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Running Bravely

Running Bravely

It’s that time of year when 50,000 runners and walkers take the streets for Boulder’s Memorial Day Tradition. Some people will achieve performances far superior to their previous bests, far better, even than their most optimistic expectations. How does this happen?

I hope I never err by suggesting absolute answers or presenting you with a picture of the ideal runner, biased by my belief in my own experience. If I’m more or less impartial in presenting the problems and solutions I’ve known, what I write here can be of some value to the general discussion by those who find similar satisfaction in athletic pursuit. 

Running is Simple – People are Complex

Craft and hard work can take you a long way. Planning, testing, and monitoring have their place. Clearly, your training should be based on sound scientific principles. But people are more complex than that. What works for one might not work for another. Adherence to a rigid schedule might take one runner to great heights but lay another low with injuries.

The way you move, structure your training, focus your attention, build your confidence and develop your racing tactics are all part of the runner’s art.

It all comes down to the question of quality over quantity. The race is the same distance for everyone. When the gun goes off the slowest competitor has as much reason as the fastest to give their best effort until they reach the finish line. And everyone regardless of how much time they choose to devote to training has the opportunity to work on developing their timing, balance, relaxation, and concentration.

Talent may set an athlete’s ultimate physical limit but it does not determine how close to that limit they are able to get. – Matt Fitzgerald

Ideas and tactics like these helped me discover who I was and how I wanted to be.

Sit and Kick

If you view an elite road race like the Bolder Boulder 10K on a webcast, you’ll notice the winners are often three places (or further) back on the first lap. Very rarely does anyone lead from start to finish. Front-running is a strategy you can learn — but it takes a great deal of difficult advance work! I prefer that people first learn the tactic called “sit & kick.”

The most critical part of the 10K is the first two-thirds of the race, so the best strategy is to stay relaxed, just behind your goal pace, for the first four miles. At that point you can begin moving up gradually, gently accelerating without straining or over-reaching, until you are 500 to 600 meters from the stadium. That’s when you can light the afterburners and flash your closing speed. 

The Invisible Thread

One thing I love about the Bolder Boulder Citizen’s Race is that the frequent bends and turns in the course offer a perfect opportunity to employ a fun racing tactic I learned from the great Frank Shorter:

In any kind of distance race there is an invisible thread that stretches about 10 meters. If a fellow competitor is running 10 meters or less in front of you, you’ll find that you can usually pull even or spurt past them anytime you choose.

By throwing in some of your own mid-race surges at the turns, without pushing too hard, you might slip away from your wave and out of sight — which is a big psychological advantage. Once you hammer out a gap of more than 10 meters, the other racers in your wave tend to get a little worried. They’ll start to calculate the hurt and juice it’s going to take to catch up with you. Their anxiety alone can make it harder for them to close the gap. Once you sever the invisible 10-meter thread you can float along, relaxing rhythmically until you feel ready to change speeds again.

Frank actually “stole” a lot of races by timing his surges down to the second, suddenly making a clean getaway!

Meanwhile behind me, the other runners still appeared to be thinking like traditional, steady state, war-of-attrition marathoners. On the track when a runner threw a midrace surge, the rest of the lead pack went with him or at least kept him in their sights and within striking distance. When I made my mile-9 surge in Munich (1972) however, those guys let me escape. Not only had I snapped the invisible thread, I had disappeared entirely. Now I was running alone. It was just me and the long blue line that traced the 26.2-mile route through Old Munich, the city where I had been born. 

The rest is history. Frank’s date with Olympic destiny in the seventies ignited the first running boom in the United States. Of course, it very rare to find anyone running in isolation, having vanished from sight in the Bolder Boulder 10K. But if you want to have a strong race, once your initial burst of fresh fitness and enthusiasm inevitably fades, try employing the invisible thread tactic. It works wonders!


Acknowledgments

My Marathon, Reflections on a Gold Medal Life, Frank Shorter w/ John Brandt (pg. 111)

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