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

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Lost Art of Racing (part 1)

Most people who enter races don't do what I call racing. Racing is still the norm on the track, but it's quickly disappearing on roads and trails. It's most apparent at the marathon and beyond; in the marathon, all one hears any more is "finishing." To accomodate those whose goal is to finish, the races which used to shut their clocks off at 4 1/2 hours now go to 6 or 7 hours (or more). The current fad is to try to finish a marathon in every state. The top runners in marathons also have stopped racing - their sponsors don't like second place finishes, so they intentionally avoid races they can't win easily or drop out of races they aren't winning (DNF does not show up as a loss). In ultramarathons, especially in the women's races, it is not uncommon for first place to be two minutes per mile ahead of second; there is no way that that can be called a race, even if the competitors are running as hard as they can.

There are three facets to racing: strategy, tactics and position and these are difficult to separate. Strategy is based on the clock, tactics on terrain and position on other runners. I'll try to discuss each in turn in this series, then describe my racing "masterpiece" of nearly a quarter century ago.

The first strategy to consider is the "hot start." Here, one runs as fast as possible for as long as possible and hangs on for dear life. This is usually the worst possible strategy for a fast race, but there are exceptions. I knew a miler who used to nearly lap the field and then slow almost to a walk, crossing the finish line just ahead of everyone else; his coach was forever trying to get him to "stop being an idiot and run even splits." I think what he needed was training to be able to tolerate the strain just a little longer - but we'll never know. In 6 day races, each day one has to deal with increasing sleep deprivation, so getting in the most miles early is a good strategy. The hot start also comes into play in trail races which start in an open field and then funnel into single track; getting ahead means one is able to run one's own pace, rather than being stuck behind slower runners one can't pass. It also has a positional effect; sometimes you can demoralize the opposition, if you start fast and they don't believe you went out too fast - it also means that one may employ tactics that can't be seen (but I'm getting ahead of myself).

The "cold start," or the opposite of the hot start, also has positional and tactical effects, but generally running negative splits means that one underestimated one's ability. Any runner who boasts about running negative splits on a regular basis should not be boasting! There are a few exceptions, such as a sprint finish, but that usually is a variation on attempted even splits.

Even pace is the standard strategy. As one runs at a constant pace, one's heart rate increases until one reaches one's maximum heart rate. The perfect pace for even splits is the one where one reaches one's maximum and holds it for as long as possible, making it to the finish line just before being forced to quit through exhaustion. Finding this pace and running a race at this pace is the ultimate challenge of racing. If one misjudges, one ends up being forced to slow almost to a crawl before the finish or one finds oneself speeding up again and again before the finish, crossing the line knowing one could've run much faster. There are runners who pride themselves on finishing races with enough energy left over to run a long run the next day or to race again the following week - some of these even have a stack of trophies - but they'll never know what they might have been able to do.

Finding the correct pace for the even-paced strategy is an art in itself. The easiest way is to use one's previous finish times in that same race from previous years and to adjust for changes in training and weather. If one hasn't run the race before, using recent results at the same distance and on similar terrain is best. If one's running a new distance, there are ways to convert times from races at other distances; these are nicely summarized in Tim Noakes' "The Lore of Running." Personally, I use a variation of the Mercier nomogram in that book.

If one's running a trail race, comparisons are much trickier. The best way is to look at previous results from the race one's doing, find the names of people one has raced against before and assume one will finish in the same order (this also assumes that everyone tries equally hard at all races, so it's speculative at best).

In trail races, constant pace is unusual, due to changing terrain, so the idea of constant effort applies. The problem with this is that at a constant effort, one will be slowing continuously, and one should feel more discomfort after 10 miles than one does after 1. The compromise often made in extremely long trail races is to use a heart rate monitor to gauge effort and to keep that within a narrow range (about 10 bpm) until one is about two-thirds or three-fourths the way through, then to continuously and gradually increase the effort level.

