Today was one of my favorite running events: the Breakfast on the Track. This event consists of a mile track race run in heats. That is the track part. Pancakes and watermelon are served as well. That is the breakfast part.
I’ve never been much of a miler, although my father set a record for his highschool in that event (without training and wearing baseball spikes-he did it because someone said he wasn’t very fast). Back in high school, I could run a 5 minute mile and in college I could break 5 minutes easily. However, I was much better at running 5Ks, 5 miles (cross country) and 10Ks. When I first moved to Tallahassee, I could still run a sub 5 minute mile. These days, not so much. Fortunately, while age slows a person down, it also grants wisdom.
Watching the mile heats, I realized that all people saw was how well (or poorly) a person happened to be doing in his or her heat. Since blazing speed is no longer a viable option for me, I decided that I’d go for the illusion of speed by entering a heat that I stood a chance of winning rather than one where I’d be dead last.
So, I entered the 5:40-6:00 mile heat. I got boxed in at the start, and ended up running about 200 yards before I could surge around people and take the lead. Fueled by the adrenalin rush of doing something a bit stupid, I took quite a commanding lead. Naturally, that did not last and people were starting to close in on me. Fortunately, while age has robbed me of the speed of the wings of my youth, my pain tolerance and will are doing just fine. I refused to yield and increased my speed for the final lap. One person decided that he was going to go for the win and surged, but was unable to get by me. Victory, at least in my heat, was mine.
Afterward, my friends said that they were sure I was going to fall apart on the last lap, since I had burned up so much in the first lap. This was actually reasonable on their part. For the past few years I’ve had that problem-I just ran out of go juice near the end of races. However, I’m regaining a lot of my old endurance and have been able to use my old strategy. Even in my prime, I was not a speed racer. Rather, I relied on toughness and pain tolerance. Once I got into the lead, I’d not let it go and anyone who tried to get past me was in for a battle.
Interestingly, the battle between runners is not always about speed. Logically, the faster runner should always win, but running is more complex than that. True, the person who gets across the line first wins, but this is not just a matter of being able to have a better top speed than someone else. Racing also involves resource utilization. In racing, one main resource is physical: how much energy do you have in your body? Another resource is will: how much can you endure? Tactical running involves using those resources effectively within the race and trying to get other people to use their resources less efficiently.
For example, when I ran cross country in college, there were people who had better top speeds than I. They could easily beat me on a flat stretch. However, cross country involves terrain that can be used against other runners. One specific terrain feature is the hill. Going up a hill is tough and going down hills can be challenging. I learned quickly that I could use hills to chew up the resources of other runners. If someone was faster than me on the flats, I’d fight them on the hills. Going up the hill, I’d push them so that they were using up their energy and will faster than they desired. Going down the hill, I’d push it as hard as I could, trying to get a lead and demoralize them (I’m weirdly good on downhills). I also found that I had a second, third, and fourth wind: I could push really hard and then recovery very quickly. This helped a great deal against people who recovered slower. Once we got to the flats, their better speed would come into play, but they would have less to work with because of the previous battles. If they made the mistake of running my race, I could usually beat them.
Different runners have different strengths and weaknesses. Racing well requires knowing yourself and how to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. These qualities do tend to change with time, so you need to re-assess regularly. For example, I used to be great at running uphill. Despite the fact that I run on hills everyday and do regular hillwork, I now really suck at running up hills. Fortunately, I’m still wicked on the downhill (no fear of death + strong knees and legs) and can use that to my advantage. As with all of life, it is a matter of doing the best with what you’ve got.