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  • Writer's pictureCoach Jacob Puzey

Win the Race of Preparation

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

All races are races of attrition. What many don’t realize, however, is that the race begins long before the starting gun sounds. The race of attrition is integrally tied to training and preparation.

I was fortunate to start coaching in rural, blue collar areas with kids who were both athletically gifted and disconnected enough from the Big City that they didn’t know any better than to try to win every race they ran. Then, along came the Internet and things got complicated. All of a sudden, the no nonsense, no excuses kids started talking about seed times and rankings. Despite countless variables – especially in cross country – the omniscient algorithms of the Internet determined race outcomes before they had even been run.

Desperate for answers, I accepted an invite to attend a coaching clinic with some of the top high school coaches in the country. The keynote speakers were Keith and Kevin Hanson of the Hanson’s Distance Project – the brothers in Michigan who turned guys and gals with resumes like mine – i.e. nothing worth noting in high school or college (Brian Sell and Des Linden) – into Olympians. Their no non-sense approach to training struck a chord with me. I listened intently and hoped to glean some nuggets I could take back to my high school cross country team.

They told of an experience they had with one of their athletes, Brian Sell. I had a poster of Mr. Sell on my classroom wall after he made the Olympic team in the marathon – both because he had a sick handlebar moustache that I figured my kids in rural Oregon could relate to and because he wasn’t anything special in high school or college. He simply transformed his body into a marathoning machine.

They talked about a time when Brian – a no name wannabe - lined up against the reigning World and American record holder in the marathon, Khalid Khannouchi. The race was shorter and merely a tune up for the marathon, but he was running against the best.

The two were neck-and-neck for much of the race and Khannouchi began pulling away. Sell surged to try and not lose contact and then as they approached the finish he made another push out of respect for the champ. And then something that even Sell hadn’t imagined happened – Sell pulled away and Khannouchi stepped off the course. Sell had broken the champ. He learned on that day that even the best are not always in peak form and even they can be broken.

The Hanson brothers broke the race down and made some generalizations that I have since used in my own running and with countless athletes with whom I have worked.

  • While the goal is to go into your goal race optimally trained, most go into races either undertrained of overtrained.

  • About half of those who are overtrained don’t end up racing because they are sick or injured.

  • The other half who are overtrained still try to race, but their performances are compromised because they are sick, injured, or fatigued or stressed that they paid so much to be at the race.

  • About half of those who are undertrained don’t even show up because they don’t feel prepared.

  • The other half who are undertrained show up because they are healthy and confident and want to see what they can do.

  • If you have to choose between being 10% overtrained and 10% undertrained, aim to be 10% undertrained and healthy rather than overtrained and injured or fatigued.

If you have to choose between being 10% overtrained and 10% undertrained, aim to be 10% undertrained and healthy rather than overtrained and injured or fatigued.

By showing up healthy – even if slightly undertrained - you have the chance of beating many of those seeded or ranked ahead of you simply by default because they don’t even show up or don’t finish the race.

After hearing this in such simple terms, things began to change when my teams and athletes were stacked up against teams with better resumes and rankings. We simply did the math. We were vigilant about going into our key races healthy and rested – even if it meant sitting out of big races and not posting fast times in the early season. We knew that we could win the race of attrition before the gun even sounded by simply showing up healthy and hungry on race day.

We knew that we could win the race of attrition before the gun even sounded by simply showing up healthy and hungry on race day.

Running the Boston Marathon with Michael Wardian Photo by Harry Mattison

Putting it into practice: When I ran the iconic Boston Marathon, I was assigned bib number 723 based on my qualifying time. That meant that in the previous year, approximately 722 people who would be lining up that day had run faster than me in the previous year. I accepted the challenge and knew that if I showed up healthy and was not afraid to race I would place higher than my seed number.

I realized early on that given the heat and my lack of heat training through the cold winter months that my time goals weren’t going to materialize so I simply made a game out of running down people with lower bib numbers. The ones with the really low numbers had them on their backs. Needless to say, I had a lot of people to run down and despite the pain from the cramping, I ran with a smile on my face for most of the race. I finished in the Top 50 overall as the top Canadian resident and ahead of over 600 people seeded ahead of me.

I don't share this example to brag, but rather to point out the despite less than optimal training and racing conditions (six inches of snow fell during my last long run a week before the race, snow was so deep our flight was delayed and we almost didn't make it to the airport the roads were so bad, and my luggage - including shoes - was lost, high heat and humidity on race day, etc.) I showed up healthy and ran what I knew I was capable of running on the day. It wasn't what I had hoped to run, but it was what I knew I could run given my training and the conditions on the day.

Similarly, you can win the race of preparation by doing the little things in training to ensure that you arrive rested and ready to race on race day.

Jacob Puzey is a multiple time national champion and world record holder who coaches runners from all over the world – of all ages and abilities from newbies to national champions – to reach their running potential on all surfaces and distances through

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