[In my own case, I rely upon breathing patterns. One should not think about one's breathing until one is three hours or so from the finish. Then one should notice that one's breathing pattern is regular and slow (say, two steps inhaling, two steps exhaling). As one's effort level increases, one's breathing becomes faster (one in, two out) until one's breathing as quickly as one comfortably can and this fastest rate is manageable for at most an hour. At this point, one can't breathe any faster, so one breathes more deeply; this is often accompanied with an increase in leg stride and an increase in speed - this lasts at most 10 minutes. Then one is at the point of oxygen debt and one can last at most another 3 minutes. Lastly, one can throw in a final sprint of 100 meters before the end.

I work backward from the finish, planning where the changes in breathing should occur. This strategy is one of increasing effort.]

There are a few other strategies, but you'll have to find them on your own.


Julie said...

Great post with really helpful information. When I first started running I was one of those who started off way to fast and was almost dead when I crossed the finish line:) You gave me alot to ponder and great insight into how important breathing patterns and speed can work together!

Helen said...

Needless to say I completely disagree with the following statement - but good post all the same :)

The "cold start," or the opposite of the hot start, also has positional and tactical effects, but generally running negative splits means that one underestimated one's ability. Any runner who boasts about running negative splits on a regular basis should not be boasting!

Helen said...

PS - I just saw you comment on Dr. Nic's blog and it reminded me to ask you to remind me which 50 are you beating me at the 50K or 50M? I thought it was the latter but then saw a mention of May somewhere... not that it really mkes a difference of course - though I do think you'll have a better chance in May ;)

Having said that the way things are stacking up I might be just 2 weeks after a 100K in Sept also!

I might have to change my blog title to your by the end of this year! ha..

nwgdc said...

I think Helen should experiment with other racing tactics next weekend. I'll go ahead at try the "Constant Effort" approach, if Helen agrees to use the "Pull an all nighter and show up tanked" approach.
I know you didn't DIRECTLY cover that specific approach in your post, but I just figured it'll be in the next one.

ps my Word Verification is "exual"

Feel free to come up with your own punchline.

Anonymous said...

You are correct. The depth/ dearth is just not there in Ultras. Sure there are good times here and there, but haven't there always been.. In fact you don't even see real fast 50milers or 50kms anymore on a consistent basis. The 100mile distance via trail has seen improvements, but that is due to the lack of training in previous years, as a start. I do believe that there are many folks who jump into ultras and find success without truly getting a concept of what fast really is; and furthermore don't realize how good they are really not. Do to the lack of dearth, even average speed can find success, which in turn makes them hungry to do more, hence I believe part of the addiction for some to run piles of ultras. Hopefully they are not naive in the grand scheme of things. Ultras have lots of superlatives that don't truly rely on fitness, and I definitely know what they are, as they have slapped me more than once. I completely agree with you on this post. I never once felt really gratified when I had a good finish at an ultra. I guess the most joy was the journey and surroundings. Marathons (road) appeal to me because the depth of field is deep and competitive, there is a quantitative measure to a higher degree, which I find motivating, odd considering I'm pretty subjective. For instance I consider a top 20 at a major marathon far above any ultra performance besides maybe Comrades, where the top guys are also elite marathon runners. I suppose this topic for most though is like talking apples to oranges and so on and so forth. The key is having fun. Although competition and running hard is fun!

Oh yeah and I also found ultras to not be all cracked up as they seem to be in the "keeping it simple" department. They are expensive and require so much damn logistics. As I grow each year in running I find how much more I enjoy it when I keep it as simplistic and minimal as possible. I really found the 100mile distance to be draining in so many ways.


Psyche said...

Really nice post, and I agree- road racing is pretty much defunct of any "racing". Which is a shame. The few road races where I have actually "raced" (i.e., used strategy and tactics, and chased someone down to the finish line) are the best race memories I have. People are really missing out.

I was at the local HS track the other day as the team was finishing up hard intervals (looked like 60 second quarters). It was a real reminder of how track and field and road racing are not even related as sports- in body or spirit.