Today was my first track meet of the season, an all-comers meet in Temecula, California. Because there’s no indoor track season in sunny Southern California like I had going to high school in New Jersey, there’s a lot of track meets that schools put on here in the winter to give high school runners a chance to race. They call these track meets “All-Comers,” meaning just that — that it’s open to anyone who wants to run. However, as I learned a long time ago, adults, who have no problem paying $100 or more to run half-marathons and marathons, don’t want to pay $5 to run an unlimited amount of races on the track. Adults are timid about the track. And that’s a shame, because track and field is exciting and intense.
So, when I pulled into the parking lot of Great Oak High School in the town of Temecula, Southern California’s wine country, I wasn’t surprised to see so many high school kids.
When they called the runners together for the mile to separate us into heats, I started to feel old. I was the ONLY adult! But I was surprisingly okay with that because racing high school kids brings me back to my own high school track days and makes me feel young again. There’s plenty of opportunities in road races to race against people my age. It’s not that often I get the chance to race against teenagers, chasing the speed of my youth. When I race them, I feel like I’m racing a younger (albeit a less cool) version of myself! They may be fast at that age, but they often let their emotional immaturity win over their knowledge of their fitness level, which leads them to run bad races, and I can capitalize on that. More on this lesson toward the end of this blog post.
The details of the race… The gun fired and, predictably, all those teenagers went out fast. Even the two girls who were in my heat. Within the first 100 meters around the first turn, I ended up in last place, and I was losing ground quickly. I wanted to aim for specific splits on each lap since I knew what I could run from my workouts. So, even though it doesn’t feel very good to see the whole pack of runners going out fast like that and leaving me behind, I remained calm and stuck to my plan, pretty confident that many of them went out way over their heads and would come back to me. They always come back. I came through 200 meters in 38 seconds, a little faster than I wanted, but I knew that was a result of wanting to stay within striking distance of the pack, so I slowed myself down just a little and came around 400 meters in 77 seconds, about 2 seconds faster than I wanted. I felt good.
On the second lap, down the backstretch, two guys came back. I passed both of them with determination and authority. Which brings me to Lesson #1: When you pass someone in a race, pass with authority. Don’t pass timidly. Just like Tom Hanks said there’s no crying in baseball in A League of Their Own, there’s no place for timidity or shyness in a race. When you pass, pass strongly and with authority. So after I passed those two high school boys, the rest of the race was a matter of fishing — reeling in one runner after another. I caught one of the girls late on the backstretch of the second lap and came through 800 meters in 2:40, exactly what I wanted.
The third lap is where the mile starts to get very uncomfortable. You’re starting to develop a lot of acidosis because you’re running much faster than your lactate threshold pace and there’s a rather large anaerobic contribution to the race. So it’s easy to lose your focus on that third lap and get lazy. I kept my head in it and focused on passing as many runners as I could. One by one, they were coming back to me. They were getting slower and I was maintaining my pace. I passed the other girl on the second turn of the third lap. She seemed to be a good runner who I had actually spotted during my warm-up before the race. You can always tell who the good runners are during the warm-ups. I came through 1,200 meters in 4:01. Right on pace.
The last lap of the mile is a tough lap because your legs have to deal with acidosis the whole way. Stride length shortens. But psychologically it’s a bit easier than the third lap because you know it’s the last lap and you just have to go for it. When you’re really in shape (and I’m not there yet), you can just fly on that last lap. I knew to run 5:20 I needed a 79-second last lap after coming through 1,200 meters in 4:01. Just writing that sounds slow because it hasn’t been that long since I was able to run under 5:20 pace for 2 miles and under 5:30 pace for 5K. But I have to stay in the moment and realize where I am now and try to get to where I want to be. It’s tough to train for the mile after running a marathon two months ago. It’ll take some time to get mile fit again. But I’m patient. I passed more runners the last lap and sprinted to the finish line. Final time: 5:19.9. My splits were 77, 83, 81, and 78, with the first half in 2:40 and the second half in 2:39. And I beat half the runners in the race, all of whom ran the first 450 meters faster than me and many of whom ran the first half faster than me.
Which brings me to Lesson #2: As I wrote in my book, 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners, the single biggest mistake runners make when they race is that they start out too fast, way above their fitness level. They either ignore or do not learn from their training what pace is realistically sustainable for the entire race. The faster you run the first half of a race, the more your muscles rely on oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism to generate energy. With the greater reliance on oxygen-independent metabolism and muscular work comes an increase in muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolites that cause fatigue. Whether the race is a mile or a marathon, you can’t put running time in the bank. You will end up losing more time in the end than what you gained by being ahead of schedule in the beginning. No matter how strong your will is, the metabolic condition caused by running too fast too early will force you to slow down during subsequent stages of the race.
These teenagers whom I just beat because they started the race too fast, either their coaches are not telling them how to run races effectively to get the best result (which is called coaching), or they’re telling them how to race but the athletes are not listening. Now that I’ll be coaching a high school track team this spring, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be coaching my athletes on how to run races effectively. So if you have a teenager who runs track in the San Diego Unified School District, he or she better learn how to run a race or my athletes will beat your kid!
The best way to run your fastest possible race is by running the second half of the race at a pace that is equal to or slightly faster than the first half (even or negative splits). To negative split a race requires accurate knowledge of your fitness level, confidence to stick to your plan when others have taken the early pace out too fast, and a good dose of self-restraint. The most economical racing strategy for any race of a mile or longer, when you want to achieve a specific time rather than a specific place, is to prevent large fluctuations in pace and run as evenly as possible to keep muscle acidosis as low as possible until you near the finish.
Next time you run a race, ask yourself within the first mile (or the first lap or two of a track race), “Can I really hold this pace the entire way?” Be honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then back off the pace so you can have a better race. The best races come when you are in control of the race the whole time and able to run faster in the closing stages, rather than when the race is controlling you and you’re just hanging on to the pace, waiting for the finish line to come.
If there is one racing strategy that will enable you to run a better, faster race on that day (disregarding for the moment the training that led up to it), whether it is a mile or a marathon, running even or slightly negative splits is it.
Looking forward to another track meet next Saturday and continue my quest for a sub 5-minute mile this summer! If you’re in the San Diego area, join me!
If you want more racing strategies, get a 20% discount until January 31 on my book, 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners. Enter code RUNSMARTER at checkout!