Tactics at Championship Races
The tactics at championship distance races are often very different from the tactics you will see at a non-championship race. At championship races the goal is to win the race. The time is secondary.
It is rare that you see someone lead a distance championship race from the very beginning and they stay in front to win the race. This usually happens only when the person leading is far superior to all the others in the field.
A common championship race strategy is to let someone else lead and to try to kick by them for the win late in the race (this tactic is known as “sit and kick”). The faster your kick, the more this strategy will work for you. However, the problem with this tactic is that as the level of competition goes up, everyone thinks they have the best kick. If you watch the NCAA men’s 800 final on Friday, June 11 (5:40 P.M. west coast time with free streaming video from CBS Sports and NCAA TV) look for Oregon’s Andrew Wheating and Virginia’s Robby Andrews. Both have outstanding kicks so I expect you will see both sit back early in the race and then there will be a big kick at the finish. Wheating himself said, “it’s definitely going to be a case of who’s got the mightier kick.”
Taking the lead early in a championship race has two disadvantages. First, it is psychologically taxing because the leader becomes the target and all the competitors can see the leader but he or she cannot see all of them. Second, the leading runner has to fight through wind resistance whereas the runners behind the leader can draft off of him or her to the tune of 6.5% less energy expenditure. Thus, you often see championship races bunched together with no one taking the lead.
This was certainly the case at the 2010 California state meet in the boys 1600 meter final. After a typically fast first 200 meters in 30 seconds, the pace slowed dramatically (watch the change in leg turnover by Phil Macquitty in all white). The field ran 38 seconds for the next 200, coming through the 400 at 1:08. The 800 meter split was 2:22, just four seconds faster than the girls race. That meant the second lap was run in 1:14, which is only slightly faster than lactate threshold pace for these milers (eight of the twelve runners in the field had PR’s of 4:15 or faster). The pace picks up slightly on the third lap (1:03) but the race was really all about a mad sprint over the last lap. The eventual winner, Elias Gedyon, was in ninth or tenth place at the bell and ran 56 seconds for his last lap (impressively moving up from ninth place to first place in the 150 meter stretch between the middle of the backstretch and the top of the homestretch). Most of the field ran seven to nine seconds slower than their best time. This is a great example of what often happens in a championship race.
Race tactics vary depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete as well as the anticipated strategies of the other runners. There is no one race tactic that always works. Most of the race strategies that I give the Sacred Heart Cathedral athletes involve pacing and positioning. I tell them to focus on running race pace (which we practice all the time) and to be in what I call “attack position.” I don’t want them leading (see above) but I want them close enough so they can attack when the time is right. Even though he was near the back with just a lap to go, because the pack was bunched together, Gedyon was still in attack position. If the race comes down to the last 200 meters and my athlete has a chance to win, then they have done everything tactically correct. Bernard Lagat amazes me with his ability to always be in “attack position.” Even the commentators during Lagat’s race in Oslo, when he set the American record for the 5000 meters, commented on his excellent tactics.
Shannon Rowbury and I spent hours before races going over strategies: how fast to go out, approximately what place to be in at half way, when to make her move. This is a part of coaching that I love and I guess it was time well spent.
With Shannon, we had the best of both worlds. She was strong so she could take it out hard and she had a killer kick so she could sit and kick, too. I did not like slow races like the 2010 boys state meet 1600. When athletes are bunched up like that it is easy for someone to clip a heel and fall. Also, when it’s a slow pace everyone in the field is still in contention late in the race and I didn’t like that either. When Shannon was capable of running 2:08, I didn’t want a girl with a 2:16 PR to still be in the race with 200 meters to go. So Shannon was always instructed to make sure the race spread out a little bit. She developed a beautiful ability to get the leader to run the pace she wanted (“control the race from behind” is what we called it). To get the leader to run faster, Shannon would surge just a little bit but stay right behind the leader’s shoulder. Invariably the leader would surge to stay just a step in front of Shannon and we got what we wanted, a faster pace with someone else leading.
One of my personal favorite tactics is for the 800 meters. This strategy was more or less Shannon’s race plan when she won the state meet 800 in 2001, and this is the plan I had Jarrett Moore use (and he ran it to perfection) at WCAL Finals when he ran a PR 1:57.94 to place third and qualify for CCS. I break the 800 into three parts: the first 300 meters, the middle 200 meters from the 300 meter to 500 meter mark, and the last 300 meters. The goal in the first 300 is to be conservative. Let the others charge out too fast. I like my runners to concentrate on just hitting race pace. Sometimes they will be in the middle of the pack at this pace. Sometimes they are in last place in lane one because everyone else in the race is unnecessarily jostling up in front. In the middle 200 meters the athlete has to make an in the moment decision. If they feel they are in attack position, then they just stay there. If they feel they are too far back, they use these 200 meters to get into better position. Then with 300 meters to go, they power up and go hard to the finish. I suggest you watch Wheating and Andrews in the NCAA 800 final and see how their strategies compare to this one.
There is something very exciting about watching a championship race. You never know what is going to happen. It’s not always the fastest person that wins. It’s the one who best executes an appropriate race plan who is crowned the champion.