If I’m Honest

If I’m honest, the NCAA Track and Field Championships frustrate me. Not because I never managed to qualify for one while I was in college, but because of what I see as, well, a lack of honesty. That might be a confusing statement, so let me explain.

I’m not suggesting that the sport of collegiate track and field is comprised of a bunch of lying, cheating, money-mongering crooks. Even if you think it is, that’s a totally different discussion. What I am referring to is the effort put forth by the athletes themselves. Sure, many of the athletes present at the national championships are very invested in what they are doing. They spend the entire year juggling classes and training, chasing qualifying marks, and dreaming of punching their ticket to the ‘big show.’

For some, qualifying is all but a given. They are the cream of the crop, the best of the best. They may have even done it before and be returning for their second, third, or fourth helping. Others have a bit more of a battle. They bust their buts day after day, attempting to do everything in their power to extend their season by one more meet. Some make it. Others don’t.

When that fateful day of competing rears its head, many of those qualified stand very little chance of winning. Still, they give it a go anyways. Perhaps they latch themselves onto the back of the 5k pack and pray that they can hang on for a PR. Every now and then one of the underdogs has the performance of a lifetime and finds themselves on the podium. More often than not, however, the victory goes to one of the favorites.

This is where my frustrations lie. Not in the fact that they win, but in the fact that some of them seem to do so with a less than all out effort. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure they worked for their victory. In some cases it was everything they had, but I’ve witnessed enough races to know that this isn’t always the way it goes. Case in point, this year’s men’s 10,000-meter race.

I watched the race from my hotel room in Georgia as I rested up for an upcoming race. If you watched it you know that the announcers made it very clear that Edward Cheserek of the University of Oregon was the heavy favorite. Furthermore, you also would have heard them express that the best way for someone to beat him might be for the pace to be taken out good and hard in hopes of catching him with tired legs after his victory in the 5,000-meter race.

There were 24 runners in the race, and yet no one really seemed to pressure Cheserek very much. Instead, they allowed him to tuck in behind the leaders and tag along for the ride. There was a slight bit of jostling toward the end, but in the final lap it was Cheserek who made his way to the front and cruised across the finish in first.

I don’t mind that Cheserek won. What I do mind is that I feel like I never got to see his best. In fact, I feel like I didn’t really get to see a 10,000-meter race at all. Sure, it turned into a race in the last lap, but I wasn’t watching a 400-meter race. I was watching a 10k. I wanted to see the runners pour out their heart into a full 10,000 meters. I wanted to see blood and guts and maybe a bit of puking at the finish line. Hunched-over runners, hands on their knees, lungs gasping for air. Pure guts, that’s what I wanted, not a 9,600-meter warm-up and a one-lap race. Now, maybe there was someone in the race who did that, someone tucked into the middle of the pack hanging on for dear life and running a big personal best. Maybe Cheserek himself was giving it his all. But if I’m honest, I didn’t get that impression. Instead I got the feeling that guys were running to win, but not necessarily to attain their fastest time.

At the end of the day a race is just a race and it can be run however someone wants. What’s more important than a race, though, are the things that we do day to day. Like a race, those things should be done with enthusiasm and vigor. We need not set a world record in everything, but we should be committed to giving things a good, honest effort. I don’t claim to be perfect in this realm of life. Yes, I give many things an honest effort, but even I can find myself slacking from time to time.

The important thing is to identify those things of true value, and pursue them with gusto. Don’t hold back for 9,600 meters and then come charging home with a lap to go. Rather, jump in with all of your heart and soul, give it everything you’ve got, and don’t quit until the job is done. Sometimes you’ll get it. Other times you’ll miss your mark. The important thing, however, is that you stay the course, keep trying, and learn from your mistakes, even if that mistake is not trying enough.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you put 100% effort into all that you do in life and in running?
  • Do you ever find it appropriate to hold back just a bit, to conserve oneself for what might lie ahead?
  • Do you think that these sorts of behaviors–going all out or proceeding conservatively–are learned or instinctual or some of both for us humans?
Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for Nike Trail Elite and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 32 comments

  1. Brad D

    Well done Zach!!!! I saw that race too. Kinda lame if you ask me. They need to take a page out of the Zach Miller playbook :)

  2. Gordon

    “I got the feeling that guys were running to win, but not necessarily to attain their fastest time.”

