The Thinking Man’s (and Woman’s) Guide to Smart Racing

The Thinking Man’s (and Woman’s) Guide to Smart Racing

Racing means different things to different people. To marathon world record holders Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:39) and Brigid Kosgei (2:14:04), it means earning a (very good) living, and forging a place in athletics history. To those of us who run a bit more slowly, it can mean winning a local race, beating an age group rival, or simply doing the best that you can against the clock, the runners around you, and yourself.

If you do race, the first step to racing better is figuring out what you want to achieve. Do you want to run the fastest time you can? If so, your best strategy is to run as evenly as possible throughout the race, conserving energy so you can finish as strongly as you began and so you don’t “hit the wall” at the end. If your goal is to beat a particular rival, or to win your age group or indeed, the entire race, your strategy will be somewhat different. You will to some extent have to cover the moves of the other runners, so as not to let them get too far ahead.

What strategy you choose will depend also on what sort of runner you are. Do you have a fast finishing kick? Can you move up a gear in the final kilometre? Or are you a one-speed runner who needs to leave your opponents behind before the finish so they can’t kick past you? Former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe had a good finishing kick, but not a great one. Many times during her career she settled for silver or bronze in a major championships over 5000 or 10000 metres.

Paula knew her kick was not great, and if you’ve watched her track races, you will have seen her run bravely and hard from the front in an effort to nullify the kicks of her rivals. Much of the time she didn’t managed to earn gold, but she ran as intelligently as she could have, playing to her main strength, a willingness to endure a whole lot of pain, and to put her opponents through the same. [She had a better record of winning after she moved to the marathon, in which there is more pain on offer!] 

If you have a good kick, your best strategy most of the time will be to conserve as much energy as possible until you are within striking distance of the finish. If you have a main rival, stick to him or her like glue, running as relaxed as possible. Then once you’re within range of the finish, take off at the maximum pace you know you can maintain all the way to the line.

How far away from the finish you start your kick depends on a few factors; my athletics coach at university told me to wait until I could see the whites of the timers’ eyes before launching my kick. I was an 800- and 1500-metres runner, and this meant waiting until the final 50 metres of a race. Psychologically, it’s not easy to wait that long, and I lost a few races thanks to my impatience.

In my 30s I didn’t have the kick I’d had when I was at university, and against some opponents I had to try different tactics. Here’s what I did against one guy: I suspected he wasn’t mentally tough, and although I wasn’t certain I could outkick him in the final 100 metres, I thought I might be able to trick him by kicking in the middle of the race and fooling him into giving up. I tried this in a 1500 metres race on the track, and with exactly 500 metres to go – a long way to kick for home in a middle distance track race – I kicked as though there were only 100 metres remaining. My opponent was forced to decide whether or not I was going to be able to sustain my effort all the way to the finish (impossible for him, and actually, impossible for me!) and whether or not he should try to stay with me.

He decided to let me go, and I quickly built up a 30-metre lead. Then I slowed down again, and I had a 30-metre lead with only 400 metres to go. Great! Although my rival kicked for home with 200 metres to go, I had had time to recover some of my strength and I kicked again, holding him off easily and maintaining the gap.

Most of what I know about racing I learned by trial and error. In other words, I learned to win by studying my losses. You learn from experience if you can finish fast or not. If you have a good kick, use it. Wait, wait, wait, and then sprint for the line. If you don’t have a fearsome kick, you need to push, push, push throughout the race and hope you’ve left your rivals far behind when the finish line comes into view. If you’re somewhere in between, you have to keep your wits about you, observing who your rivals are, and assessing their abilities throughout the race. If you see a chance to build a gap, do it.

When American Billy Mills won the 1964 Olympic 10,000 metres, he recorded a personal best by 46 seconds. Mills felt that to succeed in racing, a runner has to be willing to take risks. Mills said, “The Kenyans risk. Steve Prefontaine risked. I risked – I went through the first half of the Tokyo race just a second off my best 5,000 time.” 

Bill Rodgers, the great American marathon runner, who won the New York City and Boston Marathons four times each, has a similar philosophy: “My whole feeling in terms of racing is that you have to be very bold. You sometimes have to be aggressive and gamble.”

– Roberto

[First published on RUN Singapore, July 2020]

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