What was your time?” This question, asked after you’ve just completed the biggest physical challenge of your life, sticks in the craw like nothing else.
You’re still revelling in the glow of completing what felt like an impossible feat when you started training – whether it be a 10km, half-marathon, marathon or, heaven forfend, ultramarathon. You’re still mentally pinching yourself to check it’s real: “Did I really just do that? Me?”. You’re still riding high on a mighty tsunami of endorphins and pride, one that will buoy up your self-esteem for months to come.
But all anyone ever asks is that pointless, meaningless question. After all, it’s not like they care. I hate to break it to you: it’s wildly unlikely that Brian from the regional sales division is emotionally invested in whether you ran six miles in 1hr 1m or 59m.
It’s why when I saw Parkrun’s decision to scrap speed records from its website, I felt a quiet fist-punch of satisfaction. The free weekly outdoor 2km and 5km running event, held all over the world, has struck a small but palpable blow against the stat-mad exercise culture that dictates that everything must be religiously tracked and compared – and that we must be in constant competition, even when doing a relaxed, fun jog around the local park of a Saturday morning.
The event will also no longer record men who finish in under 17 minutes or women who finish in less than 20, in addition to ditching age grade and category records in a bid to “remove barriers to registration and participation”. Parkrun told the BBC: “What was clear is that there was a disconnect between the performance data displayed so prominently on the site, and our mission to create opportunities for as many people as possible to take part in Parkrun events – especially those who are anxious about activities such as Parkrun, but who potentially have an enormous amount to gain.”
I can only applaud the move to make records less prominent so that nervous newbies aren’t put off. Although, I’ll admit it: in my dream scenario, they’d axe the timings altogether. There’s something about a person frantically looking up their results the second they cross the finish line, eyes ablaze with laser-beam zeal, that provokes in me an uncontrollable urge to do the world’s biggest eye-roll. They exude a palpable desperation to inform you in breathless tones how far they were off their personal best; where they ranked in their gender and age category; and how they thought “the wind slowed down that last split considerably”.
Who is this interesting for? I always wonder. It’s a bit like dreams – no one is ever bothered about anyone else’s. Trust me on this. At some point, I naively assumed people would develop the self-awareness to realise their statistics held all the fascination of drying paint for the rest of the world. Alas, it seems not.
Of course, this trend goes much deeper than Parkrun. For years, I’ve noticed the slow but steady encroachment of the Strava bore. The person who, not content to simply use the tracking app that breaks every jog down into mind-meltingly detailed data, wants to share their learnings. It used to be the preserve of a certain kind of numbers nerd who subscribed to such things, but now they seem ubiquitous.
I’m not a professional athlete and nor am I ever likely to be. What does achieving a PB really mean?
When I told a friend I was training for the London Marathon last year without the tracking accoutrements – no smartwatch, no app – he was aghast. “But… how?” he asked with a blend of pity and awe. Well, in much the same way our forefathers did. I’m pretty sure running existed before the invention of Garmin.
Don’t get me wrong – I love running. I love talking about it enthusiastically with other fans. I love giving friends tips (when asked for) about how they can get started or enjoy it more. But I cannot bear the modern mindset that dictates we must constantly be improving our times and shouting about it from the rooftops.
It’s not just that I find the subject horrendously tedious. To me, it speaks to something deeper – a societal sickness demanding that everything we do in life, including hobbies undertaken for our mental wellbeing or pure pleasure, be “goal-orientated”. The underlying message: our endeavours are pointless unless we are relentlessly progressing. We must be harder, better, faster, stronger – but to what end? I’m not a professional athlete and nor am I ever likely to be. What does achieving a PB really mean? Why should it possibly matter if I never get a second faster than I am right now?
I run for health and fitness, but mainly because it just feels good – in my body, in my brain, in my heart. There’s always a point on every run when I experience a sudden swell of euphoria; it’s like my feet are barely making contact with the ground and I’m flying, flying, flying, grinning uncontrollably and so unflinchingly alive. What was my time, you ask? I couldn’t possibly tell you – and I couldn’t care less.