Saturday, January 15, 2011

Racing, it's more than just running fast

ob Sevene, my coach, once told me that when he was recruiting college runners it wasn’t the guys with the fastest times he was most interested in, but the ones who were consistent winners.

His thinking was that runners used to winning will always find a way to win again.

They’re the ones with the innate drive that can’t be taught.

There are times I wish racing was just about going out and running fast. But it’s not. A lot of people don’t realize it, but it can be like a car race, where other runners can use you as a pacer, and basically draft you before passing you in the final stages of a race. It can be pretty frustrating. You can be heading toward the finish line and not even know someone is gaining on you.

In the Olympic finals, the distance races often wind up being “sit and kick” races, because no one wants to do the work to set the early pace. Everyone is setting themselves up for a sprint in the end that could result in a medal. After all, the runners people remember the winners, not the ones who finished with great times but out of the medals.

I prefer to run faster, but I realize you can’t aim to run a personal best every time out.

In 2004, I broke away from the field at the Olympic Marathon trials and led much of the way. For a number of reasons, I couldn’t hold on to that lead and wound up finishing fourth, missing the Olympic team. In 2008, I focused not so much on a fast time but on finishing in the top three and getting that spot in the Olympics.

Not leading a race from start to finish is tough on me.

I like to be out in front, having people chase me rather than me chasing them. My high school coach once told me I seemed to like running scared. I went to a small, private high school in North Carolina and won something like 11 of 12 state titles while I was there. The drawback was that at a small school I was never really pushed and did not get a chance to practice tactical racing. Running in college turned out to be a rude awakening. I enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had a chance to walk on to the team. That means I wasn’t given a scholarship to run.

Those first couple of years the challenge was making the team and just hanging on for dear life.

Looking back it took years for my body to catch up to my head. In fact, it was not until my senior year that I was finally able to execute my race plan and win. I was racing the 1,500 meters at the ACC championships and was not a favorite to win. With a lap and a half to go, I remember the pace slowed, so I surged around the pack and ran as hard as I could to the finish line for the win. It may have taken me four years
to learn how to win again, but I had finally done it.

Post-collegiate running has been the same scenario: Tougher competition and years of training hard and learning to win again. Since taking maternity leave, I have been playing catch-up but am happy to say that things are falling into place, and I am getting that fire again. I will face some tough opponents over this next year leading up to the Olympic Marathon Trials (which are almost exactly just one year away! Jan. 14, 2012, Houston) , but I am looking forward to every race along the way.

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