The Silliness of the Long Distance Runner’s Log

A paen for a thousand little tabs

I wrote down my first ever training run on March 3, 2009. I had been running by then, but was committing the now unforgivable sin of not capturing every possible metric and incorporating it into an elephantine Excel spreadsheet. I had run a 5K and then an 8K successfully, but all the miles leading up to them were lost to memory. Back then running was new and primal – it simply meant putting on running shoes and wandering around the neighborhood or stomping on a treadmill at a brisk pace until I felt out of breath. The infamous pheidippides insectus had not yet bitten me, and I was not yet consumed by that perennial drive to run forever, a malady partially soothed by bibs, safety pins and paper cups.

That was six years ago. Since then, a lot has happened, and I won’t bore anyone with actual numbers. Those aren’t interesting. What fascinates me is far sillier.

I would guess that the vast majority of us, the diehard runners who also write about their experiences, must have a running log of sorts. We plan meticulously for races, train according to experience or with the advice of experts, and benchmark our own personal bests when looking ahead to the next challenge. I can imagine that it would be pretty difficult to do any of this without relying on historical data. Memory serves me well for many things, like my individual PRs, when I ran them and who was with me, but I can’t keep the minutiae of six years’ worth of training straight without forgetting algebra, the lyrics to “Semi-Charmed Life” or the box office grosses of every movie made in the 90s.

A snapshot of my 2009 Training Program

A snapshot of my 2009 Training Program

Yes, the running log is crucial. It is responsible for that frustrating, but regrettably true apothegm, Splits or it didn’t happen. I could be completely dressed and ready to go, but if my Garmin doesn’t turn on, then we’re starting in an hour. It’s also why I tend to stay away from fun runs. No chip time, no run time.

As paramount as my running log is, it is also constantly changing.  My program from 2009 was blocky and lacked finesse, but it provided a suitable foundation. The following year, I prettied it up and added weather conditions to each run, along with limited split information. By 2011, it began to really take shape, with every single split added and a template for future weeks standardized. Future years saw minor improvements. I began tracking the mileage accrued on each pair of shoes, incorporated monthly goals, and began highlighting my hard efforts to make sure I wouldn’t overdo it.

Although it may sound like I’m shackled to it, bound by its prescribed runs, I still love it. Maybe it’s a kind of spreadsheet Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help but love how it has changed over the years. It’s a veritable representation of my development as a runner. My successes, mistakes and adventurous forays into unknown territory are all documented, color-coded and sorted. I shudder to think at what I would do if I lost it – which is why I have it saved pretty much everywhere – because I hold it in the same regard as my personal journal or my trove of pictures from college.

A screenshot of my 2010 Training Program

A screenshot of my 2010 Training Program

All of this, of course, is absolutely ridiculous.  Running is running, regardless of whether it’s inked anywhere.  But for many of us, we have to admit, there’s something special about watching those numbers add up.  And where those numbers go is different for each person.

I have the usual tabs that you would expect: this year’s training program; a list of all my races, past and future, sorted by distance; the same list but sorted by date; and a calendar with every race I might someday race, no matter how distant, expensive or backbreaking.

Then there are those that might sound useful, but not vital to carry out a successful training plan. These include a list of every half marathon I’ve ever run, broken down by each individual mile; a similar breakdown for the marathon but with 5k splits; monthly stats that include how many miles I ran on a treadmill; and a list of my PR progression across distances over the years.

I’m pretty sure your average running nerd will have several of the above tabs in their log, in some shape or fashion. But again, what really interest me are the silliest tabs. The ones that I look at and wonder, why would I ever need this?  Why would anyone? And yet, I still keep and add to them because there’s no reason not to.

For example, I have a tab for the 10-day forecast for the 2011 Chicago Marathon, with the updated numbers as the date approached; a tab for the most popular races in the United States and how many people ran them between 2011 and 2013; one for just the Shamrock Shuffle, a race I’ve run seven times, and its five mile splits; a list of people and the races I’ve run with them (with Otter commanding an indomitable lead); and a matrix of unrealistically fast marathon times and their corresponding halves, based on a variable negative split.

A screenshot of my 2015 Training Program

A screenshot of my 2015 Training Program

Sure, they might serve incredibly specific purposes and have likely become obsolete, but these are the tabs that make my log mine. It’s already mind-blowing that for every runner there is a singularly unique log that he or she has lovingly tailored to meet their own demands. But each one of those probably has a similar set of needless tabs that separates it from everyone else and therein lies the true personality of each runner.

It might be a bit harsh to say that the oddities are what truly make us stand out. There are so many other qualities worth admiring or at least observing – tenacity, discipline and resilience come to mind. But as people, we’re drawn to the odd, the uncanny, the strange and ridiculous, for better or worse. The runner in a Darth Vader costume will raise more eyebrows than those around him; the brave speedster who runs in a singlet in freezing temperatures will certainly earn many admirers; and the lunatic who runs hundreds of miles across a desert will draw our attention.

