There are two ways to run a race: with tactics or with pure strategy. The difference is whether you care what other people are doing. (This is assuming you run the race as a race, not purely for fun. Many people derive great joy from running races just for fun, but I tend not to think in those terms.)
Tactical running is defined by anticipating or responding to the actions of the runner(s) you are with, noticing their every move and processing what it might mean. You are truly competing against them, responding to their actions and parrying in kind. Tactical running demands sensitivity, versatility, and quick thinking. You must have a clear plan and yet be willing to throw it to the winds the moment one of your rivals does something unexpected. Or rather, you must have many plans, one for each unique way a race might develop and what you would do in that scenario.
Of course, there is no point in running tactically unless there is some chance that you or one of the people you are with will actually win. (Winning does not necessarily mean finishing in first place; one might run tactically for, say, third place if the top three finishers get a prize or qualify for another event.) But no one jockeys for 10th place or 100th place (assuming they even know that is where they stand). Sure, the round number might make you feel a little better about yourself, but it is no real reflection of your ability as a runner.
For all but the few with striking distance of the lead, the best strategy is the pure strategy. And the pure strategy is always the steady strategy, not wavering from your pace, regardless of what the others around you do. It’s a strange feeling to be passed by dozens of runners in the first few hundred yards of a race and then to spend the next hour passing them all back, but it’s what you must be willing to do to run a pure strategy. Any energy you expend in brief surges of speed could be more efficiently used to keep a consistently faster pace over the whole race.
But steadiness does not imply stasis. In its ideal form, the perfect pace would be one long, drawn-out, imperceptibly gradual acceleration from start to finish. Since this requires almost superhuman awareness and control to execute, a reasonable substitute is to speed up gently but noticeably at certain points in the race, creating what is called a negative split (that is, you run the second half of the race in less time than the first half). But the important thing is that you are always upping the tempo, never fading back (As a columnist I was fond of reading says: “Always buy, never sell.”). Once you accelerate to a certain pace, you are committed to going at least that fast for the rest of the race. Either you will be capable of doing so (and feel glorious in doing it), or you will not—and feel agony. But to slow down is to admit that you made a mistake earlier on, that you tried to do more than you had the fortitude to handle.
In a purely strategic race, your only opponent is the clock. The clock is not vulnerable to gamesmanship or cat-and-mouse tactics. Success against the clock is defined by your personal goals, and you can only achieve your own goals by running your own race. Of course, if during the race you find a runner going at the same pace as you, it is likely to both of your advantage to work together against your common opponent, the clock. Having someone else keeping the same pace alongside helps protect you from accidentally letting it slide either faster or slower. It is also psychologically much easier to hold up over those painful final miles knowing that you’re not alone out there.
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Training to run a steady race, of course, means training steadily. But again, this steadiness is not static, but dynamic, not a source of monotonous routine but a solid framework for fresh exploration. The steadiness shows itself not in repeating the same workout day after day, but in doing the same set of workouts every week, and in building steadily on the previous week’s work. Although you intend to run a steady pace on race day, you don’t run the same pace every day, or even for the entirety of a workout, and only rarely do you try to run at race pace. (In fact, the more you vary your pace in training, the better equipped you may be to run steadily when you want to on race day. A long workout in which you irregularly and spontaneously vary your pace is known in running parlance as fartlek, Swedish for “speed play.” Aside from being fun to say, the word fartlek is a reminder that a good workout can just as well be called “play” as “work.”)
Just as it is difficult to push hard in a race when alone on the course, it is difficult to train at maximum effort by yourself, so many people choose to run with partners. But a varied workout program can also allow for varying partners. Since one runner’s hard workout could be another’s easy one, you can run your hard workouts with faster runners and your easy workouts with slower ones. Of course, some people’s natural pace may be different enough from your own that it is impractical to work out with them. But a good training program will have you varying your pace by several minutes per mile on different days, providing lots of latitude to find common ground with others.
