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

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lost Art of Racing 3: Positional Racing and the Masterpiece

Positional racing is all about the competition, sacrificing time for place. Rather than go into details (I need to keep some secrets), I think it best to explain by way of example.

More than 20 years ago, I entered a low-key series of races in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Looking at race results from the previous year, I doubted I could win any of the races, but felt I could do well enough in each to win the series. The races ranged from 1 mile to 10 miles, from April until November; it would mean changing how I trained month by month, hoping to be in shape and uninjured throughout.

The first race was a 5K, which was my specialty. I had the idea of doing it extremely fast, with the hope that the others in the series would just give up after one race. There was no way of knowing ahead of time who was in the series and who was just doing this one race. That morning, there was a tremendous wind, 30-35 mph., at our backs for the first half and in our faces for the second. To make full use of the wind, I decided I needed to be out front quickly, so the crowd didn't act as a windbreak. Anyone who was still with me at the 1 mile mark and not gasping for breath I knew would beat me handily, but I would try to use them to shield me from the headwind on the return. Surprisingly, five or six runners went out as fast as I did and they ran as a pack, taking turns leading; this was not good. They passed me early and I could not hang in the back of the pack, but had to run the entire race by myself. At the 2 mile mark, I looked back and saw only one runner who was close - the race would now be to hold him off until the end. He caught me and then we were both passed by another guy who came out of nowhere, so I turned to the one with me and said, "Let's get him!" and we took off as hard as we could, gaining as the finish came in sight. We passed the third guy, but he kept with us and it was a three man race. With 150 meters to go, I put in a devastating kick and edge them both at the finish line. After the race, I found out that these two, John Triviski and Scott Purrington, were in the series and no one ahead of us was; it was the three of us - John, the up-and-comer on the Club Sota team, who specialized in long distances; Scott, the beginner, but son of local legend Norm Purrington; me, the short distance track and cross-country specialist.

The second race was a 10K and John told me that this was one of his goal races. To beat him, I'd have to train a lot harder than I was. I ramped up my training and got injured in the process. I'd have to forfeit this race and hope to make it up later in the series. On race day, I just tried to stay about 50 yards behind Triviski and watch to see how he handled hills, wind, other runners. I couldn't stay with him very long, but I did see that he tended to follow other runners, rather than run the shortest route. Half a mile from the finish, I saw Purrington was ahead of me (I thought he was behind; I wasn't focused on him) and again I had to race him for the finish, just beating him by a few seconds.

The third race was a 15K I'd done three times in earlier years (51-54 minutes), but I was sure I couldn't get over the injury, get recovered from the 10K and train properly for the race all in one month. I'd have to hope something would go wrong for Triviski and take advantage of it. I was close behind him for the first miles and he made a wrong turn; I could see him backtrack, then stand at an intersection, look back at me, throw up his hands and shrug. I could either be a jerk and ignore him, forcing him to wait for me to catch up, or I could point the right way. I decided that he'd figure it out quickly on his own and that he might find it hard to outrace a guy who was nice to him, so I pointed the way. He took off - hard - probably too hard, trying to make up lost time and that gave me hope. There was a series of long hills. I was great on downhills [how sad that I'm so bad on downhills on trails!], but weak on uphills; every hill I would lose distance, then make it up, but never got closer. The final 3 miles was a long flat boring stretch, where I could often see how far back I was. It wasn't going to be close. Then Purrington passed me and I couldn't stay with him, either.

I was now behind in the series. The next race was 1 mile on a track. [I've detailed this race in a previous post. Sorry for the repeat.] I hadn't done a track mile in 3 or 4 years, but I knew I had better speed than my competiton, so I focused on winning this race. Every other day, I did intervals on a track, sometimes the very one we'd be competing on, often finishing a repeat completely exhausted and I'd say, "John could do that. But he couldn't do one more." Then I'd do one more. The plan for the race was to go out blisteringly fast and burn out all their speed, then slow way down and then speed up again with 600m to go, reserving a little for a last burst, if needed. We hit 400m in 61 seconds! This must've looked like mass suicide to the spectators. I slowed down and waited for someone to pass, but no one did. Then Purrington came up and I tried to hold him off, but he got by with 800m to go. I passed him again at 600m. He tried to repass me. I sped up and the crowd went wild, so I knew he was with me, so I sped up again. The crowd was on their feet now; I sped up again. And again! The last turn was ahead and I found yet another gear, because I needed to win this one. Time slowed down; everything was effortless; I felt I was outside my body, watching from the crowd. Last 100m. BANG! Like being shot from a cannon, I gave it everything I had, screaming past the finish line, wheeling around to see Scott come in. Instead, I saw John, 5 seconds back, with Scott 4 behind him. The crowd had been cheering because they thought I was going for the course record, not because it was a close race. My brother had timed me going from 1500m to the finish in 11.2 seconds, the fastest finish ever - by anyone, anywhere.