    Exactly. It’s a race, not a time trial. It’s about standing on the podium, not about getting a PR.

    1. Jeff

      I agree with you Gordon. It’s a race and the objective is to place as high as possible. Yes, it would be great to see guys give it everything they have, but it’s more about race tactics in these championship races. On the point of Cheserek, going out fast and bringing along his competition behind him would have set him up for a lower % chance to take the win after already running the 5K. Sometimes strategy trumps pure guts.

  3. Sheik

    All the races leading up to a championship are about running a PR and stretching the limit of your own performance. A championship is as Gordon says about standing on the podium, however that race unfolds. The great races that endure in our collective memories achieve both PRs and podium finishes together.

    Races are more fun to watch when 2 or more athletes of equal caliber and training are battling. Unfortunately Cheserek is so much more talented than the rest of the NCAA distance field right now, his race is no longer against them, but against all past NCAA champions for how many NCAA golds he can achieve in a career, which is and will be a record.

    Good article for all of us for whom one NCAA All-American would have been the culmination of a lifetime of training and all our guts poured on the course in one effort.

  4. Barrett A.

    Zach is cut from the same cloth as Prefontaine…run your guts out every time you step foot on the track (or trails) to compete against other elite runners. It’s much more endearing for some of us to watch that kind of display because it shows how hard they really are working, and kind of relates to what most of us feel when we try our hardest, knowing we may not be the most talented in the field, yet trying our hardest to beat the best. Zach and the other Nike Trail runners like Tim and David are bringing this back to American running and it is a breath of fresh air to see, but there are always gonna be the Cheserek’s who are just better runners and don’t have to race as hard to win. Good for Cheserek to be so dominating, and I don’t take anything away from guys like him…if anything I’m jealous they can run so well making it look so easy…but I think we all can appreciate what Zach is trying to say, and I applaud him for saying it.

  5. Zach Bitter

    Right, it is about standing on the podium, but I don’t think that is what Zach is most frustrated with. Zach can feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I think the frustration lies in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th fastest guys in the race. I can understand Cheserek “sitting and Kicking” because he is hands down the fastest guy in the race. However, the guys on his coatails who have the best opportunity to beat him need to be the ones to take it out. It’s like Zach said, someone needed to make Cheserek work that kick out of his legs in order to beat him, and since he had already raced the 5k there was a chance that could happen. I tihnk one of the big problems with this is there are so few 10,000 meter races that draw attention on a wide scale. Not many people are watching the last chance meets and PR attempts mid season. This leaves us with this boring tactical race as the face of the event to the general puplic. It’s no wonder people would rather tune into the NBA finals… I get that the goal is not to necessarily entertain the masses, but if these athletes want running careers post college they should consider how the sport is percieved.

    1. Mic Med

      Agreed. It’s how Farah is treated, too. Mo has a simple tactic: Hang with the leaders, then destroy them with a final kick. Yet, his PR isn’t as fast as the people who he beats. The problem is that the 2nd-4th people, people who have run faster times than him, don’t go all out from the beginning and run a breakneck pace that they may or may not hold on to. They sit and wait like everyone else. Again, the problem isn’t Mo. He wins with this tactic, kudos to him. It’s the racers who are afraid to just throw down.

  6. Jeff

    Zach is qualified to write on this topic of “Giving your all.” As his track coach in high school, I watched as he trained and I watched as he raced. Zach never held back and always gave it his all. He was famous for his contorted face, and flying arms as he sprinted down the final 100 meters of a 3200 m race. He was no star at the shorter distances (as he is now at the longer distances), but one thing was for sure, if you were in the race with Zach, you better be ready to run!

    1. Bill Silverman

      That’s the way Prefontaine raced: always giving it his all. I saw him in the early 80’s at the Sunkist Indoor Meet in LA. He took the lead and eventually ended near-last. Other races, Pre took the lead and challenged other runners to try to beat him. That was Pre. However, I’m not so sure top runners need to, or should, “give it their all” in every race. Eventually if they keep doing that in every race the odds are they’re going to crash-and-burn. Perhaps Cheserek has another race he’s pointing to, or the Olympic Trials, or maybe he didn’t feel like puking after the race.