And so I will continue to jot down my times on the ol’ log, each effortless keystroke representing a mile run. As the miles become data, they will continue spreading to the numerous tabs that make up the perennial work-in-progress, telling a story as ridiculous as the sport they represent.

Do you have an absurd running log? Are you completely beholden to it or do you use it more as a guide? What is your “silliest” tab or the weirdest race metric that you track? Do you not have a log and rely completely on memory or feel? Are you a wizard?

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

21 Responses to The Silliness of the Long Distance Runner’s Log

  1. Laszlo says:

    Hi, my name is Laszlo and I am “exceloholic”… 🙂 Thank you Dan for “coming forward”. I had a feeling I am not the only obsessed one around!
    “if my Garmin doesn’t turn on, then we’re starting in an hour” sums it up just about right my approach. And I can spend so much time browsing through my notes, looking for trends, preparing plans for upcoming races, etc.
    Awesome writing in general, but since I can relate to it so much, this one I enjoyed reading even more than your other posts.
    Keep on logging! 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Laszlo, it appears, based on the feedback I’ve gotten below, that you and I are an oddity. It seems like we’re kindred spirits in tracking every mile. I read your recent post on your 4,000th mile, which is a milestone you would only be able to celebrate if you were meticulously tracking every exercise. Here I thought I would get a bevy of responses like yours, but I was wrong. This is truly surprising. Glad to know I’m not completely alone though 🙂

  2. trexrunner says:

    I definitely don’t have anything like this. I have at times used a training log book (usually the same one that Runner’s World makes), and that’s about as fancy as I get – I record mileage, sometimes pace (although I’m currently training without a Garmin – I KNOW), maybe weather and how I felt. For a long time, I would just write my mileage for the day on a wall calendar. I’m hard enough on myself about running, so I honestly feel like a huge log like that would only make it worse. It’s been really good for me to run without my Garmin and just enjoy the experience, but I can definitely understand why you would keep (most of) this data. That’s serious dedication!

    • Dan says:

      The responses I’ve gotten to this post have been truly surprising. It’s kind of like asking a group of people a question you think is universal (“Guys, doesn’t it just suck when blood comes out your ears?”) and being met with concerned stares. It’s also enlightening that what would stress you out about running (keeping a log) is precisely what motivates me. If I skip out on a run, I’ll see it reflected in my numbers. So in a way, it keeps me honest. Thanks for the input!

  3. Laura says:

    Your log is, no joke, so much more in-depth than my masters’ thesis. I personally consider an occasional run without my devices (usually by necessity, not choice) to be its own type of training, like hill runs or intervals. But your log also reminds me of my dad’s list of every book and album he’s every purchased, which goes back decades– it’s interesting to think about which things are constants in our lives and what types of data we chose to capture.

    • Dan says:

      I love to capture data — songs I’ve listened to, books I’ve read, miles I’ve run — obsessively so sometimes. Why I didn’t study statistics or pursue a career in Big Data is a mystery I’d care not to solve because I might discover I’ve been missing out on my true calling. What’s funny is that all of these metrics don’t mean anything to anyone but me. I suppose that’s life though right?

  4. I never thought of logging my runs in an Excel sheet. My dad gave me an old fashioned run logbook back when I first got started and I’ve been ordering them through snail mail ever since. I write everything out by hand. You can tell when I’m really tired (or cold) because my handwriting is hard to read. My logs started off as yours, very detailed and precisely thought out. Nowadays, I run more for fun and my descriptions show that. “Felt good”, “Tired”, “Couldn’t stop thinking about pizza”… those are the types of comments I write down most.

    • Dan says:

      This comment surprised me at first, and then I remembered who was talking. You’re all about the experience, the rush, the thrill, the base primal urge to run … so it would make sense that you’d go for the stripped down approach (though part of me imagines you in a log cabin with a leather-bound log and a pen you whittled yourself). A lot of my comments would be about wanting an orange. I really, really want oranges while I run.

      Thanks for the insight, Jeff.

  5. Mike says:

    I wish I could say that a) I’m a wizard or b) I have clever tabs like “# of clowns sighted” or “Hateful glares exchanged with cyclists riding on sidewalk”. But alas, my running log follows the strict KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. After several years of practice, I know that’s the only way to ensure I’ll stay faithful to it each and every day. Date, Distance, Workout/Course, Time/Pace (if known), Shoe worn (w/ cumulative miles) and Comments. That’s it. I know myself too well – too many details and I’d start to skip a day here or there, followed by blowing off whole weeks followed by an indignant declaration of “Who needs to keep track of this nonsense anyway? I refuse to be a prisoner to numbers!”

    I generally only wear my Garmin when my workout qualifies as “speed work,” “tempo” or “LSD”… I don’t bother on recovery days unless I’m in an unfamiliar place where I can’t be sure how far I’ll be running. At home here in MdR I know it’s exactly two miles to the beach, then along the beach path as far as I want to go with quarter-mile markers along its length. It’s the perfect arrangement for my KISS philosophy. What’s important is the number of miles run and the pace at which I run the three workouts above.

