The Runner: Unwatched

The title of this post may lead the reader to believe it is about running in the absence of onlookers; that is, the freedom to run without being watched. Such freedom is certainly not insignificant, though I think we more often have need of liberation from internal rather than external judgements. However, I was actually referring to a different kind of watch, and it is this watch (the one to do with time) I want to discuss today.

I love wearing a watch. I don’t remember when I got my first watch or when it became a regular staple of my wardrobe, but it’s rare for me to leave my house without it. Why do I wear a watch? It’s hard to avoid a simple answer: I like knowing what time it is. The ability to carry time with you gives off some illusion of control, not the illusion of controlling time but of being able to measure time and control one’s schedule in accordance with it.

I think it is not uncommon for us to develop an obsession with time. As time is finite, we make every effort to squeeze all we can within its bounds, to drip every last drop of doing into the container of time. And time is always in relation to something; we are too late or too early; we are going fast (ahead of schedule) or we are slow (running behind). My own obsession with time channels itself into a conservation of those precious seconds, into a dread of wasted time. Indeed, if we develop such a fear of wasted time, time is wasted (ironically) while weighed down with fear.

So many judgements can enter in too to this concept of time. We have either done the best that we could with our time, or we have failed, failed to use the time we were given in the most efficient possible manner. But such a philosophy devolves quickly into utilitarianism. With Time as the ultimate arbiter, the judge and harsh master, we are only as good as what we can do and how fast we can do it. What’s more, life becomes constantly fractured. It is divided into segments, it is doled out in small, structured parcels; it is not lived. And it is this we risk, this we sacrifice in our worship of almighty Time: the freedom to live, to experience, to be.

What does all this have to do with running? In my own experiences, it is very relevant. Like I said, though I struggle in my relationship with time, I do like to know what time it is, and it is my custom to always wear a watch. With this in mind, I intended to bring a watch on my runs as well, but not the watch I normally wear. Instead I borrowed a “running watch,” one that was digital, durable and far more suitable for such an activity. And so I wore it. And so, when I ran I checked the time- not all the time, but some of the time. And I certainly checked the time that I started and the time that my run came to an end.

Yet one day (horror upon horrors!), I took off my regular watch and forgot to replace it with the running watch. Alas, this realization came too late. I had already begun running and wasn’t about to suspend my progress (wasted time!) for the sake of a watch. And so I ran, without a watch. And so I ran, unwatched.

It was strange at first. My wrist felt strangely bare without the familiar strap attached around it. But the worst part of all was not that I would not know the time. It’s not as though I run for inordinately long periods of time: I knew the basic range of time I was within. No, the worst part was that I would not know exactly how long I had run for. As a result, I would not be able to deduce how fast I had been running or whether my time improved from my previous run. Strangely, this seemed to lessen the value of the run. It was as though without a marker of progress, it was meaningless.

I ran on. And as I did, a curious thing began to happen. With the knowledge that I couldn’t check the time or measure my progress, I was no longer compelled to care about such things. Without the watch, it was like a weight I had not realized was there was lifted. As I continued running, I had no choice but to run only for the running. Of course, I did still have a choice: I could have speculated over the time or obsessed over other things. But the absence of the watch gave me the opportunity to enter into the experience of running for its intrinsic purpose.

Experiences do not only have value insofar as we can record and display them, or insofar as they lead us to some tangible measure of improvement. And yet, without thinking about it, we often accept this mentality. We value people for how we can record and display our experiences with them, or for what we can personally get out of this interaction. Understood on this level, everything and everyone become objects to be manipulated, just as time is an object we attempt to manipulate to best serve our own ends.

Since that time I forgot to bring my watch, I have consciously chosen not to wear the watch on subsequent runs. In no way do I think it wrong to wear a watch while running, or to wear a watch at all. I still wear a watch most every day. It is not my intention to denigrate time, or its importance in ordering our lives. However, anything when taken too far, when given a place belonging properly to God in the hopes for control, can be destructive. And it is my opinion that time can be used for good or for evil. If we live within time, respecting and working around it, yet being willing to be flexible and not viewing time as the determiner of value, then we use time for good. If, on the other hand, we become such slaves to time that we live in fear and stress, and neglect to notice the beauty of experience, then we are not in harmony with time. We are struggling against time, and this does not bring about good but our own unhappiness. This is really what it means to “waste time.”

There may be times in the future when I run with a watch; there may be times when I train for a race and need to mark my progress. But right now I am thankful for these watchless runs and the valuable lesson they teach me. I am not a slave to time; I am free, and within time I am given many gifts, gifts to enjoy and to experience; gifts to be valued not for their speed, their relation to time or their future documentation, but for the gifts themselves and the beauty in their being.