The Watchless Challenge

Hey, Salties! It’s been a while — oh, four years or so — but I’m happy to be back, along with Ginkgo, even if temporarily, to share my latest running experiment with you.

In a world where numbers seemingly mean everything – salaries, calories, bills, deadlines – running can give us a break from anxious thoughts, an opportunity to connect with good friends and an outlet for spiritual and mental well-being. However, running can also be a black hole of overwhelming numbers – tempo paces, race paces, weekly mileage, heart rate, VO2 max – you name it! All these numbers can take running from escape to a trap before we know it!

Ginkgo and I have a combined resume of over forty years of running, from middle school to high school, college and beyond. As running friends in real life, we regularly bond over the “good ol’ days” when we didn’t have the fancy GPS watches. We relied on our college coaches to yell out splits on the track and at the spray painted mile markers on the road. We didn’t have the option to obsess over pace; we raced by feel, surrounded by teammates and competitors who pushed us.

As the running boom spiked in recent years, we were sucked into the world of relying heavily on GPS watches. Even when not necessarily training (pregnancy x3, fertility treatments x1, mom guilt x a million, and well, life…) we still wore our watches on most runs, waited for the ever-persistent mile beep, and either received gratification that we were on track or guilt that we were ‘out-of-shape.’

Ginkgo learned a lot when she ran during her pregnancies. She ran according to her body cues. She took off the watch. She ran to feel good and to keep moving. But as soon as she approached those postpartum runs, she immediately found herself plopping on the Old Faithful Garmin to see what pace she could reach.

I have always been a pace junkie, thriving on the feedback of 400m splits or a meticulously measured bike path. But years ago, when marathon training got serious, recovery runs became slower and I learned to run measured loops and run for time rather than distance, GPS watch (and judgment) free. These days, I wear a GPS watch about twice a week (tempos, long runs). Most days, I don’t even wear a “regular” watch. I desperately wish someone would prototype a watch that measures distance but NOT pace, so I can reduce my watch days to tempos only.

While trying to nail down a race strategy for our goal race, we serendipitously came across an article by Coach Jenny Hatfield. The result? We are going WATCHLESS and participating in her TIMELESS CHALLENGE.

Our plan:

  • Stay a few strides behind the 1:30 half marathon pacing group for the first 4-5 miles
  • Pick up our stride and feel an uptick in our effort through mile 8-9
  • By mile 9 or 10, tap into our inner GPS and give it our all. Pick up and race until our bodies and minds are completely exhausted. Race. Don’t Panic. Don’t look at the watches until the end.

Our minds can certainly do funny things when we look down at our watches for approval, so we are simply going to eliminate that variable and get back to basics: running and racing because we love it so. With indestructible mental focus, we will press to the finish line without feedback from the infamous GPS watch “beep.”

How will we know if this is a good race plan for us in the future? Well, we’ve made some modifications to our watches. So, these watches will still sync and split and beep and track and do whatever else these watches do, but we won’t see any of it.

Think we’re crazy? Either way, we’ll be back next week with our race report and we’ll let you know how it went. Have you ever raced ‘Old School’?

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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  1. I raced a half Ironman watchless last year. Not intentionally. I managed to leave the 920XT on the charger in the hotel and didn’t realize it until I was on the bus to the race venue and I had left my Vivoactive in the car because I was racing with the 920 (or so I thought). It was actually very good for me after I accepted that I wasn’t going to have it. I did look at my wrist several times though. This year my PRs have come when wearing the watch but having it show HR and cadence only. But I am such a data junkie…

    1. I am also a data junkie. But that’s why I thought wearing a “modified” watch would be such a great compromise.

      1. Right – you can have the watch for post-race analysis but not get the constant feedback on pace. Foreshadowing – I am very happy with my watchless half though it was less different than I expected.

  2. I am actually planning my first watchless half marathon for this coming Saturday. I turned the pace function off for a 5K over the summer and ended up with a PR. Not sure that is in the cards for this weekend, but I’m curious about the experiment!

  3. Very interesting. For longer races, half and full marathons, I think I need the watch or a good pace group to avoid going out to fast and to stick with the plan. However, for my last 10k I really ran by effort and barely looked at my watch. I have been trying to use only the HR function on my easy/recovery days and for a good share of my LR. I find I need it more early in the training cycle when I am inclined to go too fast on these days. It rather than pace is used to keep me honest.

    I just finished Chicago and having a watch was critical to not going out too hard on a day that was forecast to get warm. But, the GPS was practically useless and I never knew where I was or if the pace was accurate. As it turns out it was wrong and I definitely held back more than I needed to. That being said, it was warm at the end and maybe it was the right strategy.

    Can’t wait to hear your results. I have a half scheduled in late November (assuming recovery and ramp up is on track — no need to force an injury) and I think your strategy of pace group & race plan for the half is pretty sound.

  4. So this post is right up my ally. I’m training for a half in November, and while I still wear the watch to run I don’t look at it till the end of the run. I often think about the runs I had when I never had a garmin watch and how I always ran by feel, the good ole days. I was burned out training for Boston b/c I obsessed over hitting paces instead of just listening to my internal watch. I’ve noticed that since I’m not paying attention to paces and running by feel I am enjoying this training much more. I will be looking forward to reading the follow up to this.