Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whose Race to Run?

I haven't raced since February, so I'm excitedly counting down the last week and a half until Highlands Sky on June 19th. I've written some about competition, but I thought it might be useful to drill down into some of the strategic race psychology I've developed over the years. Pay attention competitors! I will give you all the information you need to turn my own psychological ploys against me...

If you enter a race, you have your reasons. A common reason is to give yourself a goal. Once you have target race, your day-to-day runs are structured to prepare for that race. You may find out, however, that the daily preparation means as much to you as your actual performance come race day. You may fall short of your goal, but still feel satisfaction from having worked hard for all those weeks or months. You may be happy to feel more fit, look better, or have more energy. By signing up for a race, you play a little trick on yourself. You know that it probably wouldn't work to wake up each morning and make yourself get out of bed for a run so that after 8 weeks you will be more fit. So you enter a race. Of course you have to put some stakes on it, or the trick wouldn't work. You'd wake up and say to yourself: "I don't really care about that race anyway," and then fall back asleep. No, the trick depends on making yourself care. It seems odd to talk about ourselves like this. Playing tricks on ourselves, making ourselves care. Does it really work like that?

Competitive runners care about how they finish compared to other runners. If I want to motivate myself to train hard, I need to race against other runners at my level. I think most runners are competitive. Most people are interested to see how they compare to others of some related group -- like other women, or others of the same age. Some runners are avowedly non-competitve, however. They say something like: "I don't compete against others, I compete against myself." Now that seems even more far-fetched than playing a trick on yourself. What kind of duality does competing against yourself take? Is there a you-in-January that can be compared to a you-in-June? If so, doesn't one of you always lose? And if you-in-June runs faster, who's to say that you-in-January wasn't sandbagging? (That would be more like playing a trick on yourself. I do that with workouts sometimes -- go conservative the first couple intervals so I feel like a big man when I can do the later ones faster).

Even for competitive runners, a good strategy is to "run your own race." You hear that a lot, along with "run within yourself." We know what these strategies mean, even if their articulation is problematic. The intent is to encourage a kind of willful ignorance of what other runners are doing, especially in the early parts of a race. When we race the temptation is to assert our desired position relative to others from the start. Others will tend to do the same. If each of us tries to get in front of the other, we'll escalate until the speed is unsustainable. If everyone followed that temptation, we might still have an interesting "battle of attrition," though probably not the best performances possible. If someone has the "run within yourself" strategy, though, and goes out at a more sustainable pace, that runner will be more likely to run strongly for the whole distance, and attain a better performance.

The idea to "run your own race," however, is not always the best one to have in mind. It is a cerebral strategy, requiring a dispassionate assessment of the conditions and oneself. Once disengaged from the race, and other runners, some participants may lose motivation. They may get into a sustainable groove, but it may be slower that what is possible. We are notorious for miscalculating what we can really do. We may perceive our exertion to be at a maximum, and then find "another gear" when someone we feel we should beat passes us. The strategy to keep us involved, and exerting ourselves maximally, can be called "mix it up." A runner employing this strategy should focus on other runners of similar caliber. Lead some or follow some, but stay attuned to what others are doing, and respond appropriately.

So what is the strategy of the runner who bolts to the front and runs "wide open" from the gun? I can think of two possibilities. One is to challenge the other runners. If I take off at a foolishly fast pace, other runners have to either match match my pace or let me go. If they match my pace, they will have to suffer the consequences of that foolish pace. Even though I will also suffer, the fact that I chose the pace potentially gives me an edge. It may seem to them that I feel stronger -- simply because I am in front. I can wait for them to fade, defeated, and then slow to a more manageable pace. The other possibility depends on deeper pyschology. Running from the front assumes an alpha position -- one that a competitor may be loathe to give up. The desire to maintain high position may help keep the runner at a maximum exertion.

So what should you do? Run your own race, mix it up, or run wide open? What do I do? Well, you could probably guess, I'm not going to say. The best strategy depends on the strategies of other runners in the race, and on your relationship with yourself. My goal with this post is to challenge your idea about whose race it is to begin with.

We fall into one or both of two traps when we think about whose race it is. Trap 1: each runner has a specific, physical, potential based on variables like VO2 max, muscle fiber type, or glycogen stores. The race is between those runners with the best attributes, provided they fulfill their poential. Trap 2: at least within certain levels of competition, the race is determined by willfulness -- ie., who wants it more. This way of thinking about persons is intuitive, but unhelpful for a lot of reasons. If we fall into trap 1, we think the outcome of races is determined by factors mostly out of individual control. That makes preparing and racing superfluous. If we fall into trap 2, we think that wanting it badly should be enough. When we don't succeed in our goals, we are led to the conlusion that our will wasn't strong enough. I don't think combining the two approaches helps much, either. We are neither completely constrained by our physical attributes, nor freed by more spiritual seeming ones.

We are multiple, though. I started this post with the anecdote about signing up for a race in order to convince yourself to train. I talked about tricking yourself, competing against yourself, running your own race, running responsive to others, and going out hard to convince yourself to hold on to that position. But who are you, to convince your self? Well, you can't just do it. You have to negotiate, cajole, and trick -- yourself. From one time to the next. From your anticipation of what is coming -- you prepare -- get in position. You enter the race, and then watch yourself prepare. You go out front, and then watch yourself hang on. You can't bluff it -- there are physical laws, and everything you do obeys those laws. But still, you do, and it matters. You are the combined effects of your oxygen carrying capacity, your preparation, and your strategies. It looks like will -- but it wasn't free -- you earned it.


  1. very thought provoking. of course I loved the ode to FG section. I'll have to contemplate which kind of runner I am.:o) but in all seriousness, very nice read. I feel runners of every caliber can read this and find it applicable to their own training.

  2. Thanks Eric for helping us to think about our racing strategy. Very thought provoking and on the money!

  3. Nicely put. It sounds like you're pretty excited for HS. The field is looking very competitive at the front, so it should be a good race. Best of luck.

    According to my fitness level I find it's critically necessary to run within my abilites. Usually when I chase runners who stretch my capabilities, I have to endure a slow correction period to recover from the extra-exertion. Of course this is beneficial in training-the act of overexertion in order to make ourselves stronger and faster. But during a race there seems to be such a fine line of running hard, racing even, and pushing it into the danger zone which ends up costing precious energy and time to recover. I think there is great benefit to pushing our limits. Without doing that we can't reach our potential. But the harder we push the closer we come to a point of necessary extended recovery and possible reduced performance.

    I think this balance is one of the things that make ultras so enjoyable. The hours during race spent calculating and searching for the zone of best result. A great battle of risk v reward.

  4. Blowing it wide open was fun in February. It was nice to be the alpha for 24 miles ha ha. Good luck with all of your summer racing.

  5. 'preciate the comments. Fast girl should appreciate that she's in good company with the likes of Keegan. You have to admit, though, it's a bitter pill when someone passes you after you've worked your *ss off. I know Rick is going to Rattlesnake -- but the rest of you should enjoy each others company at the back-to-back marathons on July 8 and 9.