Keeping a watch

Slightly less than twenty years ago, I lost my father-in-law, Ed, to cancer. A quiet unassuming man, he rarely ever raised his voice or drew attention to himself. This is opposed to me, who will probably go down kicking and screaming; all the while railing against some perceived public injustice. When he died, my father-in-law’s funeral procession was, at nearly three city blocks in length, the longest I’ve ever seen for someone in the private sector. He was that sort of man.

I used to joke with my wife, that I couldn’t be sure if her father had ever accepted me. This was based on the fact that any conversation we’d ever had been limited to a few direct sentences. The morning after his passing, I decided to dedicate my run to him. I was changing into my running gear, when I’d thought to myself, “Ed, if you’re here I want you to go with me on this run. I’m going to push the pace, because I want you to experience a taste of what I’ve been privileged to receive through running.” After changing, I’d gone outside and stood in my driveway, scrolling through my watch settings to clear out the run from the previous day. Mission accomplished, I pressed the start button as I was taking my first running step. This synchronized practice, honed over thousands of runs, is a necessary part of every competitive runner’s routine. A second or two, either early or late, diminishes the run’s accuracy; thus compromising the integrity of the splits and finishing time.

After a bit, and out of habit, I glanced down at the watch. Instead of a stopwatch incrementally advancing with each passing second, I was greeted with a line of gibberish and a back light―flashing on and off in unison?! I stopped, and pressed multiple buttons to relieve whichever of them might be stuck. But, my actions were to no avail and the watch kept flashing. I shrugged my shoulders and thought,”Ok Ed, let’s do this thing.” The five mile run was a good solid effort, motivated by the feeling that my father-in-law was indeed with me. When it was over, I had a sensed that my father-in-law was at peace. Was he there with me, that day? I can’t say. But, my watch never worked properly again.

During another year, my wife bought me a Timex® Flix for my birthday. With a flick of the wrist, the back light would come on to illuminating the display. This served to enhance my ability to see my time without having to stop and press a button. Now, at a first pass, the watch would appear to be a boon for an athlete who wants to glance at his time without interrupting his run. Maybe it is for some folks. But, in designing the watch for that particular year, its engineers decided to make some critical changes. While the layout was identical, meaning all buttons retained their previous positions; the manufacturers had decided to swap the functions around. Instead of its previous stop function, the button closest to me on the watch face was now the start button. Meanwhile, the previous start button became the stop button.

For someone who’d used either the Timex® iron-man or triathlon exclusively since it’s introduction, the functionality swap caused a two-fold problem. The first was my fingers quite naturally, after years of being programmed, continued to press the same buttons. This meant that as often as not, I failed to either start the watch or stop the watch before or after a run or race. The second problem was that I am frugal. As mentioned in my book, The Reasons I Run, I tended to view the world from a shortage perspective. And, as a result, I would replace my gear, aside from running shoes of course, only when it became absolutely necessary. In the months following the gift, I persevered with the watch, hoping there would come a day when my fingers would naturally connect with the right buttons on the watch. But, that all changed one evening.

I was remarkably fit that season, and as a result was experiencing some of the best training and racing times of my career. When I was half way through a very fast three miler, late one afternoon, I happened to glance down at my watch to check my split at the halfway point. I’d purposefully not looked at the watch up until this point, because I didn’t want an errant mile split to psychologically interfere with the final two miles. When I looked at the watch, I was horrified to see a line of zero’s staring back at me. As it turned out, I’d reset the watch, but I’d failed to press the start button. Instead, I’d missed and pressed the stop button. It was then that I knew what I had to do. I stopped in my tracks, and calmly unstrapped the watch. Next, I raised my hand over my head, and flung the watch as hard as I could into the pavement. With my problem resolved, I picked up the pieces of the irreparable watch and jogged the remainder of the way back home. And, the following day, I purchased another watch.

Yours in running,

Dennis Gravitt