But you don’t just train to help you race better; racing helps you train better too. There’s a special kind of delight in your first workout after a hard race and a couple days of rest. Speeds that used to seem hard and painful now feel like treading on air, because facing competition has forced your body to get stronger. The value of competition is not in being the best (in comparison to others), but in being your best (in comparison to yourself). If you sincerely try to be the best, you will still almost certainly fail, but you may well succeed in being your best. You need to surround yourself with people faster than you so that you cannot succeed in the former without also accomplishing the latter. A race, in these terms, is simply when a bunch of fast runners get together to do an especially hard workout, so they are sure of having someone faster to spur them on to greater effort. Of course, the leader of a race has no one in front of them for inspiration, but presumably the prospect of the clock and medal at the finish line is motivation enough.
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So, the pure strategy is not just for midpack athletes aiming for a personal best. Championship racers can, and sometimes do, choose the pure strategy as well. In the 10,000 meters at the most recent Olympics, Almez Ayala of Ethiopia broke away from the pack early on and struck out by herself at a consistent but blistering pace. She built a huge lead over the field and never relinquished it on her way to smashing the world record for that distance, much to commentators’ astonishment. Ayala was supremely confident that she was simply stronger than any of her rivals and could therefore win the race easily with a pure strategy.
Another spectacular example of a pure strategy came in the men’s marathon at the same Olympics, where Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came into the race as the clear favorite. On a warm and humid day in Rio, he was content to let other runners set a relatively slow (relatively being the operative word here; it was just above a 5-minute mile) pace for the first half of the race while he kept an eye on things from just behind. With no one pushing the pace, at the halfway point of the race, the lead pack still contained over 40 runners. But then Kipchoge started to make his move, taking the pace up a notch every mile or two and seeing how many of his competitors could (or would) keep up. The lead pack slimmed to a dozen, then nine, then six, then four. All the while, Kipchoge never made a dramatic surge, but just kept nudging the tempo higher and higher.
Around mile 21, another runner dropped back; here, to all appearances, were the three medalists. Kipchoge inched slightly faster, losing American Galen Rupp minutes later. Now only Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lelisa remained. Kipchoge swerved side-to-side across the road, as if daring Lelisa to pass him. He couldn’t. Kipchoge shifted into one last higher gear (something around 4:35 mile pace), put some distance between himself and Lelisa, and cruised the final two or three miles to victory. Kipchoge managed to run the second half of the race more than 3 minutes faster than the first half—an incredible negative split—with barely a noticeable change of pace along the way.
In my praise of steadiness and the pure strategy, I don’t want to neglect the glories of tactical racing. I’m sure it can be thrilling; it’s just that, as a much-less-than-elite runner, I haven’t had the chance to ever try it yet. But just to be fair, I’ll close with an example of a particularly memorable tactical race, also from the 2016 Olympics.
Matthew Centrowitz Jr. became a local hero here in Maryland for his performance in the 1500-meter final in Rio. As impressive an athlete as Centrowitz is, I doubt he could have won that race running a pure strategy, as several athletes in the field owned far faster times than his, most notably the lanky Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, winner of the previous three world championships and third-fastest human in history at that distance. Centrowitz went to the front of the pack immediately and set a relatively relaxed pace (again, what would be a flat-out sprint for most humans) for the first two laps, as the rest of the field seemed content to run tactically behind him, with Kiprop bringing up the rear.
With two laps to go, Kiprop had had enough and tried to make a move around the pack. Just as he did, two runners collided next to him, distracting him for just a moment, and before he could pull alongside Centrowitz in the lead, they were into the turn again. Rather than waste strides running wide around the turn, Kiprop dropped back into the pack to await another chance. From there, a fascinating tactical battle ensued. On each straightaway, Kiprop would start to make a move, whereupon Centrowitz would pick up the pace just enough to stay ahead of his rival into the turn, forcing him to regroup.
Coming off the final turn, Centrowitz, now in full sprint, was still in the lead, with Kiprop just off his shoulder. But the world champion was too spent from his earlier surges to keep up, fading down the homestretch as Centrowitz held off defending Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria for the gold medal. He had found the right tactic to beat the great Kiprop—and executed it to perfection.