      If Zach wants to see runners giving it their all, he should concentrate on the #2, 3, 4 runner and the mid-packers. In every race there are always several races going on.

      Just MHO, YMMV

  7. Bart

    Absent clear evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that each runner approached the race in the way he thought provided him the greatest probability of realizing his objective, whether that was coming in first, standing on the podium, running a PR, or whatever. If each competitor acting in his best interest failed to provide the spectacle that some viewers desired, such is life. Often, it does, and it’s unclear a better set of rules can be employed to increase the likelihood of that happening or, even if they could, that it would be sensible to do so.

    It is easy to stand on the sidelines or recline on the sofa and criticize a runner who came in third for achieving his goal of standing on the podium rather than going out harder and sacrificing for some people’s perception of the greater good, but it is unclear why any runner should be expected to set aside his personal goals. Moreover, it seems far more problematic if all, or even some, of the other runners colluded in an attempt to upset a heavy favorite.

    That is not to say there’s anything wrong with a runner who decides to approach every race with the goal of achieving a PR, even if that means in many races he places far below weaker runners or DNFs. Goals are personal. Similarly, if a runner views races as a relative rather than absolute contest and executes a strategy in the hopes of finishing ahead of as many of his competitors as possible, so be it.

    It’s unclear why the former is considered noble and worthy of applause but the latter should be criticized.

  8. Matt

    The message that Zach (at least my takeaway) is trying to get across is spot on but not sure that the analogy is the right match as you clearly call out.

  9. Rich

    I saw the race as well and actually do not think the rest of the guys were trying to win. If they were, then someone would have actually tried to stretch the field and see if Cheserek would have cracked or not. What I saw was the rest of the contenders trying to get 2nd and 3rd place.

  10. RH

    “Furthermore, you also would have heard them express that the best way for someone to beat him might be for the pace to be taken out good and hard in hopes of catching him with tired legs after his victory in the 5,000-meter race.”

    The 10k was on Wednesday night, two days before the 5k, so the above quote neither applies, nor is it accurate. Also, Cheserek’s main competition in the 5k (Tiernan, Curtin, and McGorty) did push the pace in the first 4k of the race in hopes of capitalizing on Cheserek’s fatigue and to take the sting out of his kick. And in the 10k, the quality of the field was not as strong as the 5k, so it’s likely that Cheserek’s main competition (outside of maybe Zienasellassie) was approaching the race with hopes of maximizing their personal potential and points for their teams.

    Additionally, NCAAs is also a team competition and, as such, runners are compelled to employ a strategy that garners their team the maximal amount of points. For example, Gabe Gonzalez from Arkansas whose 2nd place finish in the 10k greatly contributed to the Razorbacks placing second overall in the team competition.

  11. Lucy

    On the matter of whether it is instinctual to go all out or proceed cautiously, I think the majority of humans instinctually seek the path of least resistance and require an external stimulus in order to actually put forth appropriate effort. Look at the fact that the majority of the American population is overweight or obese, if we don’t need to do physical activity or control our consumption, if we don’t need to push ourselves, we won’t. In fact, even if we need to, unless the stimulus is right there in our faces, we still won’t do anything.

  12. Tanner

    Well said. Reminds me of my crit racing days. 45 minutes of a slow group ride with the final lap being an all out sprint to the finish.

  13. Pieter

    Never leave anything out on the road (or trail).

    That is my motto, and something I often reflect on when in the second haft of an ultra. I ask myself, am I leaving something behind, or have I given everything I’ve got. If I find that I am not giving everything, then I increase my effort.

    See, we all want to be the best versions of ourselves, but we always seem to hold something in the tank, never really giving that extra 5% we still have in reserve. And that is what separates the good from the great. That extra 5%.

    Another aspect to consider is that you never know what a day, or a race, will hold. You do not know who is watching, what opportunities might come if you give everything you have. Or worse yet, what opportunities you might lose if you do not.

    Lastly, sometimes the race is with yourself and not those around you. To push yourself, to test your limits, and to grow, you have to give it all you’ve got!

