Running Without A Watch

AJW's TaproomLast weekend I did something I hadn’t done in over 25 years of running ultras: I ran a race without wearing a watch. The 35th annual Mountain Masochist 50 Mile took place last Saturday and at the last minute I decided to give it a go. Knowing that I was not in shape for any sort of sustained effort, I thought it would be a good time for an experiment. The night before the race, I decided to leave the watch behind to see what it would be like to run 50 miles on feel.

At first, it was difficult. Several times during the first couple miles, my eyes drifted down to my naked wrist and I shook my head in frustration. But as the miles clicked by, I settled into a rhythm and gradually lost track of time. As I climbed and descended the rollers between miles 11 and 18, I found myself deliberately focusing on my breathing and effort level more than I typically do. At that point I began to feel a bit of freedom in being watch-less and just taking what the trail gave me.

As I rolled into Long Mountain and the race’s halfway point, I recalled the story of Mark Richtman who, years ago, ran the Western States 100 without a watch. According to local legend, that year Mark arrived at Michigan Bluff, mile 55 and the psychological halfway point of the race, and asked a volunteer what time it was. When he was told it was 2 p.m., he simply smiled and trotted on. Then, nine hours later, Mark crossed the finish line in an impeccably paced 17:59:59. Channeling my inner Richtman, as I left the aid station I asked a volunteer what time it was. “11:30 sharp,” was the answer. That was the last time I would have a real time check until the finish.

At around the 35-mile mark, the steady drizzle that had been falling for most of the day turned into a cold and drenching rain. This coupled with my labored pace made me long for my watch. Not so much for a sense of time but more for the feeling of comfort that comes with the simple awareness of the passage of time. In that cold gloom, it would have been helpful to have some temporal bearing.

Over the last few miles, as the wonderfully familiar ‘smell of the barn’ settled in and the rain subsided, I savored the simplicity of this run. Crossing the finish line and seeing the ticking clock had a little deeper meaning on this day as there was an element of surprise to it that made me smile. There are so many little joys in this wonderful sport of ours and last Saturday I found yet another one. I found, through the simple act of relinquishing a bit of knowledge, that the fundamental act of running could reveal its wisdom.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Trillium Brewing Company Congress Street IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Trillium Brewing Company in Boston, Massachusetts. I recently got my hands on their flagship IPA, Congress Street IPA, and it was delicious. Similar to many of the ‘New England IPAs’ popping up these days, it is hazy and juicy. Yet, it is also so much more! Slightly bitter, not at all boozy, with a balanced maltiness to counter the fruit, Congress Street is one of the more complex IPAs I’ve had. Well worth a try!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever raced or run intentionally without a watch? What was your reasoning and how did it go for you?
  • What other regiments of your running habit have you taken at least a temporary break from?

There are 14 comments

  1. Run GMD

    Love this, AJW! Nothing says “run your own run” more than freeing yourself from the pressure of time.

    One of the best parts of my watch-less runs is developing a different appreciation for time’s passage. Rather than the sweep of a second hand – aw who am I kidding here – rather than the pulsing of pixels, I tune in to the natural, organic pace of the day (or night) and the rhythms of nature. The course of the sun or the stars in the sky. The changing character of the light. The ebb and flow of my shadow on the ground. The evolution of the weather. My own circadian cycle of energy.

    Those modes of “marking time” feel much more natural, more intuitive, and more satisfying than the relentless march of arbitrary seconds, minutes, hours.

    Congratulations on Mountain Masochist. I was not far from the race course last weekend – that rain was a bear!

      1. Run GMD

        The strange phenomenon of “November Beer Storms” is, perhaps, the best kept secret of the central Virginia Blue Ridge mountains. Without them, Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness would have run dry long ago! (Ha ha.)

  2. Steve

    Great post AJW.

    I love the data I get from tracking runs and races, but deliberately set my default screen on my watch to just showing the current time of day. Do my best never to look at the other screens where the time, pace, heart rate, etc. are all conspiring to take me out of just enjoying my run. Strikes a nice balance, I think.

  3. Adam Hewey

    I gave up the watch years ago. I only race by feel. I found looking at the watch in the last 30 miles of a hundred either made me feel behind and overpush or feel overconfident and slow down.

  4. Xavier

    I use Strava on my phone and keep it tucked away in either short or vest pockets with or without audio notifications, I can choose to not be aware that it’s there during a run except to take pictures if need be. And I don’t want to run without having the ability to call for help if I or anyone else might need it.

    Running without a watch is liberating only because you put yourself in the box to begin with.

  5. Patti

    I cant afford one of those fancy watches. The only watch i use is a stop watch for timing my run repeats. I cant express enough how invigorating it is to go out and purely enjoy why I run in the trails and mountains, how blessed i am to be able to do so when others may not be able to. I am amazed about the distance and speed my heart,lungs, legs can take me on a long run. I purely am in tune with my body propelling me, whats around me, and loving the feeling of “Just running” I never even think to worry about what pace I am doing. Although I do turn the strava app on my phone before I go, and like Xavier mentioned., I tuck it away till the end of my run. I do this to keep a log of how many miles I ran. I am new to ultra running races, but not to trail running, I have always ran in the trails because its pure enjoyment away from civilization. I have only competed in a handful of races. All of which were 50 miles or more. My biggest and most accomplished was the canyons 100k last April, a place where it was completely foreign to me, a race beyond imaginable for me to finish, I placed 50th overall, 8th woman, and 2nd in my age group behind the lady that took a spot on the podium. And this was accomplished without any support of friends, family, or FANCY RUNNING DEVICES. I JUST KEPT ON RUNNING!…thanks Ajw for another great article!

  6. DJ

    I am rather surprised that running without a watch is seen as something unusual!….what a strange old world we now live in…I never wear a watch (running or not) and have no need or wish for one. Running is, after all, a very simple activity that humans have been doing for a long,long time…for most of that time without wearing a watch!

    Thanks for all the great stuff though AJW.

  7. Hamish

    On my big race this year I did something similar to Steve above: I have a “race” setting on my GPS watch that shows heart rate and nothing else, not even the time so I can’t work out how fast (or slow) I’m going. I like to pore over the stats afterwards (for hours) but prefer an inward focus when I’m out on the trails. I was glad to have the watch on the day: in the last part of the race my heart rate skyrocketed and was a key factor in identifying potential heat exhaustion.

  8. chalky


    How did you handle your nutrition? Most of the time I just keep mine on the time of the day during a race so I know when I need to eat. I’d be worried about taking in calories when it’s already too late so I’m curious how you handled that.

  9. Kelvin

    Just ask for the time at wherever and whenever, then try to do the math while running. Not entirely accurate however not entirely flawed too. Gives a better finish a more hopeful prospect.

  10. Franz

    I’m wearing a watch, but I never check it while running, always following my feelings. At the end, the watch just keeps track of my run and gives me interesting infos on what I achieved. And sometimes it’s funny to see that I felt well but made a crappy time, or that I felt crappy, but made a good time.

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