, as much as we'd like to think differently, the time we run stands on its own.  If you run a 40:30 10K on a steep uphill course in a headwind, you've run a very very good race.  But you haven't broken 40 for the 10K until you've broken 40 for the 10K.   And you haven't qualified for Boston until you've run the appropriate time over the appropriate length course, no matter what your 10K time is.  It seems obvious, but we so quickly gloss over this truth, lost in the glow of our math.


The men's World Record for the marathon distance stands at 2:03:59; yet this past Monday two men ran 2:03:02 and 2:03:06 at the Boston Marathon, a difficult but net downhill course that happened to have a significant tailwind that day.  The 2:03:02 is NOT a world record -- the Boston course is ineligible since it is a) net downhill and b) point to point (meaning that you can take advantage of a significant tailwind on the right day without battling the corresponding headwind).

In the days since then, there's been a ton of debate on what those times would be worth on a flat course, or without the substantial wind.  There's been discussion on how much assistance the wind gave the elites that ran without crowds to block the wind from them, versus the masses.

I believe that the math is meaningless.  It is what it is -- a 2 hour (and 3 minutes and 2 seconds) run over a course of slightly longer than 26 miles.   It stands alone as a magical, surreal accomplishment.  To try to convert it to another time/place/wind erodes the wonder - the attempt reduces the achievement to a matter of numbers, rather than something so much more.

And in the end, running is about more than the numbers, as much as we sometimes let those numbers define us.  At least it should be.

However, this Saturday, I'll be pool-running for 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds.  Not because that's equal to any sort of run outside.  Just because.


  1. I hate this blog because it's so true! LOL. I love extrapolating from race results or workouts or whatever. I guess what we need to remember is to appreciate the achievements for what they are because they ARE significant. Even if it's not an official PR or record, etc.

  2. Hi there! Love the blog. I have been injured many times and subjected to pool running only exercise requirements as a result, and am so glad to have found a blog about the things I have been thinking for years! There is truly no other site like yours.
    I have a question about your return to land running after exclusively pool. How were your race times straight out of the water, and how was your easy pace affected? Any other posts or info you have noted would be great. Thanks!

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