Several years ago I ran a 3:00:01 marathon. The kindly old lady keeping track of finishing times felt so sorry that I'd missed breaking the coveted three-hour barrier by half a millimicron that she winked and penciled me in for an "official" 2:59:59. I was elated. Was it cheating? Well, as Socrates once put it: kind of, but not really.
That could never happen in the high-tech '90s. Now the racing numbers you wear on your chest have a bar code on them, and the second you cross the finish line a humorless dweeb with thick glasses points a scanner at you as if you're a container of soggy chicken livers in a supermarket checkout line. In a nanosecond your official time is recorded on the central computer. You think you're going to get a wink and two free seconds out of Univac's grandson? You've got a better chance of talking jive with Elvis on the Internet.
And then there are the snazzy watches. I got one for my birthday. Press one button and you get your miles-per-hour pace. Press another and the watch spits out your last mile time and projected finishing time. Press two buttons at the same time and voilÃ! There's the air temperature, wind speed, and humidity. After my last plodding, dead-meat marathon, I clicked on and read 2:05:56. My best time ever! A full minute better than the world record, in fact. Alas, what I'd numbly done in the haze of my fatigue was to press three buttons at the same time, apparently instructing the timepiece to spit out daylight savings time in Singapore.
Or take digital heart monitors. These little strap-on gadgets record the internal workings of the most private of your corporeal parts. Used to be I'd run, get tired, and stop. Now I run, get tired, and then check the readout of my wrist-mounted gizmo (another birthday gift -- I prefer ties, by the way), whereupon I see my blood pressure is 265/145, qualifying me for a stay in the intensive-care unit of my choice. But I'm not really in cardiac arrest. I've merely been running behind the Fabulous Karen.
Well, at least you can count on peace and quiet during a race. Oh, you might get the random cough or grunt, but generally you're listening to chirping birds or the sound of your own breathing. Wait -- you hear that? Bleeeep . . . bleeeep . . . bleeeep. It's a pace monitor, designed to bleat in sync with your footfalls, and its owner has the volume up to early Rolling Stones Altamont level.
I could do without all this technology. Though I did hear something about software that helps you become an Olympic runner even if you're 52, slow, overweight, and have dandruff. My wife is very interested. She's concerned about my dry scalp. -- by Peter Wallan* * *
Peter Wallan (email@example.com) is editor of the Hockomock Swamp Rat , the journal of New England road racing, based in Sharon, Mass. His birthday is November 5.