"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lost Art of Racing 2: Tactics

Tactical racing is all about terrain and weather and is defined by having to make a decision between viable options.

On tracks, the only course considerations are (left) turns and wind. Because it is harder to pass on a turn, one possible tactic is to intentionally ease up on the turns and run faster on the straightaways, rather than running evenly. Running in a pack to draft off of other runners and avoid wind is a tactical decision, because of the possibility of getting "boxed in" and not being able to run the pace one chooses.

On roads, there are two more tactical features: right turns and hills. When a course bends to the left and right, the standard procedure is to "cut the tangents," that is, to run on the inside of each turn, crossing the road to do so; this isn't tactical, it's merely running the shortest possible distance. In my first marathon, there were two tactical decisions due to extreme heat and one involved not running the tangents to stay in the shade; the other involved people willing to spray runners with garden hoses - was it worth the risk of chafing and blisters to get the cooling effect of the water?

Many road races are essentially flat with one long difficult hill toward the end. There are two ways to approach the hill; one can either run even pace and run hard up and easy down, or one can run even effort and run easy (or walk) up and run hard down. If one's strategy for the race is to run even pace, one may decide to change strategy and run even effort for that hill. This change in strategy is tactical in nature.

Cross-country races sometimes bring a wealth of tactical decisions, some which are unique to a given course. My favorite course no longer exists, but had two tactical features. The first was near the start, where there was a steep downhill ("kamikaze hill"), followed by a hairpin turn. One wanted to run hard down the hill, but excess speed meant that one might not be able to make the turn at all, plus there were so many runners that one risked collisions. Like water flowing, runners on the outside of the turn moved faster than those on the inside, who had the least distance to travel. I had discovered that there was always a space right next to the tree, because runners were afraid of being forced into it; because of this, I came up with one idea that's become legendary: before the race, I coated the inside of my right arm with vaseline and when I got to that turn, I stuck my arm out around the tree and let centrifugal force slingshot me around the turn (the bark of the tree scraped my arm badly, but the lubrication helped) - other runners gave me a wide berth after that!

The other tactical feature of that course was a low-lying area that tended to have ponding water. The shortest route was through water and mud that frequently sucked a runner's shoes off. Going longer, one had less and less water and eventually one could leap across without getting one's shoes wet. To run all the way around the water hazard was a long detour. We went through this section twice. The first time through, I would watch the runners ahead and make my decision where to run based upon theirs. The second time through, runners were spaced far apart and couldn't do that; because of all the runners having gone through the course once, the area was muddier the second time and one had to choose a different route than the first time.

Trail races add the dimension of terrain. One common decision to make is whether to try to run between rocks and tree roots or to run over the top of them. Another is deciding whether to go over or under a fallen tree or to run around it. I once ran a race where everyone ahead of me had leapt over a fallen tree and I decided to step on top of it; it was so rotted it split beneath me and I nearly fell. Every runner after me was able to step through the break I had made.

I don't have any experience with it, but mountain races can add microclimates. A storm can be very local. It's possible that one may have to choose between trying to outrun a storm, to run in the storm or to wait it out. I've been in races that were determined by outrunning a train that crossed the road.

In 100 mile trail races, there is also night running, which usually is just a matter of having the right equipment at the right place. It can be involved in tactical decisions, however. At the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile, there is a long section of cedar roots near Sonju Lake, followed by a 10 mile section without aid that's steep up and down and technically difficult (Crosby and Manitou gorges). Some of those who planned on breaking 24 hours have suggested that one wants to run hard during the daylight and get through the roots in the day and, because it's impossible to get through the next section during the day and it's hard and slow anyway, to plan on going slowly through Crosby at night. It's an interesting thought, but I'll never have to worry about it, as I'll never do it that fast.

Many decisions that one makes involving terrain involve other runners, but these are positional rather than tactical and will be the subject of the next post in this series.


Psyche said...

Hey Steve, I'm really enjoying the series of posts you're writing on racing. Thanks!

Helen said...

just saw your poll - I voted for you - figured you need the support :)

SteveQ said...

Helen, a few days ago I was ahead and voted for you!

Helen said...

Now you will have to write a post on how friendly competitiors are underneath it all...