Salvage A Rough Race

Proven tactics for getting through when you feel your target goal pace slipping away.

After the 2014 Boston Marathon, champion Meb Keflezighi recalled countless times, to many media outlets, how his quads were trashed and he felt like he might vomit at 38 kilometres. With a pack of Africans quickly making up ground on him, he didn’t have the option of stepping off the gas. Instead, he focused on surging through the curves and accelerated around the left-hand turn onto Boylston Street.

It was less a strategy of psychology or positive self-talk to keep going and more of a physical cue to stay focused on moving forward as fast as possible, even when Keflezighi’s body was shutting down. Such tactics can be race-savers when the going gets tough or when the goal pace is slipping out of reach.

While a Boston Marathon victory surely won’t be on the line, athletes still face endless questions on how (or if) they can continue after the wheels start falling off. Beyond the mental tricks, the mantras or relying on the support of the crowd to carry you, there are also physical ways to encourage your body to rally and salvage the opportunity. Here are a few ways the pros forge on:

1. Fartlek Frenzy

Aaron Braun is always a top contender at the most competitive US road races. He won his first US title last in November 2013, and later went on to the Los Angeles Marathon, but his debut at the distance did not go as planned.

Braun’s strategy was to stay with the leaders. Feeling fit and confident going into the race, he knew he had a shot at being in the top three or at least clocking a fast time. On a great day, he figured a 2:09 wasn’t out of the question. But when he arrived at the 19th kilometre, a gap started to form between him and the pack. By the last 13 kilometres, with sore quads and his goals out of reach, Braun was struggling to finish. He decided against dropping out, though, determined to complete all 42 kilometres and learn from the experience.

“I started trying to get through a kilometre at a time by focusing on running through a turn or reaching the crest of the next hill,” he says. “Then I’d try to surge to the next left turn, until I was finally almost finished.”

In other scenarios, Braun has used the fartlek technique, pushing himself for a city block or to reach another landmark, then easing off for a few seconds. Although some athletes prefer a traditional 1 minute on/1 minute off (or another interval of their choosing), Braun doesn’t like to rely on a watch when he resorts to this strategy in a race.

“I get more negative when I’m dealing with time,” he says. “I don’t know how long it will take me to get to a light pole, so it’s easier to trick myself into putting the most effort into getting there instead of suffering through what seems like a very long minute.”

2. Change Form

Danny Mackey advises his mostly middle-distance track stars to start changing their form when a race begins to unravel.

“When an athlete is having a bad race, they get so frustrated that you’ll see problems in their mechanics that you’ve never seen before,” he says. “It’s like a light switch – things just go to crap.”

Some of the most common flaws that flare up are strides that become long and loping and heads that start to flail backward, with the body following and leaning backward, too. Some runners start bopping up and down too much in a vertical, rather than forward, motion.

Mackey suggests that when things start falling apart, runners should try to keep a quick cadence and fast feet, stay tall and pay attention to their hand position.

“Sprinters have great hand mechanics,” he says. “Keep them high and in front of you.”

One of Mackey’s runners, Riley Masters, who once won the 1500m in 3:38.42 at the Payton Jordan Invitational, took a shot way outside his comfort zone in a 5K. As he gets tired he tends to bounce, so Mackey advised him to pay attention to his stride length late in the race, when he was probably going to start falling back.
The suggestion worked – a little too well.

“He got so absorbed in his mechanics, he lost track of counting laps,” Mackey says. “He was that focused on it.”

Masters clocked a 13:39.47 anyway, which was a 45-second personal best.

3. Find Friends

Braun often finds himself in packs and uses them to his advantage, especially in races where he’s not feeling particularly well. Depending on how the day is playing out, he seeks motivation in people who might not be the most obvious choice.

If Braun is hoping to be more relaxed in pace, he finds somebody to key off of who appears at ease, then he starts to copy the runner’s breathing and rhythm.

Other times, Braun looks for the opposite kind of competitor and latches on to regain a composure that the other athlete has lost.

“I find somebody who is struggling and wheezing,” Braun says. “It helps me do the opposite and gives me confidence that I can keep going – I’m not the only one having a hard time.”

And if the lead pack takes off, Braun likes to hook up with the chase pack instead of continuing on alone. It’s easier to work with others to catch back up, he says. Working in groups is a strategy any runner can use in a road race.

“When you fall off of one pack, it’s easier – and tempting some-times – to fall off the next one,” he says. “You really have to attach and work with the group to speed yourself back up to your goal pace.”


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