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The Problem with Numbers

by Amy L. Marxkors

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I’m not a big numbers person. I’ve often said that were I an architect or an engineer, bridges would fall and buildings would crumble. I mean, I keep my budget on a Word document. (I know. I can hear the collective gasp of horrified finance and accounting majors.) 

Numbers are just so severe. So what if 4 + 4 = 8? I want to know how that 8 makes you feel. The rounded edges—they’re inviting. Less intimidating than, say, the harsh corners of 4, which are steely and grim. And the midsection, two complete circles overlapping continuously and yet only for a moment, like infinity, tipped on its side. 

Numbers are inflexible. They have no feeling—except, perhaps, sanctimony. I feel like they’re always looking down on me, all authoritative and math-y. 

“You silly words person!” they seem to say. “Sure, you want to travel the world and write stories. But good luck getting there when you don’t even know that Train A, which is traveling west at 70 miles-per-hour, won’t meet Train B, which leaves at the same time from a station 260 miles away and is traveling east at 60 miles-per-hour, for two hours.” 

“Oh, yeah?” I say back, immediately more defensive than I should be about questions involving locomotives. “Use the word ‘verisimilitude’ in a sentence.’” 

Yep. 

So for someone who has such a testy and irreverent relationship with numbers, I’m awfully obsessed with them when it comes to running. 

My name is Amy, and I’m a slave to my watch. 

About two months ago, at the very beginning of marathon training, the schedule called for a simple tempo run: 11 miles with 4 miles at half marathon race pace. I had jumped into the training program a bit late, and my legs were still trying to catch up to the heavy miles I had suddenly thrown at them. 

It’s only 4 miles at tempo pace, I told myself. You can do that. 

The distance wasn’t the problem. It was the speed. My legs were tired, and I knew it would be rough. 

Last year you ran a half marathon at this pace, I thought. What if you can’t even maintain it for 4 miles? That would be pathetic. How did you get so out of shape? Why are you so slow? What if you never run fast again? 

And with that motivating pep talk, I was off. 

The first mile was 7 seconds slower than my goal pace—and it was hard. I freaked. 

Oh, my gosh! You’re so slow! You’re never going to be able to hold this pace, much less speed up! 

The next mile was even slower. 

After the third mile, I quit. 

Yep. Numbers. 

Several weeks later, I met Jake at Creve Coeur Park for another tempo run: 11 miles with 5 miles at half marathon race pace. 

“You ready?” Jake asked as we began the tempo portion. 

“Ugh… I guess.” 

“What?” 

“Last time was a disaster,” I said as I launched into the sob story of my 3-mile botched tempo. 

“You have got to stop worrying about the numbers on your watch,” he said. “Let your effort level dictate your pace. Stop looking at your mile splits.” 

“Yeah, but last year…” 

“LISTEN,” he said/yelled/interrupted. “Last year doesn’t matter. It’s not last year. If you’re going to get bent out of shape because of a few seconds on your watch, then don’t run your workouts. They’re not going to do you any good. They’re only going to get into your head and mess with your confidence on race day. “ 

We ran by the boathouse. A few geese crossed the path in front of us. 

“Yeah.” 

“I’m serious,” he continued. “If you’re going to be this hard on yourself and this negative during your workouts, I’d rather you not run any workouts at all.” 

He was right. I knew it. I needed to get my act together. I resolved right then and there—which was basically a few minutes past the geese—that if I couldn’t stop stressing about a few seconds on my watch, or even a lot of seconds on my watch, then I’d simply stop doing workouts. Period. 

Two weeks later, I was in Forest Park, staring at 12 miles with half of those at tempo pace. 

Okay, I reminded myself. Run on effort. Don’t look at your watch. Or call it a day. Got it? 

After a 4-mile warm-up, I picked up the pace, running almost solely on feel. My watch beeped after the first mile. 

I was 7 seconds ahead of pace. 

I looked away from my watch. Mile two. Beep

Six seconds faster. 

Four miles later, I stopped to catch my breath before embarking on a cool down. Only then did I look at my splits. My pace varied a bit with the terrain—my slowest mile was the climb up Skinker hill—but that was to be expected. I had run on effort. And it had worked. 

My most recent tempo run was week. Marathon training is progressing, and the tempo miles are climbing accordingly. I was scheduled to run 12 miles with 7 at half marathon pace. Once more, I headed to Forest Park. 

But this time I was tired. Three separate projects for three separate publications meant I was working long hours and staying up later than usual. It also meant I was spending far too much time in front of my laptop, and I had the locked up hip flexors to prove it. And, to top things off, it was windy, with gusts reaching 30 miles-per-hour. 

Don’t freak out about numbers or don’t run the workout at all, I reminded myself. 

I ran the workout on feel and, not surprisingly, my pace was considerably slower than it had been the week before. Still, I felt good about it. I had run on effort, and I had run hard—in tough conditions, no less. 

They say numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. I mean, here I am, elated about a tempo run that, last month, would have torn me up. 

Now, isn’t that ironic? It doesn’t matter what the number is. It matters how you feel. 

Sorry, math. You should probably just stick to trains.


Amy L. Marxkors

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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