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 Are You A Numbers Runner?
Submitted by Rickshaw :: Mon Nov 28, 2011 11:44 am

Are you a numbers runner, focused on your distance and pace and always hoping to set a new PR? Or do you run for health, or simple enjoyment, without even carrying a watch? I've observed that these two kinds of runners take markedly different approaches to the sport, and derive satisfaction from different parts of the running experience. I'd wager most people take both approaches to running, depending on their current circumstances, but why? What motivates the numbers-focused runner to take a more laid-back approach, or vice-versa?

The beginning runner is most often a numbers-focused runner. Numbers are a good way of keeping score, and beginners can expect to see rapid improvements and ever-improving scores. This kind of runner probably keeps a running log, detailing every workout and race result. She races relatively frequently, seeking standard distances and flat courses, so that each race result can be compared against the previous one. She's keenly aware of her current PR at each distance, and what pace she'll need to beat that PR in the next race. At the race, a new PR is a victory, and anything else is a failure.

A numbers runner probably also uses a fair amount of technology to aid her running, like a GPS watch or heart rate monitor. She measures the length of her weekly workout routes carefully so she'll know exactly how far she's run.

This is an exciting road to travel, and it can be as addictive as a video game, always pushing to set a new high score. It's a thrill to post ever-better numbers for weekly mileage and race times-- to achieve results for yourself that seemed impossible a few months or years before.

When I first started running regularly, I followed this path. From zero in 2001, I got in shape, ran some shorter races, and then completed my first marathon in the fall of 2002. I continued to run more, and I got faster. In 2004 I logged more than 2000 miles for year, an average of over 50 miles every week! That same year I also set a marathon PR of 3:15. Between 2002 and 2006, I ran seven marathons and countless shorter races, always focused on time and continual improvement.

All numbers runners eventually reach a point where they stop improving. It may take one year or ten, but sooner or later, the numbers runner finds that it takes a tremendous training effort simply to maintain the same level of performance from one race to the next, and backsliding begins. Continual improvement and the ever increasing high score give way to stagnation and frustration.

What happens next depends on the runner. She might:
  • Refocus on age-group relative race performance rather than absolute time
  • Move to running longer or shorter distances than before, to find new challenges
  • Switch to a different sport
  • Give up on numbers, and become a "for fun" runner
  • Drop out of sports completely
My personal experience has followed the same trajectory. After 2007 I've stopped improving, which led to disenchantment and eventually to a drastic reduction in the amount I run. Ever since, I move in cycles of little to no running for several months, followed by an attempt to get back in shape and a few races, before lapsing again into idleness. I briefly took up cycling, but it didn't stick. The idea of completing another marathon still appeals to me, but the reality of the training required and the result it would likely achieve is enough to dissuade me from actually doing it.

Today I'm a "for fun" runner. I don't bring a watch on any of my training runs, and I don't know the distance of any of my training routes more accurately than "about six miles". When I enter races, which isn't often, I tend to seek out trail races or races of uncommon length, so that each race is a singular experience rather than a measurement to be compared with the yardstick of previous events. This approach is only partly successful at keeping me motivated, and I still lapse into periods of inactivity, so it seems something more is still needed.

What motivates you to run? Are you a numbers person, a fun runner, or both? What have you found to help keep your motivation high through the years?

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