    Admittedly I’m not yet at the point where simply running for fun can sustain my interest, and until I reach that point (and undoubtedly I will) my running log will continue to hold me accountable as a record of promises made and kept (or broken).

    That said, I’d sooner commit my entire running log to memory than have the lyrics to “Semi-Charmed Life” bouncing around in my head. Every brain has a glitch, and I think we may have found yours…

    • Dan says:

      Et tu, Miké? This was a bucket of cold water. I really thought you’d be the type of person to meticulously write everything down. Especially since I imagine you’ve done tons of lab work, where everything has to be precisely measured down to the thousandth decimal. Surely – SURELY – you were among those of us who have every possible stat tracked and graphed, ready for analysis.

      But I suppose there’s always plenty of room for surprise with bloggers. Though we may learn a lot about each other with these posts, they’re just a sliver of our personalities, insightful though they may be.

      I consider you and Jeff to be very competitive runners, so your approach to stat-tracking was eye-opening. Though I’m sure even when that day comes, when I run for the fun of it, I’ll still want to know how many miles I’ve run. How can I celebrate big milestones without all those stats?

      “I want something else … to get me through this … interval-kind of run … ba-by, ba-by”

      • Mike says:

        Ha ha, sorry to disappoint… luckily a bucket of cold water feels like a Hawaiian waterfall to a man emerging from the Chicago winter!

        Admittedly, collecting reams of data in the lab energizes me, largely because I don’t know which of those data may ultimately prove the most important. Running, though, is different – the sport is nothing if not repetitive, and I tend to think the most important variables are clear (though if I do encounter a new one, I’ll document it religiously until I’m satisfied I understand it).

        Research is all about reproducibility under similar, carefully regulated conditions, but that’s not the case with running – the body is constantly changing and adapting, and while it’s great that my mile splits this week may each be 5-10 sec faster than three months ago, for me there’s not much actionable information there. The +/- from one “experiment” to the next is too great, with too many variables in motion like the gears of a transmission. I’ll always aim to run as well as I can, and whether that’s better or worse than this time last year or next year, well… that’s what races are for!

        In science ALL the data matter, because ideally they’ll still be comparable years from now. In science n = 1 is little more than a beginning… but in our own semi-charmed running life, it’s all we’ve got.

  6. I wish I could keep records as detailed as yours, and I try sometimes, but they get lost in stretches and hurrying to get to the next place and the “I’ll write it down tomorrow because I certainly won’t forget”, but I always forget and then the details become fuzzy, so I just write down how many miles I run, bike, swim. I am over a month behind, but thanks to my Garmin data, I can easily scroll backwards and capture what I did. No, not a wizard here 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, I know the feeling. There was a time last year when, for various reasons, I didn’t have access to my running log. During that time period, immediately after every run, I would open a note on my phone and jot down every stat I could. Months later, it was just a matter of adding them to the main document … but yeah, I obsess about it more than I should. But as Mike wrote above, every brain has its glitch. This might just be mine 🙂

      Thanks for chiming in!

  7. John says:

    I’m late to the party (and the running), but I’m hung up on the Nike + app, in it’s various permutations. It’s not an ‘official’ run without actual run data – not entering the block of miles later, but the splits, increase/decrease in pace, the unwinding of the miles on the screen in the playback, and the occasional electronic ‘attaboy’. The Nike+ also keeps me motivated to chase down and catch other running buddies from around the world. It’s a slight obsession with the data compared to you, but it’s a driver for me (2512 miles so far).

    • Dan says:

      So for you there’s an additional Pavlovian response happening. My watch doesn’t beep and I don’t listen to music, so I don’t have many biological feedback mechanisms at play. But I’m pretty sure if you were to measure my serotonin levels, they’d be just as high when I’m running the miles as when I’m logging them later on. You’re almost at 100 marathons (2,620 miles)!

  8. MedalSlut says:

    Oh my god, I feel like you deserve some kind of crown made of of excel printouts. This is definitely another level of training logs. While I get excited about graphs and spreadsheets and total mileage and overall pace, the “minutiae” is no lie here. Notes on the weather and breathing? Do you colour code it so you can remember what model/shoe you were wearing? Or perhaps the weight of every individual piece of kit that you can type into some kind of logarithm (I don’t even know if I’m using the word logarithm in the right context) to calculate just how many hundredths of a second you could shave off per mile if you opted to run topless?? Do you also take notes on how many minutes during your run are spent on long grass, muddy terrain, tarmac, wooden bridge, trampoline, dirt track so you can analyze which surface you are most efficient on? What are you holding back?

    100% with you on the whole “If the Garmin ain’t on, nobody leaves the couch” sentiment, however. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Haha, these are all excellent suggestions and sadly some of them I do track in one way or another. I don’t keep track of my kits or clothes, but I do have color-coded columns at the end of every run where I designate which shoes I wore. I don’t write down the surface of every run, but I do differentiate between road and trail … but now you’ve got me thinking that I need to delve even deeper. Crushed limestone / paved asphalt / loose dirt / concrete / wet sand? THESE NEED TO BE SOMEWHERE.

      (And the word you were looking for was algorithm.)

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