Culture

Tricks of Time

Time hasn’t stopped, it just feels that way. Runners know better, and that knowledge of passing time can help us optimize each day and be present in each hour.

Time has tried to play tricks on us this year. It has folded in on itself, sped up, slowed down, even gone backwards. Mostly, it has stopped, cancelling the future, casting us adrift, convincing us nothing matters, and making past events feel as if they could have happened yesterday or years ago.

As runners, we’re less surprised at this behavior than most, being well versed in time’s tricks. We know how an hour can slip by in a blink during a easy long run, while a minute can stretch to infinity at the end of hard speed workout. We know that the last 30 minutes of a marathon are vastly longer than the first 30. We know that, on any given day, running time can fly or crawl, and that sometimes, when everything goes right, can seem to disappear altogether.

We also know, however, that whatever our perception of time, it never stops. Nothing reveals this truth more than a race. From the moment the gun goes off, the clock ticks relentlessly onward, whether we’re speeding along at goal pace, distractedly drifting off our rhythm, desperately trying to hold on from an earlier indiscretion, or backtracking from a missed turn. It doesn’t pause for potty stops or aid stations; it keeps rolling when we’re on the side of the road massaging out a cramp, tying our shoelaces or lying on a cot in a medical tent. Racing occurs in real time.

And, in that real time, regardless of what it feels like, we know the clock hasn’t stopped this year either. We can’t rely on our tracking apps to correct to “moving time,” ignoring all the minutes we were stopped and averaging only the productive ones. Whatever events didn’t happen, whatever we didn’t get to do, a year has still gone by during the pandemic — 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours. We ate, we slept, we survived. Children grew up, became toddlers, teenagers, adults. We all got a year older. Lots of us got heavier and slower, some of us got fitter, some got injured.

My birthday is this week, a stark reminder of time’s incessant, one-way ride. I’m moving from “mid-50s” to “late-50s,” an age that seemed impossibly old in my 20’s, yet one that will undoubtedly appear enviably young a decade hence. I feel far younger than images of middle-aged men in literature and media, yet I’m old enough to have seen years slip by without appreciation of what opportunities are transient, to recognize that time is precious, pandemic or not.

I know that we don’t know what race will be our last PR — that it becomes clear only years later in hindsight, and every runner has a “what might have been” story. I know that choices will take us down paths that never circle back, and we may later look back and second-guess the road less, or more, traveled. I know that one day we wake up and we’re not 50 anymore, and wonder how we spent so many years thinking youth was endless and masters a small coda after the drama was all wrapped up.

We often forget time rolling on in the context of a lifetime, but races make us focus on the press of time’s passing. Because we’re measuring each tiny tick of the clock, we do everything we can to reduce the risk of wasting even a second. We double-tie our laces, manage our bowel movements, study the course, carry fuel, plan our paces. Can we fill each unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run?

Having a race on the calendar extends some of this focus to the months of a training plan, this awareness of the value of finite, ever-decreasing weeks, days, hours. Training time, being longer, doesn’t have the single, urgent focus of racing time, which changes the measure of the minutes: Success isn’t only counted by how much we can put into each second, but becomes a question of optimizing the passing hours.

Though the span is larger and the trajectories more complex, I’m increasingly aware that we always live in this type of time — relentlessly counting down toward an end point — and the question of each hour isn’t whether it will pass or how it will pass but how effectively we use it. As runners, we’ve learned to parse the mandates of individual hours and days, to flow with the rhythms of intensity and recovery, to steer times’ passage toward growth. Can we do the same with our lives and years?

Looking back on this year of few external markers, the year time seemed to stand still, I have few regrets. I’ve been able to spend much more time with my best friend, trying to develop skills to be a better companion, and learning to value and appreciate the simple pleasures of the present. But I have also, like many in a world without a future we could plan on, lost much of the urgency that has long given me focus and enjoyment, and I’ve arrived at a new year without much of an idea of what I’d like to do with it.

As the world slowly cranks up with possibilities, I want to stay aware that — whether time gets so packed that it flies by with only fleeting notice of its passing breeze, or whether it stands so empty that it seems to stall and stretch over the far horizon — it will continue to pass. I can ignore the passing minutes, wish them away, resent them, waste them or use them, but each of these options is a choice, and I want to be aware that I am making it.

I don’t want to get lost in the future, but I’m looking forward to having one again to restore urgency to the passing present. “These are our few live seasons,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.”