Taming Time

A while back a friend who’s quite keen on running a marathon asked me how much time are runners allowed to finish one. “Typically six and a half hours”, I said. The first (and the obvious) thought that struck him was that running 6 hours was quite a challenge. I immediately corrected him on that, “6 hours is not the problem. 42 kms is.”

In a marathon, the glory is in covering the magical distance, and it doesn’t matter if you’re running, jogging, walking or crawling. It’s the formidable distance that’s intimidating, and time is merely a measure of one’s performance.

Till date all my practice runs have been pre-decided distances with no particular time target in mind. The idea is to keep moving until the distance is achieved with no intent to work on speed. If you think of it, this training methodology (if at all you can call it one) has been largely aimless. It’s hard to pin-point if I am any better today than yesterday, and over the last few months whenever I’ve gone out for a run (be it training or a race) I have been regularly revisiting the question — Am I mastering anything at all?

I’ve been following Galloway’s run-walk method for most of my runs. For months, the voice of RunKeeper has prompted me to switch between jogging and walking every minute. Having done this for a while, I had noticed two things. First, my body had started pre-empting when the announcement would blare through my earphones — almost as if a clock ticks inside me counting down 60 secs in each interval. And second, the perception of time changes in a very strange manner over the course of a run. Initially, my body clock is more or less in sync with my phone. I would know when the 60 secs are about to run out and the announcement would soon follow. But as the run goes longer, during the jog intervals my body would start counting the seconds down faster (than my phone), and the exact opposite would happen in the walk interval. It’s as if time slows down whenever I speed up, and it passes faster whenever I slow down. As the body wears out, this phenomenon becomes more apparent — a jog-minute sometimes feels as much as 5 and a walk-minute feels like a handful of seconds — almost as if the body is urging the tiring jog intervals to get shorter, and the comfortable walk intervals to carry on longer. In some ways, the run-walk pacing strategy had brought time back in focus.

On Independence Day, the folks behind the upcoming Millennium City Marathon conducted a 6 hour run at the Thyagaraj Stadium (around a 400m running track) starting in the evening and going into the night. They called it a run, but everything about it sounded like a challenge. Not only were they asking distance runners to run around a small loop (something I intensely dislike), but also unlike a marathon, this was a run where the problem truly was time. Time goals have a quirk that isn’t quite apparent when the duration is short — that one isn’t in control of the pace at which the goal is achieved — and it completely threw me off. Speeding up wouldn’t help, and coming to a dead stop wouldn’t hamper the progress either. Time will flow at its own pace, unaware of my effort or lack thereof. At some level it made me feel weak and helpless.

I signed up for it after thinking for nearly a week — by far the longest I have taken to make up my mind for a run. And when I told my friends, it evoked predictable reactions — mostly WTF, but few put it quite hilariously—

Yaar 6 ghante bhi koi kuch kar sakta hai, siwai sone ke?

The 6 hour run is now done and dusted. It was arguably the most insane mental battle I had knowingly walked into — chasing down time while moving around in circles. My speed was slower than usual but as the event drew to a close there was something immensely satisfying about the run. Unlike Run The Rann, where 10 hours of running felt like nearly a day, this one felt a lot closer to 6 hours.

That night my doubts got rested. I was able to sway my limbs for a long time without losing the sense of time — for a large part of the run seconds felt like seconds, minutes felt like minutes, and hours like hours. Unintentional it may be, but this is perhaps what I’ve been mastering through my runs all this while — controlling the speed of time.