Racing with wisdom
Contributor: Derek Fey, XC Head Coach, College of St. Mary
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With the idea that the Prep Running Nerd idea was born out of distance running, this article will focus on the longer races on the track. I don’t mean to simply describe distance racing – that’s pretty boring. I hope by the end of this piece that at least one of you will be converted to the method described below. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll save yourself from the heartaches and constant frustrations that I experienced.
I was in the thick of it. We were halfway through the Metro 3,200-meter final and I was going toe-to-toe with several notable distance runners from Omaha’s past. Marcus Bruns, a senior from Millard West was right next to me. We were clipping the spikes of sophomores Dana Carne (Omaha North) and Brian Turner (Millard North).
One mile in.
All of us came through at 4 minutes, 40 seconds. 9:20 pace.
I just needed to hang on for four more laps.
The World-Herald article that my grandmother sent me (I hope you have someone that saves your clippings!), showed four runners on the front page. The caption at the bottom read: “CLOSE. FOR NOW.” Carne would finish in 9:20, Turner in 9:32, and Bruns in 9:47. And the runner in red from Westside would come in a distant fourth place.
I had run a 4:40 and finished with a 5:13. And didn’t think anything of it.
In high school I was always under the impression you had to be in the race, to be in the race. If the phrases “even splits” or “negative splits” existed at the time, I had not heard of them. From the gun, I taught myself it was imperative to be in the front, otherwise the leaders could never be caught.
I ran most of my high school races near the front for the first half of the race, and rarely finished there. It was extremely frustrating not to be able to hang with runners that I thought I could beat. I also couldn’t figure out why my PRs were stagnant.
The last race of my high school career was the 1,600-meter run at the 1998 state meet. I had signed to run in college already, I was seeded third-to-last based on my district time, and the 1,600 meters was my least favorite race. I didn’t want to run. So, I went out in last place and stayed there for two laps. The clock at 800-meters read 2:13, but I felt like I was jogging. My PR was 4:30, and it clicked in my head that I was on pace for a 4:26. And moreover, there was no way the 15 people ahead of me were going to break 4:26. So, I started moving. I passed runners with ease. As I crossed the finish line I was passed by a runner but it didn’t matter. I had run 2:13 for the first 800 meters, and came back with a 2:12 for a 4:25 – passing 12 runners in the final two laps.
The point of that story isn’t the time. Many high school runners since then have broken 4:20 for 1,600 meters. It was the feeling. What I won’t forget about that race was how easy the pace felt, and the feeling of passing runners who had gone out too fast.
Through my college coach, I learned the art and science of pacing and running negative splits. What I had stumbled upon in my last high school race with negative splits became the norm for my racing. My PRs fell quickly due to increased mileage, but also because I learned to race with intention.
When I got into coaching high school, I tried to impress that strategy on the runners I coached. Many times in the 3,200 meter run, whether it be a JV or varsity race, I would have runners in last place for the first lap. They crossed the first lap at the actual pace they wanted to run. By the third lap, they were moving through the field and with two laps to go it appeared as though they were sprinting. In reality, though, they were running the same pace throughout the race. Several coaches from other teams would tell them that they really raced smart.
So, what does it take to “race smart”?
The math of it is simple. Come up with a goal time for your race – that becomes the trickiest part. Whatever your goal time is, split it evenly based on the amount of laps you are racing. If your goal is 6:30 for 1,600 meters, divided equally, your goal would be around 1:37 per lap. Can you possibly run EXACTLY 1:37 each lap if that is your goal? Chances are it won’t be exactly that. But it can be if you work on pacing enough through your training. The goal would be to get as close to that time on your first couple laps as possible. A second or two off is not detrimental. But 7-10 seconds too fast early on in a race can have the potential to ruin a race.
It seems so very simple. But it takes a lot of guts.
Many would push back to that statement and claim that actually, it takes a lot of guts to take a race out from the gun and push the pace. The two Prefontaine movies in the 1990s created a new generation of runners that thought you were less of a runner if you laid back and let others “do the work” during a race. One of the lines from the movie personified the idea when Prefontaine said: “I’d like to work it out so that in the end, it comes down to a pure guts race. If it is, I’m the only one who can win it.” The insinuation was that it didn’t take guts to lay off the pace. Prefontaine discovered it took more than guts to reach the goal of an Olympic medal, as he was passed in the final stages of the race.
I’m not saying it doesn’t take guts to put yourself out there. I did it for two years. It was gutsy. But too often, gutsy races end up in frustration. Running is one of the few sports where you can’t fool your body. Running 85 seconds for your first lap when you haven’t broken 13:00 minutes for 3,200 meters isn’t gutsy. It’s usually very painful by the end. And it looks painful.
The number one quality that is needed to race a smart race is trust. You have to trust yourself that you can do it. Letting runners get ahead of you in a race is mentally tough. Believing that many of those runners will come back to you takes patience, which is tough. Trusting yourself also includes trusting your training. If you are fit and train at the pace you plan to race at, running negative splits can be achieved. I have seen it work for 8:00 minute 1,600-meter runners as well as 4:10 minute 1,600-meter runners.
When you think you have to be in the race at the start, many times you are looking over your shoulder to see who is coming after you. Racing smart, laying off the lead pace, allows you to chase people down. You always are looking forward, looking up to catch the next person. And I promise you, the feeling of running a stronger second half of the race is addicting. If you are usually in the back of the pack during a race, you can use this method to catch a few runners who were too ambitious at the start.
As you prepare for your track and field season, set your goals high, put in the work, and enjoy the process. Train and race smart, and you’ll find new PRs this spring!
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Originally written for and posted in March 2023 at www.preprunningnerd.com by Derek Fey.
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Finally, if you think runners and jumpers are the best thing on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.