How Runners Do Math

IMG_2375I have always been good at math. Despite what former Harvard President Larry Summers said about girls not being good at math, I outdid the boys and won my high school’s senior math award.

Like Cady Herron in Mean Girls, I’ve always liked math. Not so much because it’s the same in every country, but rather because I love that feeling of accomplishment when you come up with a solution to a difficult problem. You always know there will be answer, it’s just your job to figure out the best way to solve for it. Granted, I have not taken a math class since my freshman year at Georgetown, which was nothing like the challenge of 12th grade calculus, but I still enjoy channeling my nerd self with a good math problem. 

I’ve found that runners are also really good at playing with numbers. Though we aren’t solving differential equations or trying to find the standard deviation from a complicated set of data, we are trying to make sense of a bunch of numbers in our heads in order to keep us moving and motivated.

Sometimes we are calculating our pace. We estimate how fast we need to average per mile in order to secure a PR. We set paces for ourselves in 5k, 10k, or a half marathon and use that to determine how fast we should run in a track, tempo, or long run workout. Sometimes we just use math to figure out how many miles we can squeeze in if we only have X amount of minutes to run.

Other times, like this past Saturday, the math is more simple, but still important. The beginning of the SLR has us running 12 miles in temperatures hovering around five degrees (!!!). With only three weeks to go until RNR DC, I don’t have any excuses not to complete a long run , and while I certainly could have run in Sunday’s balmy 40+ degree weather, the thought of a solo long run didn’t entertain me. So I went out to meet the crew, and as soon as my legs started darting icy patches and snow mounds, my brain started doing math problems.

Twelve miles separated me from a hot breakfast and an even hotter shower. As I’ve come to do on many of my runs I break it down into intervals to to keep my mind focused on something other than when I will be off my feet. Three miles completed meant a quarter of the run done. Four miles, a third of the way there. Six miles, a near 10k, meant halfway to the finish. It’s easy math, but it makes a difference compared to thinking “three done, but wait that still means nine more to go!”

Then sometimes I think about it in time; if I’m averaging a 9:00 min/mile for my long run, being halfway through on a 12-mile loop means only about 54 minutes until completion. That may still seem like a lot, but for a girl who ran her first half marathon in 1:58, it makes me realize how much my pace has changed and how I can now do my 12-13 mile long runs faster than I ran my first big race.

During my marathon, the math wasn’t as fun to do, mostly due to distance. I remember seeing signs at the halfway point telling me that I had just run 13.1 miles. That meant I had two hours of running already behind me, but I still had another two to go and a double digit set of miles still to run. Yet, when it came to mile 20, I remember what someone had said to me early in my training: “A marathon is just a 20-miler, plus a 10k.” I had survived my 20-miler, and I knew I could run 10ks, so those last 6ish miles on the marathon were all about pushing to the finish. When I came to miles 22, 23, 24, it was almost like, “What’s another, four, three, or two miles when you have already posted 20+?”

By the end of Saturday’s run, a bunch of numbers ran through my head: 12 miles completed in 1:46 minutes at an average pace of 8:56 min/miles. The feel-like temperature when I woke up was two degrees, and when I finished it was closer to about 15, and snowing. When I finally made it home to escape from the cold, the only math I wanted to do was figure out the ratios to make my morning reward: a bowl of oatmeal.


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