I still think of it as my best race.

Next up was a 10K. I scouted the course and found that there were a ton of sharp turns in the first mile and one tough hill at the end, 800m up, 1000 down to the finish. Purrington was not running this race, so he looked to be out of the series. At the race, we were told that traffic would be allowed on the course, so we had to stay to the left; I decided to cut tangents, but keep to the correct side of the yellow line and stay just within the rules as stated. I started behind the fastest runners to see how much distance they cut (none); so I ran easy, cutting corners and dodging cars for the first mile. Then I ran with Triviski, just off his shoulder, invading his personal space to irritate him. If I was with him at the top of the hill, I knew I'd beat him. The trouble was, he might be holding back (the pace seemed easy), planning to charge the hill. So, I decided to dart past him and try to get a lead he couldn't make up on the hill. I kept asking people watching the race how far back he was, but couldn't get an answer. On the hill, undulations and turns prevent one from knowing where anyone else is (and makes it hard to know just where on the course one is). I just ran comfortably, waiting for John to catch me. He didn't.

Next was a 5 mile cross-country race and I needed to beat Triviski at it, because the last race was a 10 mile, essentially the same as the 15K course where he would undoubtedly beat me. I couldn't go over the course ahead of time, so I had to make plans as I ran. Things just didn't go right, right from the start. Triviski was having a great day and I was struggling and not sure why. I had to hope he went out to fast and would fade. He didn't. Then Scott passed me and I realized that, to win the series, I not only had to win the 10 mile, I had to beat Scott at this one. He was not about to let that happen, as his family and his girlfriend were there, cheering for him. We charged down a very steep hill together near the end, so fast that we both ended up falling into some cornstalks at the bottom. We both scrambled to our feet and it was a battle to do the last quarter mile. We were both spent. We were both getting passed by other runners, but neither of us would give in and I edged him at the finish once again (he was getting to hate this).

Triviski's original plan had been to use these races as training for a marathon, but he had to drop out of the marathon and now the series became all-important. He really wanted to beat me in the 10 mile! I decided to try some trickery. I didn't sign up for the race until race day and he knew that I'd been hurting since the last race, so he might think I wasn't doing it. On race day, I signed up the first minute I could, then kept away from the start, so everyone would think I wasn't there, jumping into the back of the pack just as the gun went off. To beat John in this race, I'd have to run my best race, which meant that I couldn't rely on my knowledge of the course or of him, just run fast and evenly, while I'd given him a slight head start. With 3 miles to go, I passed Jerry Heaps and asked him if he'd seen John; he told me he was not far ahead, so I pushed a bit harder. I caught John with 2 miles to go. He looked good, I was gasping for air. He asked me a question, but I couldn't answer. I spat, maybe groaned, forced myself to run a little harder. Triviski charged up to me and shouted "WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!" and I was too tired to try to explain that I hadn't said anything. Great. I'd made him mad. Now he really wouldn't want me to beat him. We kept changing places, one getting a little ahead, then the other. Toward the end, there was a parking lot we crossed with some grass medians. He kept to the asphalt, I cut over the grass. Then I cut across a corner of some guy's yard and another corner in a park, giving me a slight edge. We went at it, hammer and tongs all the way to the end, but I was sure my finishing kick would be enough. When the finish came in view, however, I had no kick left; John had raced it out of me. But then he stumbled with only yards to go.

I beat him and won the series. And then half-convinced John I hadn't called him anything. Neither he nor Scott ever beat me in a race again.


Jean said...

Great stories, Steve. Several of these races still exist, don't they? I am guessing the 15k is the Manitou.

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. A nice change from reading ultra race reports where the main competition is between which aid station has the best grub :)

Helen said...

You have a gift for race-story telling! Those memories last forever.

SteveQ said...

Jean, all the races but one are still around and the series still exists. It's much less competitive than it once was.

prashant said...

Great stories

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