As we progress in fitness our goals generally follow suite. We may initially sign up for a race with the goal of simply finishing, but over time we seek out new challenges to keep us motivated: longer distances, more challenging terrain, or faster times.
When I first started running competitively my goal was to simply finish a 2-3K cross country race without walking. I still remember how good it felt to finish the last race of my first cross country season without stopping. All previous attempts fell short of that goal as I went out with the leaders, faded, walked, surged to catch the leaders, faded, walked, and surged again and again and again.
In that final race of that first season of “competitive” running, I finished fourth or fifth on my middle school cross country team. I was proud of myself because it was the highest I had ever placed on my team and for the first time ever I finished the race without walking. That sense of satisfaction was somewhat short-lived, however, because my little brother, Tommy, who was not even in middle school yet and had not been formally training jumped into the same race because “it looked fun” and finished beside me.
When Tommy asked me for a race strategy just seconds before the start of the race (at the same time that he informed me he was going to run it), I recommended he pace himself until he could see the finish line and then he should start pushing. As I rounded the final turn and approached the finish (and patted myself on the back for not stopping and walking) I heard the footsteps and then the breathing of another runner approaching. Before looking back and acknowledging the runner, Tommy innocently inquired, “Jake, I can see the finish. Is if ok if I start trying now?”
As we grew older and wanted to get faster we adhered to the advice of our high school coach. The most basic strategy he and other coaches prescribe is to run an even pace. As we would learn, that was easier said than done.
As a means of helping us run a consistent pace, our coach encouraged us to break the race into quarters. This is easy to do in race distances that are divisible by four – especially on a track – but the principle applies to all races of all distances (from 400m to 100 miles) and over all surfaces (road, trail, cross country, track, etc.).
The 400m, 800m, 1600m, and 3200m races on the track were good opportunities to practice this strategy.
The first quarter is about getting out and establishing a sustainable pace/rhythm.
The second quarter is about maintaining the rhythm and establishing position.
The third quarter should be run as though it were your last.
The last quarter is run with the heart so that you finish with nothing left to give.
Regardless of the distance, by the half way point of most races athletes begin to tire and the pace begins to wane.
The purpose of pushing the third quarter as though you were finishing the race is to get you out of the settling mindset and into a racing mindset.
Accelerating or increasing the effort (even if it is only in your mind) allows you to maintain the pace and often leads to passing others who started too fast and are slowing and beginning to doubt themselves.
Passing others later in the race (or even seeing the pace drop on your watch) floods the mind with positive affirmation that you belong, that you are capable of competing, and that you are on your way to an improved performance.
Naturally, when you reach the end of the third quarter you will be tired, but you will also be so encouraged by the people you passed and the pace you are running that you can dig a little deeper and gut out the final quarter of the race.
This strategy is not for the faint of heart, but it works and often surprises those willing to employ it.
My best races (from 800m to 80km) and the best races of the athletes I have coached - from middle schoolers to masters, newbies to national champions - were executed by running smart in the first half of the race, taking a risk in the third quarter of the race, and then digging deep and finishing on empty.
We discuss ways to physically prepare to race with this strategy (Hammer Intervals and Cut Down Runs) in another article, but the biggest challenge – even when physically fit – is committing to and following through with the execution of this strategy.
It is much more comfortable to sit back and let the race pass you by, but if you really want to get better, this is a strategy that will help you make a breakthrough.
USE A MANTRA, QUOTE, OR POWER WORD
I suggest using a mantra - a quote from an inspiring book or movie, lyrics to a song, or words from a poem - to keep you on track when things get hard.
One of my mantras in high school came from the film, GATTACA, about two brothers – one genetically engineered to be physically and mentally perfect and another who tried to fly under the radar and pretend he belonged in a world demanding perfection. From the time they were children, the two brothers played a game of chicken by swimming out to sea as far as possible. Somehow, the genetically inferior brother always won. When asked how he did it, he responded, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”
Given the myriad parallels in my own life with my superhuman younger brother, Tommy, I figured the only way I was ever going to be able to beat him would be to push hard enough in the middle of the race that either he wouldn’t be able to hang or if he could hang at least his kick wouldn’t be as potent. Although this strategy didn't always work on him because he had his own movie quotes that he would recite on his way by, it generally helped me mix it up with others and continue to improve my performances.
Imagine trying to gut out a PR over 5K and you hear Sean Connery approach you in the form of Tommy reciting, “What I do now, I do for my people and for Camelot. And may they forgive me. This is my last act as your king. Do not be afraid. All things change. I am Arthur of Camelot, and I command you now... all... To fight! Fight like you've never fought before! Never surrender! Never Surrender! Fight as you never...” or to keep things light and point out the flaws in your running form, see him pass you, fists pumping with his best Jim Carrey voice, “It feels like you’re running at an incredible rate, Harry!”
When I graduated from high school and college, Tommy exceeded any records I had set by employing the same strategy of hammering the third quarter of his races. He honed this skills as a miler in high school and still refers to the third quarter of any race as the “unforgiving minute” referred to in Rudyard Kipling’s, “If.”
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
In high school, Tommy figured if he could drop a 60 second quarter in the third quarter of the mile he could drop anyone he was racing. If he could hang on for the last lap he would run fast and probably win.
I wasn’t as fast as Tommy so it was rare that I was given the opportunity to race distances below 3,000m. However, by employing the strategy of hammering the third quarter I could usually run close to the same pace in the 3,000m as I could for 1500m. In fact, there were times when I would PR in the 1500m en route to a 3,000m PR.
By employing this same strategy in college, I remember passing the 3,000m mark in a 5,000m race and realizing I had just run faster than I had ever run before and I still had 2,000m to go. Guess what? I ran a PR in the 5K that day too.
Recently, Tommy ran a BIG PR in the marathon, but even more impressive was that en route to that PR he also PRed in the 5K, 10K, and Half Marathon. How? He didn't save anything for the swim back. He stuck his nose in the thick of the competition with guys who had run over 10 minutes faster than him and he ran to win. When they realized he wasn’t backing down they dropped out. He won.
If you want to see improvements in your running performance, I recommend the same strategy – get out, establish a rhythm, run the third quarter as though it were your last, and then “Fight! Fight like you've never fought before! Never surrender! Fight!”
It will hurt like hell, but the satisfaction that will come from taking a risk, laying it all on the line, and finishing on empty cannot be matched.
Find your inspiration, your “unforgiving minute” and use it to help you get to and through the hard parts. You’ll be surprised what you’ll discover – you are more capable than you ever imagined.