    These are some of the things I reflected on during my first utra marathon (had a lot of time to think). I captured some of my ideas on giving all you’ve got at http://myepictrails.com/takes-running-first-ultramarathon/

    The article is appropriately named “all it takes is all you have”

  14. Wls

    Zach, stick to racing long trails!!! No wonder you never qualified for an NCAA Championship. Did you even run NCAA Division I T&F? Anyway, the 10,000m is ALWAYS before the 5000m. “Everybody knows that.”

    1. Wls

      And by the way, guys, criticizing King Ches is a joke. Most successful runner in NCAA history, a history that had Olympic Champions racing in college.

      Hey, Brett-SC, why don’t you watch this past year’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (or any of his 3 wins) and watch him HAMMER from over 2km out to destroy the field.

      1. Zach Miller

        Wls,

        I thinker I messed up when I was writing this and flip flopped the 5k and 10k. That was really dumb on my part and I feel like a fool for doing it. I think what I was trying to express still comes through but it was poor on my part to mess up the details.

        As for King Ches, he is a phenomenal runner and I don’t want to put him down. Perhaps I should have picked a more general example or one that didn’t reference specific people. Anyhow, tactical racing can be fun to watch and winning such races can be extremely difficult. Its impressive that Ches can win such races.

        For me, however, I really enjoy watching people go to the well. I love when people push themselves to the max and test the human spirit. The human spirit can also be tested in a tactical race, but I just really love that all out, everything you’ve got racing. That’s the type of thing that gets me fired up.

        Other people like watching the poker game that is a tactical race. Very talented runners manage to win that type of race. Given the choice between tactical racing and a blood and guts race against oneself, I’ll take the latter. Others can choose the former, I’m just writing about I style of racing/living that I enjoy and promote. You are welcome to enjoy something else. And congrats to King Ches! He’s had one heck of a run.

        1. SageCanaday

          Pre once said:
          “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.”

          The thing is, closing the last 400m or 800m “balls-to the wall” in a tactical, negative split 10km track race does take a lot of guts…So does taking it out at a fast even pace. But is one strategy “more gutsy” or “all-out” compared to the other? Is a 10km run at an even time-trial pace (or a 100-miler for that matter) more “gutsy: than an all-out 1500m race? To me the pain is all the same (very hard), the effort is constant and the runner that runs the smartest has run to the best of their ability and closest to their maximum potential.

          Knowing a little bit about your strengths and weakness as a runner, I’d say that your best strategy in a trail ultra is going to be to time-trial. That is probably why this resonates with you so well. Case in point: When you beat Rob Krar and I at Lake Sonoma in 2014. – And trust me, you don’t want to be in a “sit-and-kick: race with Rob Krar! So you soundly beat us that day by taking it out fairly hard and fairly early. This also worked well for you at The North Face 50 and CCC also. But i don’t think that’s always the best strategy for many other runners (top runners and mid-packers alike). People have to play on their individual strengths and weaknesses depending on the course and distance… and of course then pacing is a consideration…So yes, run with your heart and run into the pain cave and leave everything out there…but ultimately that’s going to mean different things to different people.

      2. Brett-SC

        No thanks.

        BTW, please don’t take it as a personal criticism…he is doing what he thinks gives him the best chance to win. This article and discussion is around the REST of the field.

        This is akin to the Tour De France – if teams or riders worked together to try and crack a leader who is the class of the field, they would have a better chance at winning. Yes, it would probably require someone sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the odds of anybody. But you never know if its your day and you don’t crack. But most of the time all you see is everyone else essentially throwing in the towel and just trying to fight for the other podium places. That is certainly a valid strategy, but that is what we are criticizing, not that the yellow jersey is just doing what they need to do.

  15. SageCanaday

    To me it’s all about smart racing….and that doesn’t always mean “time trialing.” In longer ultras (esp with adverse weather conditions etc.) it’s hard to gauge what a 100% effort race will end up being…because you’re often pacing yourself at 70-80% “effort.” or whatever that means. Some people tend to go out too hard and fade hard…you can say they gave it their all, 100% though and I respect that (it’s happened to me). But it can be foolish. It can lead to lackluster results.

