The Watchless Challenge: Race Report

This race day started like every other race day that had come before. Waking up before the alarm. Leaving the house ahead of schedule. Waiting in line for the port-o-pots. Checking gear. Chatting and laughing with friends. Walking the dimly lit streets to get to the corrals. It was all very familiar stuff for Ginkgo and me. We were both very relaxed. It felt just like the beginning of every training run we had done.

When Ginkgo and I met up, she divulged that she had completely forgotten her GPS watch. She had charged it in the kitchen to avoid waking up the rest of her family and she left the house without it. We planned to run with our watches covered, but this was another sign that the watchless challenge was meant to be. We had one watch between the two of us.

When we arrived at the corrals, we started to see half marathon and full marathon pace group signs with red and white balloons bouncing in the breeze. 1:45, 1:40, 3:15, 3:10, 3:05… … … Where was 1:30? Where was 3:00? We eventually found a runner in flag print shorts, holding a small sign that read “3:00 unofficial.” We decided that we would follow him. We traced him up until about the national anthem. At this point, he ditched his sign. I thought to myself, “That’s okay. He has those unique flag shorts on, so we’ll be able to find him.” As it turns out, flag apparel is rather common race-day attire and it is very hard to find someone in a sea of 12,000 runners, when all you remember is the shorts they are wearing. “We’re adaptable,” I said to Gingko. “We’ll be fine.” She agreed.

We started several rows back from the 3:05 pace group and kept our eyes on their balloons. At about the 1 mile mark, we caught up to them and kept moving. Initial splits (viewed post-race): 6:48, 6:48, 6:43, 6:56, 6:55. We were faster than planned through the first 3 miles, but I’m not sure having a watch would have changed that. I don’t think anything good would have come out of seeing 6:43 at mile 3, since we naturally settled into 1:30 pace for the next 2 miles. We gelled at mile 4.5 and joked about the deliciousness of the not quite liquid, not quite solid substances we were choking down. We laughed at one the signs that read “shortcut” with an arrow. I was feeling some lactic acid building up in my legs, but remained in denial.

Photo credit: Ellen Winkler

Having chased time goals with “unofficial” groups in the past, we started to pick out the groups of runners that were forming. We tucked in behind a pair of men who asked us which race we were running and what our time goal was. We shared that we were chasing 1:30. One of the men responded that he was pacing his friend to a 3:00 marathon. We asked if we could tag along and, as is usually the case mid-race, they were happy to have us. I stayed with Ginkgo and the pair for another mile (6:48) and midway through mile 7, I started to get gapped. I yelled to Gingko to “go with them!” and she did. We ran the second half of the race apart, but still pressing.

Ginkgo kept chasing that 1:30 dude with his bright orange shorts, knowing that the big pack of runners around him was legit. She didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t clicking along next to her, but figured she’d keep pushing the pace and hope that I’d stride up to her and help her out once she felt the fatigue. After all, that’s what worked in all of our tempo runs. When I had an off day, Gingko carried me through, and vice versa; that’s the beauty of it all.

Photo credit: Holly Varian

Ginkgo felt strong through mile 9, gelled again at mile 10 and kept rolling. But around mile 10.5, she felt that familiar dizzy, zombie feeling. Being a cold weather fan, she chalked this up to the high humidity (it was 70 degrees and 90% humidity at the start). Not sure of her splits (remember, she legit forgot her watch), her official race results showed an average pace from 15k to finish being 7:24 with an overall finish of 1:32:08. Not her best time, not her worst.

As for me, I cannot say for sure what happened in that 7th mile, but I was struggling. “Are we going uphill?” I thought. Runners started flying past me. I was in a rough patch, for sure. The kind of rough patch that makes you cringe when it is time to look at your mile split. Fortunately for me, splits would have to wait! (Mile 7= 7:25. Ouch!) The next few miles I focused on sticking with runners as they passed me. I would tuck in behind them and match pace for anywhere from 10 seconds to a few minutes. When the 3:05 group passed me (mile 8-10?), I managed to stay with them for about a half mile. Mile 8, 9 and 10: 7:13, 7:14, 7:26. And then we turned onto High St. I don’t know for certain when in the race this happens, but I do know: it always feels long. I called up all my pre-race mantras and buzzwords. “Resist the urge to panic.” “Keep pressing.” “Sustain.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was no longer matching pace with runners as they passed me. I was focused on pressing forward. Focused on getting to that left turn. Mile 11 and 12: 8:02. 8:12.

I managed to rally in the final mile, which was mostly downhill and I let the downhill pull me in. After the left turn, I heard another running buddy yell, “THREE MINUTES! JUST THREE MORE MINUTES!” I can push for three more minutes. I pushed hard. I just wanted to be done.

I finally crossed the line, stopped my watch, and ripped the tape off. I must have looked like a new brand of “crazy runner” to the volunteers in the chute. 1:35:03. I cringed at the “03” for a second before remembering that I fought for every step. I found Gingko, my hubby, and the runner with the bright orange shorts. We commiserated at the humid conditions and exchanged encouraging words. There are plenty of things I love about running, but the finishing chute camaraderie is certainly at the top of the list.

So what if I had looked at my splits during the race?

Mile 1: I might have slowed down after running the first mile in 6:48. I might not have. 6:48 wasn’t far enough into the “too fast zone” for me.

Mile 3: I probably would have panicked after a 6:43 first mile. Mid-race panic never has a good outcome.

Mile 7: If I had looked down at a 7:25 split after mile 7, after the gap, I never would have rallied to run miles 8 and 9 in 7:13 and 7:14. The judgment would have come pouring in. I am so glad I did not have a watch for this! Mile 7 would have been the beginning of the end. Instead, I was able to hold on until miles 11-12.

Mile 11-12: I was pushing, but my legs weren’t responding. It’s a familiar late race scenario and I don’t think having splits would have changed these miles for me. The uphill was a small factor.

If I had a do-over, would I use my watch?

Not a chance. I am thrilled that I was adaptable (where was that 1:30 pacer group?) and that I was able to push through adversity and tap into internal (vs. external) feedback. This challenge was good for me for this race. It was the perfect race plan to cap off this training cycle.

What were Ginkgo’s takeaways?

If she had worn a watch, she might have slowed down. She might not have slowed down. Either way, she doesn’t think it would have made a difference in the end result. Plus, it was so liberating to race without a watch. It was an incredible experience and at this point in her life, less (numbers) is more.

I'm a pediatric physical therapist by day. Running mostly early am miles as I balance life as the mom of a toddler. With PR days in the past, my primary running goal is to be a lifelong runner. With 20+ years behind me, I still love the sport and I am truly grateful for every day I get to run.

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