Below is part of a message exchange between me and my friend Tim yesterday:
I know this feeling. I have had this feeling recently and am neither the first nor the last athlete to ask themself such questions when a race goes badly.
Running is a strange sport. Failures outnumber successes by a significant margin and the most typical type of race is a humdrum, routine one, where it goes neither well nor badly. So why do we do it? In my opinion there are two strands to this question; the first is ‘why do we run at all?’ and the second is ‘why do we compete?’
The first can be answered in a multitude of ways to do with happiness, wellbeing, a sense of purpose and all of the other reasons runners typically give when asked why they run. The second is much more difficult to answer. Although those perfect races when everything comes together are few and far between, if you do the right training and commit yourself to the sport they happen just about frequently enough for it to be worth it. In fact, it could be argued that their scarcity is what makes them so special. If we didn’t have bad races we would never have anything to put the good ones into context or allow us to appreciate them. Any more frequent and we wouldn’t enjoy them, any less and we’d probably all quit and so something more rewarding.
Tim is going to have a great race very soon.
Monday: AM 10km easy / PM 12km easy (22)
Tuesday: AM 9km easy / PM grass session 1,2,3,2,1,2,3,2,1 minutes with half previous effort recovery, 5*25s off 60s (26)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 9km easy / PM track session 10*400 off 3:00 in 63,3,3,3,3,2,3,4,4,3 (23)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: road session 10*2:00 off 90s, 9*50m hill sprints on grass (14)
I decided to adopt a new strategy yesterday at the Warwickshire Cross Country Championships. With no team points at stake and with the race solely about individual performance I decided to just go for it. I won the race to the first corner, I won the race up the first hill, I even won the first lap. It’s just a shame the finish line was at the end of lap four.
As it turns out, the top three would have beaten me whichever way I had chosen to race. I probably would have hung on to fourth had I raced slightly more conservatively and sat in the pack for the first two laps, but sometimes you just need to get out there and go for it to really know what your limit is. Mine seems to be 5th in Warwickshire at the moment.
Next week we’re back at the same course for the third Birmingham League of the season. I might try this strategy again; I might revert to type and try and pick people off in the second half of the race, such is my normal cross country strategy. Either way, I am looking forward to it.
Next weekend I will put my toes on the start line of the 5000m of the BMC Grand Prix at Solihull. I’m really looking forward to it and am very grateful that my entry was accepted despite my season’s best being outside the entry standard, but it’s going to be predictable. This is what will happen: the assigned pacemaker will stand near the starter and say something like ’68s OK boys?’ referring to the target time per lap. Someone will say yes and that will be it. The race will string out in single file ahead of me whilst I hang on for dear life at the back, either until I get cut adrift or until people whose early pace was too optimistic start coming back to me. No tactics, no thinking, just running as hard as I can from the gun. I will either run a PB or blow up trying, and limp home in a time I’m disappointed in. I know this because it happens every time.
Last Sunday I raced for my club in the final fixture of the Midland League season. I was in the 1500m and then the 3000m half an hour later, a tricky combination at the best of times, but even more so when you’ve only got back from holiday the day before. The wind was up so I suspected the race would start slowly. Sure enough, by the time we got to the first bend, we were in a tight pack, all looking to see what the others were doing. Jogging, it seemed.
This didn’t really suit me because I’m no sprinter and didn’t want it to turn into a 400 metre race. I wanted to get to the front and make a long push for home but was boxed on the inside of lane 1. We went through 800 outside my 5k pace and shortly after we did so a small gap appeared to my right. I stepped out, darted through the gap and ran as hard as I could, trying to distance myself from the field. I knew that this probably wouldn’t get me the win, but would at least take the sting out of some of the faster athletes. I was third in the end, a pleasing result, and probably better than I would have done if the pace had stayed slow for another lap. Half an hour later in similar coniditions, the 3000m went out slowly and we only really got going in the last km. Heavy legged from the 1500 I let two guys get away who I knew to be significantly faster then me, whilst making sure I did just enough to hold off the runners behind.
In both races I was constantly thinking, judging my effort, making decisions about what I should do to maximise my position. It was thrilling, and certainly added a dimension to the races. When watching athletics on TV you often hear commentators talking scornfully about tactical races, as if anyone who doesn’t run an ‘honest’ race is a disgrace to the sport. I disagree. These are the races I enjoy the most. They are less predictable and more exciting, both to watch and to be part of, and often throw up nice surprises. At the level I compete at, races where you have to make tactical decisions are rare and therefore even more interesting.
Time trials have their place, but give me a ‘dishonest’ tactical race anyday.