Time Flies: Reflections on Technology and Ultrarunning

An essay about how ultrarunning seems to both stretch and shrink time.

By on March 24, 2021 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by Andy Meisler, a psychologist, runner, part-time Luddite, and lover of forests and mountains from the time he could walk. He often reflects—and occasionally writes—on the healing power of the great outdoors and tries to apply it in his work of helping others. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Submit your work for consideration!]

“Check out my new watch!” exclaimed the Hare. “It records data as fast as I can run, uploads simultaneously to Strava, and streams it live to everyone who follows me! No waiting!” The Tortoise listened attentively. “Hmm, interesting. That’s great, Hare,” replied Tortoise. “But I think I’ll stick to my old device. Anyone who’s following me will just have to wait for my activities to load later. Slow and steady, you know…”

Whether you are a tortoise, a hare, or a mid-packer, and whether you have the latest Suunto or Garmin or instead choose to keep an hourglass in your pocket, the reality is that time really does seem to fly. Which is ironic, because time does not even exist. It is our own invention: The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth revolves around it, and we convert these heavenly movements to days, hours, minutes, and seconds for our own punctilious convenience. Last I checked, celestial events were not moving appreciably faster. Why, then, does time seem to run like it’s competing at Project Carbon X 2? Perhaps technology, though not the only culprit, is partly responsible for this dramatic acceleration of what we view as an all-too-precious commodity.

You could simply Google, “Why does time move so fast?” Boom! You have a thousand answers at your fingertips. By contrast, in the pre-internet era, you would have had to engage in any of several time-consuming strategies. First, ponder it, exercising the white matter. Then, when together with friends or family at some later time, perhaps raise it for discussion. You could even go to a library and consult the writings of scientists and philosophers. Unlike Google, all these strategies take time.The delay between seeking and finding an answer—if one were to be found at all—took much longer.

What about media? Some years ago, if your favorite TV show aired on Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m., and it was only Thursday, you would have to wait five whole days to watch it. Accompanying this time lag was a tremendous sense of anticipation: “I can’t wait till Tuesday!” Indeed, the more we anticipate and desire something, the longer it seems to take to arrive. Now, if you want to watch something, simply pull it up online or, better yet, stream it live. Wait time? Zero.

Finally, and perhaps most obvious, is the ubiquitous handheld device. Before mobile phones, calls were something for which you had to wait, often with bated breath. Remember sitting by the phone on a Friday evening waiting for a call from a friend or romantic interest that would determine your destiny for the evening? Time did not fly; it did the proverbial ultrarunning “death march” to the finish.

Technology has made our lives vastly more efficient. But what is gained in efficiency is lost in our capacity to sit and wait, and to thereby tolerate delay and uncertainty. In the process, our perception of time has been sharply truncated. In contrast, life as we used to know it, by requiring us to wait for things, routinely stretched and expanded our sense of time. Things took “forever!” Geoffrey Chaucer famously observed that “time and tide wait for no one.” He surely could not have imagined that some 600 years later, it is now we who won’t wait for time!

What has any of this got to do with ultrarunning? The trail-and-ultra life expands time. We plan out the year’s calendar, move through training cycles, and work toward target races, harkening back to a bygone era when we looked ahead, planned, strategized, and anticipated. Waiting on a race lottery? Time moves in ultra-slow motion, a masochist’s anticipatory delight.

And, of course, there is the ultramarathon itself. In a normal, non-ultrarunning day, time does fly: The 20 to 30 hours it might take to run a 100-miler pass with little notice. But step out on the trail. Traverse a spectacularly tortuous path over hill and dale. Engage the mountains, and other like-minded souls, along the way. Anticipate the coming aid station, still an inconceivably long 30 minutes ahead. Run through the day and into the night, experiencing the full arc of the earth’s rotation in real time. Embrace a second sunrise. That otherwise feckless and fleeting flurry of hours is transformed into something full and meaningful. And long.

Whether we are Tortoise or Hare—eschewing technology or embracing it—it is helpful to pause and appreciate that slow, steady effort, and the ability to “pace” ourselves, look ahead, and delay gratification, has strong psychological value and reward. The ultra life helps us to enjoy the natural arc of time and revel in some good, old-fashioned anticipation. It stretches our precious sense of time. So, as Neil Young aptly sung, long may you run. And the longer, the better.

Call for Comments

  • Can you talk about a time in life or running when time seemed to fly?
  • And how about when time seemed to slow to a halt?
large turtle

A turtle at Meshomasic State Forest in Connecticut. All photos: Andy Meisler

lake and ridge at sunset

A reservoir and ridgeline seen from West Hartford, Connecticut at sunset.

Guest Writer
Guest Writer is a contributor to iRunFar.com.