• Coach Jacob Puzey

Run the 3rd Quarter Like Your Last

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

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.


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 h