5:17 Mile — You Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em and Know When to Run

Ran in my second track meet this winter in San Diego. It feels weird to run in an outdoor track meet in 80 degrees in the middle of January, but hey, it’s Southern California! People think I’m spoiled, but I remember all those winters I’ve run in very cold conditions. I’ve run in double digits below zero when I lived in Calgary, Canada. It was so cold, I wore a ski mask to cover my face and icicles would form on it from the water vapor of my breath. But I digress…

I ran 5:17.1 today for a mile, which is 4 laps of the track plus an extra 9 meters. My 400-meter splits were 78, 80, 79, and 78 seconds (+2 seconds for the extra 9 meters).

After coming through 800 meters in 2:38, I stuck with another runner right in front of me for the entire third lap, staring at his back, letting him pull me along. I had to work to stay with him, but I convinced myself to not let go. I was able to do it, and then picked up the pace down the backstretch of the final lap with 300 meters to go and passed him. I had to work a lot to pass him, nearly felt like I was sprinting, and it took a lot out of me. He passed me back with about 150 meters to go. I tied up down the homestretch. I could feel my stride shorten from the fatigue.

Although I’m happy with the time since it was faster than last week by about 4 seconds (the 5:19 1,600 meters last week equals about 5:21 for a full mile), I made a strategic mistake. After all these years of running races, I’m still vulnerable to making mistakes. I made my move too early. I should have let that other runner lead me through the final lap as well, and instead of making my move down the backstretch of the final lap, I should have waited until the last 100 meters and tried to pass him off the final turn. I don’t know if I would have been able to stay with him that extra 200 meters—from 300 meters from the finish to 100 meters from the finish—but that would have been a smarter strategy than trying to pass him down the backstretch and use up so much energy. I felt flat the last 100 meters because of it.

With many of my blogs, I try to incorporate a lesson or coaching point. After all, I don’t know how many people would read a blog if it were just about me pursuing a 5-minute mile at age 40. There certainly are faster runners around. But if I can inspire one person to really go after a goal, then it’ll be worth it.

So, here’s the lesson: Be patient in your races, and try to read the race so you can choose the right moment to make your move. Like the Kenny Rogers’ song goes, “You got to know when to hold ’em… and know when to run.” Let other runners set the pace in a race. It takes more energy to set the pace yourself than it does to sit behind others. So let other runners do the early work. Sit right off their shoulder or right behind them and stare at their backs. Let them pull you along. Then, at some predetermined distance from the finish line, make a strong, decisive move and surge past them. But know when it’s the right time to make your move. This takes practice and correctly judging how much energy you have left.

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