Running Without a Watch

An essay about the benefits of running without a watch.

By on April 23, 2021 | Comments

AJW's TaproomFor the past several years, I have chosen one ultramarathon or ultra-length training run each year to complete without the use of a watch. Typically, I have chosen spring 50k runs for this exercise but last weekend I decided to go watchless at a 50-mile race. The Ouachita 50 Mile in Central Arkansas is one of the oldest ultras in the state. Held almost entirely on the Ouachita Trail, the course is a relatively simple out-and-back with minimal climbing and ample spots for aid stations. In other words, it’s a great race to run watchless.

For me, the purpose of these watch-free runs has been to allow me to focus on my perceived exertion and to connect more directly the signals of my brain with the signals of my body. Sometimes this technique is helpful while at other times it is disconcerting. In this year’s experiment, it turned out very well. In the first several miles of the race, I found myself glancing at my naked wrist every few minutes. Each time I did so, I laughed at myself and slowed down a bit. After about an hour, I stopped looking and just ran. As the field spread out, I found myself running alone and this, combined with having no watch, allowed me to focus inward. It was truly liberating.

In other years during my watchless exercise, I would “cheat” from time to time and ask what time it was at every aid station. This year, for the first half of the race, at least, it didn’t even occur to me to do so. Additionally, as the day wore on I found myself paying much more close attention to my surroundings. I took note of trail-surface changes, listened to the birds and the sound of the creeks beside me, and zoned in on the steadily warming temperature. In short, I found that the lack of a sense of time reawakened other senses in me and caused me to be more present in the experience.

At the turnaround I did become aware of my time as the person at the checkpoint called out, “Runner 38, in at 5:47.” So, at that point I did know my time and I have to admit it got my mind racing. Going into the race I was thinking that a successful day would be a sub-12-hour run. Upon hearing that I had reached halfway in less than six hours and knowing that the return trip did not include the arduous climb up and over Pinnacle Mountain, I understood that the 12-hour time goal might be in reach. I pledged to myself to not ask anyone what time it was and just focus on running by feel.

As the miles clicked by, I realized I was feeling better and better. Some days are like that for me. When I get in that flow zone I have learned over the years that the best thing for me to do is to just ride out that good feeling for as long as I can and hope that I might even be able to make it to the finish without the wheels coming off. Upon reaching the last aid station about four miles from the finish, I knew I had 1.5 miles of smooth trail followed by 2.5 miles of road running which was almost all downhill to the finish. Knowing nothing about my time I just said to myself, “Just run every step from here.”

Over the next 10 minutes I passed four people and I felt, for a fleeting moment, like my former competitive self. When the trail gave way to the pavement I saw, far ahead of me, the familiar gait of veteran Paul Schoenlaub and thought, “What the heck, let’s try to reel in the OG.” Sadly, that was not in the cards as Paul was running too well for me to catch him. And, as I rounded the last turn a couple hundred yards before the finish I encountered a spectator who cheered me in. In a moment of weakness I asked, “Hey, what time is it?” And, when she told me it was 4:55 p.m. I said to myself, “Crap, not only will I finish under 12 hours, I’m gonna’ finish under 11.” From there, I trotted into the finish.

Each time I have endeavored to complete these runs watchless, I have learned something. Something about myself, the sport, and the way my body and mind interact. This year’s experiment, in particular, reminded me that there is power in surrendering to what the day gives you because sometimes it can give you more than you expect. In those times, the running experience can not only be fulfilling and purposeful, it can also be transcendent.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Native Dog Brewing in Camden, Arkansas. Native Dog’s Bat Outta Hell is a delicious American Style Stout brewed in the tradition of many of the great American stouts and bursting with flavors of chocolate and coffee. With an ABV of 6.8% it is a little less boozy than other stouts and remarkably smooth drinking.

Call for Comments 

How often do you run watchless? Leave a comment to share about it!

At the 2021 Ouachita 50 Mile finish line are (l-to-r) Andy Jones-Wilkins, race director Chrissy Ferguson, and Paul Schoenlaub. Photo courtesy of AJW.

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.