Are All Things Numbers?

When you race you are under oath. You are testifying as to who you are.

— George Sheehan

I’m on the train to Boston for my third Boston Marathon.  If I complete the full 26.2 mile distance, it will be my 16th marathon and my 61st race of marathon distance or longer.  If I give credit to the longer distance covered in ultra-marathons (for example, a 100-mile race would be worth 3.8 marathons), then Boston will be, if successful, my 155th marathon-equivalent.

My goal is 2:57.  If successful, this would be an improvement from 2:59:00 at NYC last fall and 2:58:48 at Boston a year ago.  It would also be my 7th marathon PR and my 13th PR since turning 50.

These numbers don’t matter to anyone but me, but they do matter to me.  They show who I am.  Just like George Sheehan says.

I’ll put in a good effort at Boston, but the more I run, the less I fret about effort, and the more I think closing the gap between goals and reality.  Numbers are important, because they help measure that gap.  Otherwise, we get tempted to imagine closing that gap by creating delusional realities (“yeah, I could run 2:57 — if I wanted to”).

That’s why I like Archimedes, who is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.  He is credited with saying:

All things are numbers

— Archimedes

Archimedes of Syracuse 287 - 212 B.C.
Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620) Source: Wikipedia

Heading into this race, I put especial attention on the taper.  In the past, I’ve gained as much as 5 lbs. during the taper and recovery period (5-6 weeks of reduced training volume).  Evidently it’s hard to change eating habits.

5 lbs may not seem like a lot, but imagine racing with a 5 lb dumbbell.  It’d slow you down.

According to one study, a 5% increase in weight would slow a 150-lb runner by 30 seconds during a 5K.  Extapolating from this, 5 extra lbs could cost me 3 minutes in a marathon, according to calculations based on the Jack Daniels pace calculator.

I don’t weigh myself every day and sometimes not for weeks, but three weeks before Boston, I stepped on the scale, and to my dismay, found my weight was 153.0 lbs, or 3 pounds above ideal race weight.

Then I strained a calf muscle, which required a week’s rest for recovery.  Weekly mileage plummeted from 92 miles to zero.

It was easy to imagine showing up at the starting line with a 5 lb dumbbell worth of extra weight and a three-minute handicap.

To manage the taper, I began weighing myself daily and did a bit of swimming to keep up the training volume.  Like most people, when I’m hungry, it’s hard to say “no,” but to the extent possible I tried to behave.

Seeing the numbers every day helped.  It kept me focused on the goal.  By Saturday morning, when it was time to hop on the train for Boston, I was down to 150.8 pounds.

Graph of author's weight during taper leading to Boston Marathon.  Missing data points due to travel
Graph of author’s weight during taper leading to Boston Marathon. Missing data points due to travel

Thank you Archimedes.

But I feel compelled to add a postscript.

When the Romans invaded Syracuse, they sent a Centurian to capture Archimedes unharmed.  But the great mathematician was so involved in working through a mathematical proof, he refused to get up from his desk.  The Centurian ran out of patience, and that was the end of Archimedes.

Are all things numbers?  What do you think?

Archimedes of Syracuse  Source:
Archimedes of Syracuse Source:
Are All Things Numbers?