Five ways to liven up easy runs enabled by mobile technology
In a sense, road races for the masses became obsolete about twenty years ago, when GPS watches became available. Suddenly, there was no longer a “need” for non-elite perambulators interested in how fast they could cover America’s streets on foot to pay for the privilege of gathering at inconvenient times to proceed along pothole-riddled courses preselected by others, often in parades including tens of thousands of bodies on mismeasured or mismarked routes. Today, anyone who can afford such a watch and wants to know how fast they can cover a given distance within a tiny margin of error no longer needs to fork over $35 plus gas and food costs to find out what kind of 5K shape he or she is in.
Obviously, the social aspect of road races appeals to most people who participate in them, even those reluctant to admit it. Apart from serving as cheery venues for desultory runner-gab, these settings are excellent conduits for networking with potential training partners, coaches, or fuckbuddies, often in combination when you live in fiery enough places. And when you have put in the work, those goofy medals and ribbons now being waved around by Instagram shufflers and cheaters are a big deal, at least at first, or when you’re a kid, no matter your actual age.
I would never try to talk people out of running the multiple road races I approve of. Not this week, anyway.
Gratuitous swipes framed as introductions aside, those watches allow you to do a lot of things during an otherwise mundane run that pass the time more amusingly, and may even provide you with useful information. I’m obviously not talking about basic functions and analyses, such as, you know, timing your runs, or trying to correlate your heart rate with your speed under constant environmental and topographical conditions. I mean roving games you can play with ease if you have even a modestly sophisticated GPS watch—that is, one that collects not only heart-rate, time, distance, and speed data, but also niceties like your stride rate and the amount of elevation change you experience.
If you are someone who does the same general interlocking sets of runs—say, before or after work if you can get it or care to—and you cover a lot of hilly terrain, then some of the suggestions below might help take your mind off the pleasant, meditative tranquility that often pervades your easy solo journeys.
1. Range guessing: This game works best on level terrain and on a route that includes long stretches of curveless road, e.g., a typical farm-country grid layout.
The idea is to pick a point in the distance that you will reach later in the run (like a speed-limit sign, a house, or a dropped penny) and guess “exactly” how far away it is. Aim for distances that appear to be at least 200 meters away, but no more than a mile in the about-to-be-traversed distance.
I like to guess distances in meters and am happy to be within 10 percent of the real distance. That is, if I choose a point on the road ahead and decide it’s 1,000 meters away, I give myself a present once I get home if the actual distance proves between 900 and 1,000 meters. Otherwise, I meander into the shower, turn the cold water on full blast, and stand there cursing the good Lord above for a solid hour or until my teeth are sore from chattering. I do not allow me to hug myself during this penance.
There is some utility in getting, or being, good at this. For example, it’s helpful to have some idea of how far ahead of you a rival is in a long road race, so that you can estimate accurately not only your deficit but—if you can also do math—also what kind of pace will allow you to catch him if he’s running the pace you think he is, factoring in how much real estate remains for both of ye.
2. Climb (or descent) guessing: Judging gains or losses in vertical distance is tricky for me. It probably starts with the fact that I know Boulder has a 55’ building height limit, and I can see which buildings rise exactly to this invisible ceiling, yet I’m always thinking when I see one, “Come on, that’s seventy fucking feet if it’s a minute.”
I don’t know why this is (maybe it’s a common “problem”) or whether it relates to my lack of talent in a related field: Estimating how far above me the top of that steep hill ahead of me (or maybe sort of beside me if the road has switchbacks) is. Usually, a hilltop that, as I approach the base of the climb, appears to be 300’ higher than me winds up being maybe two-thirds of that.
I learned this on Baptist Road in Canterbury, New Hampshire in the 1980s; on the NCAR Road in Boulder, Colorado a few weeks ago; and on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke, Virginia c. 2002-2004). But because I seem to be off to about the same percentile extent no matter where I am, I now just apply a known conversion factor to whatever my shitty eyes and addled mind conclude, and rolling with that usually gets me within the magical 10-percent-error-or-less acceptability range.
Tip: You can (and should, if you really care) confirm your data using online topographical maps.
3. Cadence games: On your next easy run, settle into a pace about two minutes a mile slower than your 10K pace, focusing on maintaining as crisp a cadence as you would if racing despite your leisurely clip. As I assert without evidence below, this is virtually always a good idea no matter the run or its intent, at least on roads (and treadmills).
