Monday, October 2, 2017

About Time

In you, my mind, do I measure time.
St. Augustine

Four laps of 12.5 kilometres each make up the Run for the Toad 50K race course. In the three years I have run this event, each lap has looked somehow different to me each time around, so beautiful is the setting.

Like many forest-based trail races, there is a sense of being removed from time and space. Despite the colourful signs marking each kilometre and the thoughtfully placed aid stations, this course has a labyrinthine layout that seems designed to turn you around and around so that you are never really sure where you are. But if you are running trails, knowing where you are is secondary to the experience of moving yourself along the quiet paths. Of listening to the whispering of trees. Of asking your body to carry you, and to feel it respond.

Runners doing the 50K are allowed to leave gear bags at the start/finish so you can drop or add clothes each time around – perfect for a chilly start or a rainy day – and you do not have to carry all your nutrition with you.

This year I turned 65, and maybe because of this milestone I have been aware of time passing more than before. Sometimes I have even felt my age, a new experience for me. Partly because of my injuries last spring, the Toad was my chance to get at least one long race done in 2017.

And so I presented myself at the starting line on a bright cool fall morning, ready to run.

The paths in the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area are unfailingly lovely. There are the expected tree roots – not too many – and lots of rolling terrain, but no long killer hills. There is one short steep climb near the end of each lap; by the last time around it is an old friend.

I was quite enjoying my day when at the end of the second lap I overheard two runners talking about a cut-off time. This was news to me; I had no idea there was a time limit in this race. I had never seen anything on the website; maybe it had been announced at the start. (Note to race organizers: no one ever listens to what the announcer is saying at the starting line).

I asked a volunteer about it and she seemed to think that, yes, there was a seven-hour cut-off. Last year I had finished under that time anyway, so if there was a limit it hadn’t affected me.

At that point I became a bit concerned. I had been ambling along quite happily with no thought of a particular finishing time. Seven hours should be enough time for most people to run 50 kilometres. But I am a slow runner to start with, and this year I had intended to do four nice leisurely laps of the course, playing the senior citizen card and finishing when I felt like it.  

All of a sudden, my plans acquired a new dimension: time. Could I make the cut-off?

Love them or hate them. 
Cut-off times are a feature of many races, for different reasons, mostly valid. After all, the event has to end sometime (and the volunteers have to go home). The most draconian cut-off I know of is at the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, where an official will physically bar a runner from crossing the finish immediately after the final gun has sounded, even if that runner is two feet from the line.

Whether there was a valid time limit in place at Run for the Toad or not, I decided I had better get moving. This turned out to be a great exercise in pacing and pure willpower. I didn’t exactly set fire to the pine needles on the path, but I worked a bit harder and managed to keep such a steady pace that, remarkably, my fourth lap was an even split with my third. On a normal day I would have slowed toward the end as I stiffened up and began to feel lazy.

Whether you are an elite runner or a slowpoke like me, going for a personal best or just trying to get yourself to the finish, there are going to be some physical consequences involved in running 50 kilometres, probably some discomfort. You will get worn out and your muscles will protest the effort. I felt all those things, but the time limit – real or imagined – motivated me to put them aside and push myself just a little harder. 

I never did find out if any time restriction was in effect or if it was all in my head. As it was, I managed to knock a few minutes off last year’s time, so it was a non-issue. The timing system seemed to keep registering runners up to the eight-hour mark.

In the end, as I ran through the woods on my final lap, the ticking clock ceased to matter; only the extra effort did. My negotiation was no longer with time; it was between my mind and my body.

Time as an abstract does not exist; its only significance lies in what we do with it. After all, isn’t being a runner simply the chance to ask something more of ourselves today than we did yesterday? And isn’t that what makes it timeless?