The Big Race
This story has been modified from articles written by Andy Chan that appeared in the May and June 1995 DSE News.
I’ve done my training. Now I’m ready to run that great race. But what do I do? Sometimes some intelligent and strong race tactics can help you run a fast time as much or more than physical training. Let me take you through a hypothetical 5K race and point out some important do’s and don’ts.
It’s a nice warm morning – a perfect day for racing. I begin my warm-up, jogging slowly for 10-12 minutes (with my walkman playing the always inspirational “One Moment In Time” song) to warm up my muscles. If it’s a particularly hot day, I may only need 5-10 minutes to warm up and if it’s cold, I may need as much as 20 minutes. The idea is to break a sweat but not tire yourself out. Often when I feel tight/stiff because I just woke up, a good warm up jog will get rid of the tightness/stiffness and wake my body up. Next, I stretch, starting with my head and neck and working down my body to my legs and feet. Muscles function best when they are warm, have blood flowing to them, and are stretched to their optimal length. After stretching, I take 4-6 striders. Striders are 50-75 meter bursts at a fast speed but not all out. I start with a 50 meter one at half speed and make each successive one a bit longer and a bit faster so that by my last one I’m running 75 meters at the speed I may be running when I “kick it in” at the end of the race. These striders prepare my legs to turnover quickly.
Now, I’m ready to go. If the race is not yet ready to start, I keep jogging around or do a couple more light striders. The key is to keep moving even when you’re at the starting line listening to those last second instructions. This may mean you have to jog in place or jump up and down. You’ve got your heart rate up so that blood is pumping down to your legs making your muscles feel warm, loose, and relaxed but if you stand still even for just 1 minute you can lose all the benefits of your warm up.
When the starter says, “On your mark!”, I place my left foot just behind the line with my right foot a step behind. My right arm is forward and my left arm is back. This may sound simplistic but how many of you start your race with your left leg and left arm both forward? If you do, that means on your first step, your right arm and right leg both move forward at the same time. Unless you’ve invented a new way of running or you’re trying out for the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, this is incorrect. This may seem incidental but since it’s so easy to do correctly, why not take the time to learn to do it this way?
In order to assume the proper starting position you must know your Power Leg (your stronger leg). The Power Leg is the one that’s placed forward (in my case, my left leg). This leg is the one you push off with on your first step. To determine which of your legs is stronger, stand with your feet even and shoulder width apart. Have someone push you from behind in the very middle of your back. The leg that moves forward to catch yourself from falling on your face is your Power Leg.
When the gun goes off, I go out hard for the first 100 or so meters. I run this faster than my 5K pace because I want to establish good position and avoid getting stuck behind runners slower than myself. After about 100 meters it’s important to settle into my 5K pace (5:30/mile). If I get too excited or have a slight memory problem and forget to settle into the proper pace I’m liable to go out too fast and die at the end. I don’t concern myself with the people running a lot faster than 5:30/mile pace. If they can hold that pace, they’re going to beat me anyway. If they can’t hold that pace, I’ll catch up to them later. Instead, I concern myself with the people around me running 5:30/mile pace. My plan is to run with this pack so that I can run 5:30/mile pace with as little energy expenditure as possible. I draft off of someone’s shoulder and let others in the group use up the mental energy of worrying about how fast we’re going. I don’t waste energy jockeying for position within this group. I just relax, try to control my breathing so that I’m not hyperventilating (if I am, I’m probably running too fast a pace), and put it on cruise control. I let the group pull me through the first mile as if we were all just on a training run together.
At the mile mark I’m at 5:20. A little fast but that’s OK. Nothing I can do about it now so I might as well make the best oif it rather than worry that “I went out too fast”. “I’m gonna have a great race”, I say to myself, “5:20 and I feel great!!”. There’s a tendency to unconsciously slow down at this point and that’s exactly what I want to avoid. Instead, I try to pick-up the pace a bit. I’m really not going to be running any faster but because now I’m a little tired I must make more of an effort in order to run a 5:30 mile. This is the key part of the race. I now make an attempt to open up distance between myself and the runners behind me and close the gap on the runners ahead of me. If I run a strong 2nd mile, hopefully, I’ll pass some runners and put myself in position to catch some more runners in the last mile and run a fast time. There’s nothing like a strong 2nd mile to build your confidence and get you excited to run a great last mile. If I don’t push the pace now, I’ll probably just slow down, get passed, and then become discouraged so that I don’t run a good last mile either.
At this point, good strategies are a must and can make a big difference. I make sure I cut the tangents, which means run the shortest distance. This is especially important if the course has a lot of turns. When I get to a hill I shorten my stride and take quick steps off of my toes. I try to maintain the same pace going up the hill but at the top of the hill I do what is called “cresting the hill”. There is a tendency to get to the top of a hill, say “Thank God, it’s over” and slow down to catch your breath. Instead, I do the opposite – at the top of the hill I take 10 quick steps away from the hill to make sure I don’t slow down. I also take 10 quick steps after sharp turns when the runners behind me can’t see me. It’s a great way to increase a lead from 10 meters to 20 meters all in a matter of seconds. When I get to a downhill, I use it as an opportunity to run faster with little energy expenditure. I let gravity provide the impetus to increase my speed. All I do is make sure I’m landing on my toes and I pump my arms faster to match the increase in my leg turnover. At the bottom of the hill I try to take advantage of the speed gravity has given me by maintaining the faster turnover for awhile.
As I come up to the 2 mile mark, I am tired but excited. I’ve run a good 2nd mile and have the leaders in sight. Even though I’m pretty tired there’s no way I can quit now. I want to give the leaders a run for their money. My attitude is, “If you’re going to beat The Chan-Man you’d better be prepared to work hard for it.” I feel myself getting into a rut where I’m staying the same distance behind the runner in front of me but not gaining any. I decide to surge for a few seconds just to get myself to run a little faster even if it’s not for long. My surge helps and I’m able to maintain the faster pace until I pass one runner. Then all of a sudden I look up and see that if I can maintain this surge for another 25 meters I can pass another runner. I do, and now I’m in 3rd place but I’m hurting. I feel like my arms are getting tight and I’m clenching my teeth so I shake out my arms and remind myself to stay relaxed. Everyone is a more efficient runner when they’re relaxed and fluid rather than tight. It’s the last half mile and I fall into a rut again. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain the pace. I see a tree 100 meters in front of me and promise myself that when I get to that tree I’m going to take 10 quick steps and surge again. If I don’t make an attempt to catch the two runners in front of me now, I’ll always ask myself, “What if..?” At the tree I take 10 quick steps and begin to gain on the 2nd place runner. The fact that I can do this excites me and temporarily blocks out the pain. I’m too excited to hurt now. I pass the 2nd place runner and when I do I go by hard just to let him know that I’m still strong and there’s no point in him trying to stay with me. I now set my sights on the leader. I’m about 10 meters behind. I can’t see the finish line yet but I know I must be close, probably less than 2 minutes away. I have to go now. I start my finishing kick and start closing the gap. 5 meters. 2 meters. Now I’m on his shoulder. We’re both going as fast as we can as we approach the finish line. With 100 meters to go he begins to pull away from me, I shift gears and go with him. But with 50 meters to go he pulls away from me and I just can’t seem to get any closer. Still, I run all out all the way through the finish line. I came up a bit short but I’m still proud. I ran a smart race, gave it everything I had, and came away with a good time.
As the story shows, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, the point is to do the best you can. I think all runners (not just the so-called fast runners) can benefit from trying some of the things mentioned in the articles. Happy Racing!!