Then, try to cover the next half-mile or so (three minutes also works) at a pace 30 minutes slower per mile, all while keeping the same cadence. Don’t look at your watch—just run until you think you’ve covered about a half-mile.
After that stretch ends, speed up to what feels like 30 seconds per mile faster than your original easy pace (that is, try to speed up by a minute per mile), again while holding what feels like a constant tempo. This pace should still feel relatively easy.
After covering another half-mile or so, settle into whatever pace you want, or stop and announce “I fucking quit” to whoever’s around and burn your shoes and Camelbak on the spot. But once you get home, if you reside in one, check the data to see how well you’ve done.
The phantom useful point this time is that not allowing your tempo to deteriorate below (for most people) 180 to 190 per minute even when running slowly is a handy way to preserve some ability to race and ease into faster training, even if you’re not doing anything more for your fitness than you would if doing the graceful-in-quicksand thing most runners have lapsed into either unconsciously (when running with a much slower partner) or consciously (in order to impress people in cars who are looking elsewhere anyway—see below).
When I was getting coaching twenty years ago from Pete Pfitzinger, one of the ideas he impressed upon me most strongly was to avoid extended periods of slow, lazy running. I didn’t hammer my non-marathon-pace long runs, but for someone whose MP was around 5:30 a mile, 7:00 pace over significantly hilly terrain wasn’t by golly lollygagging. This wasn’t because 7:00 pace for 20 miles carries a significant aerobic-gain edge over 7:30 or even 8:00 pace; the considerations here were strictly kinesthetic and neuromuscular.
Train crisply, stride out crisply on race day and just breathe harder.
4. Phone-user counting: Knowing I would be writing this, two days ago, as I jogged westbound through a long crosswalk, I looked to my right at the three vehicles waiting at a red light to cross Baseline Road using the Foothills Parkway southbound—two cars in the straight lanes and one in the left-turn lane. All three motorists appeared to be contemplating their laps, which I’m guessing is an accurate proxy for cell-phone engagement. Notably, they were alone, as we all eventually are.
I have since repeated this rough experiment at other intersections, like a well-disguised, beaming, canine-equipped Karen, and managed to drive the apparent percentage of stopped Boulder motorists driving alone who use cell phones while waiting for red lights to turn green to maybe 50 to 60 percent.
I’m not going to say drivers texting people while stopped is a sign civilization is collapsing; far stronger such signs are everywhere, anyway, and in less than a hundred short years, every fucking one of us will be gone. But, partly as a result, I have zero faith that the number of people also texting on the go is any lower than 20 percent. This is a college town with speed limits of 15 to 20 MPH everywhere save for on arterial streets, so it’s tempting to risk tickets and sudden death. But there are so many joggers and cyclists and stoners and oldsters and apocalyptically clueless megamilfs and unhoused individuals and pseudomenstruators rambling around Boulder’s beleaguered avenues at all hours that no one should ever have their heads up their apps on my streets.
The lesson is to pay attention to what you are doing while using public streets and sidewalks. In those moments, keep your eyes forward and your mind on things besides Facebook status updates and spying on local randos so you can shit snarky gossip about them onto the Web.
5. Strava map art: Find a large field, ideally one with cows in it. Don’t use an actual pasture, because that would be trespassing. Just look for cows but not signage.
Try to complete a loop in the shape of a circle at least 100 meters across. If you don’t have that much space, 90 or 95 meters is fine. Chances are excellent that you’ll do a terrible job even if you keep an eye on your starting point the whole time. You will appear to other people as if you have a slight mental problem while doing this.
Also try to create classics like the penis-and-balls ensemble (the easiest and best; I can even notch the scrotums now), the 1970s-era overgrown mons pubis, and the anarchy symbol (I always wind up with a Mercedes logo for that one). You can do all of this and more in less than an hour if you stay focused and don’t fool around. Do this high as a kite, always.
Upload the vulgar ones that turn out reasonably well to Strava using an account bearing a bullshit name or, more helpfully, the name of someone you know who doesn’t have a Strava account. Give these names that describe something far removed from what anyone viewing this trash will actually see.
For fun, use Google Earth to zoom in on the field(s) you make use of and try to determine if any of the same cows you saw are in the satellite photo. If so, try to ascertain whether any of them were standing in the exact same spot for both the satellite photo and your approach.