    I used to say (at least with track racing and road marathon racing on flat uniform surfaces)..:if you ran a slight positive split (second half slower than the first half) then you know you pretty much went 100%. Whereas if one goes out too slowly..too cautiously and then “kicks it in” for a negative split then maybe they had more left in the tank! Honestly I’ve run some of my best races that way…winning a DI conference 10km on the track for example…or the Pikes Peak Ascent…or Mt. WA.

    But it’s hard to honestly figure out a 100% effort in the longer events. Honestly I can only truly bring out a 100% effort maybe 2-3 races a year…the rest of the time I’m at 98%. I believe it’s simply too demanding to sustain that mentality for years on end. But I’m okay with that. I’d rather see that I’ve established a comfortable lead in a race and “jog it in the last mile” (while cracking open an Avery beer right before the finish line maybe and enjoying the hard earned victory!). Sometimes time and effort

    1. Dan C

      I agree about the 100% only a couple times a year.

      I race often sometimes almost 40 times a year, but there is usually that ONE race where you just push yourself harder than you can imagine and that is very hard to duplicate.

      I also agree with the point of Zach’s article in that many races nobody is willing to put theirselves on the line even though they have no chance to win in a sit and kick race. I watched an indoor 800 last winter where the faster seeded heat ran the first lap so conservatively, a runner from the first heat got second place.

  16. Angela

    I’m wondering if you caught the women’s 5000m and 10000m with Dominique Scott. She competed much like Cheserek. Tucked in for the majority of the race, and then, simply killed it in the final lap of both distances. No competition really. But, I think conserving herself then ending first was her strategy. In the end, her team, Arkansas, won the championship. In regards to PR, NCAA is still a team sport. Maybe they have to consider the odds. Risk it all for a personal record or conserve and bring home the podium win for the team.

    Thanks for the ending advice, however. It’s an excellent position to consider, unless it’s a Ragnar :)

  17. Kevin

    I can appreciate the point.

    Well before I seriously got into runnng in my early 30s, I had (and still have) a Prefontaine quote framed in my office: “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.”

    Watching someone perform with pure, unrivaled talent can be inspiring. Watching someone with talent and braggadocio, and the seeming willingness the hurt more than the next guy is next level. It transcends sports.

    Elite distance runners are tough people. I think the sport of ultra runnng would benefit from a little more braggadocio. Good natured stuff, but a little smack talk never hurt anybody.

    Perhaps Zach Miller consistently front running, and hitting the finish line at an ultra with guns blazing is his way of making this point?

  18. David McKay

    Racing is not simply a decision to go all out all the time or not, it’s about weighing risk and reward. Gordon, Sheik, and RH already made good points on this, but to reiterate:

    1) NCAAs is about points, not time (or distance or height). Oregon – and every other team – is trying to rack up as many points as possible, thus reflected in Ches’ approach to save as much energy for the 5k. You can call that boring, but it’s basic incentives. As for the rest of the field not taking it out harder, they too were weighing their odds of beating Ches vs blowing up, and their teams, if in contention, were too. If you want to see people getting after it from the gun in the 10k, watch the Stanford Invite. Different incentives, different race.

    2) Bart and Sage raise good questions about why we glorify the PR chase/time trial over the tactical. On the road and track, the former often involves pace setters (a whole other aesthetics discussion) and a true 100% effort is an unsustainable strategy for every race. The latter is certainly not without guts however, as it takes a lot of bravery to commit to a hard move when there are no second chances. Both styles clearly have their role in the sport (from mile to 100mile) and neither in my mind is inherently better or more entertaining. When they come together, as Sheik said, something truly special can happen.

  19. Galen

    It’s a championship race on the track–the value/point is in winning, not in setting a fast time. It’s a competition, not a time trial. Ches was racing to win, just like what happens in virtually every olympic/world championship final. If it was easy to close the last lap of a 5k/10k in 52 seconds or whatever, the strategy would be different . . . but I don’t think it’s very easy lol, hence why mo farah wins everything

    1. Galen

      I meant to mention–there’s also the team aspect, he’s trying to win points for the team too . . . and the time has nothing to do with that, it’s just based on place.

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