Beating The Clock

There’s a common belief in trail running that people generally shouldn’t race to try to break course records, but instead race to do as well as they can against the field assembled on a given day, and sometimes course records happen to fall. This is generally how I have approached most races I’ve run. Even in races where I knew I had a great shot at breaking a course record if I ran well, I was still much more concerned about having the best time on that given day than in having the best time ever on that course.

This said, it would be foolish to assume that trail runners are never running against the clock, or against past times in a given race. I can even remember a few races in which my primary focus was to run as fast as possible, regardless of what others were doing. These would typically be races I had run in the past, where I knew the course really well, and felt like I could more likely get away with racing the clock than I might be able to in other races.

It’s a very different experience to race the clock than it is to race exclusively against the other runners in the field on that given day. Trying to run as fast as possible is a very different thing than trying to run faster than everyone else.

When you are racing the clock there is much less room for error, and much less room for tactical racing. Sure, you still need to know how best to pace yourself, when to push, and when to relax, but for the most part you need to be constantly focused on moving as quickly as possible. The odds of blowing up are much greater, but it can be easy to assume that if you are going to be able to break a highly competitive course record that this is how you need to run. It will likely decrease your chances of winning/finishing the race, and this is why few people ever approach big races in this way, but in many of the older, more established races, this can seem like a logical approach to attempt to challenge a course record.

The closest I ever came to running a race in which I focused entirely on my time was the 24-mile Crow Pass Crossing in 2009. I had run the race three times, including winning it in 2007, and decided I was going to race the clock more than racing the other competitors. I was terrified going into the race, knowing that I was planning to push myself in a more intense and reckless way than I ever had before. There would be no relaxing and then choosing to surge at strategic times that would best help my chances of winning the race. I was going to run hard right from the gun and not stop running hard until I was across the finish line.

In the end I was able to win the race, and run eight minutes faster than anyone had previously. It seemed at the time like a huge success, and maybe even an approach that I would use in future races. A year later though, I was back at the same race, and was running simply to try to win, not to run a specific time. I had another good day, ran a very smart race, and despite several mishaps that cost me at least three or four minutes, I ended up running nearly 3 minutes faster than the year before. It might be easy to assume that this was because I was simply in better shape in 2010 than I was in 2009, and maybe this was the case to some small degree, but more than anything I think I ran a faster time in 2010 simply because of the way the race played out with the other competitors.

Eric Strabel, who finished second to me each of these years, pushed the pace exceptionally hard right from the start in 2010. I sat back and waited, but to remain in contention I ended up running the first half of the race much harder than I wanted to. Luckily I was able to find another gear late in the race and pass Eric with about five miles to go. Had Eric not run as fast as he did that day, especially in the first half of the race, there is no way I would have run anywhere near as fast as I did. He actually ran a bit faster in 2009 than he did in 2010, but his effort in 2009 had very little to do with me running as fast as I did, whereas in 2010 he was the main reason I ran as fast as I did, and set a course record that still stands.

The reality that this example illustrates is that it’s really hard to race the clock in an effective way without the help of others. More often than not, what it takes for long established course records to fall is for there to be two or more runners challenging that record.

It’s unquestionable that we can accomplish faster times as runners when we are doing so in conjunction with other runners racing at a similar pace at the same time. There is a collective energy that builds and seems to push us along faster than we might be able to go if we were out there on our own. We are also able to draw from the collective energy of people who have run the same race in past years, and every now and then you see examples of people being able to feed off of this energy to break a highly regarded record all on their own, but more often than not a course record has as much to do with the second place runner on a given day as it does with the winner who sets the record.

This then is the reason why so many people always talk about racing the other competitors, and not racing the clock. Not because there is no appeal in racing against course-record times, but because it’s so much harder to do so if there isn’t another runner battling closely with you. In this sense, the most effective way to run as fast as possible is to have someone else along who also runs close to the same time.

This brings me to Rob Krar’s performance at Western States this past weekend in which he fell just a couple minutes short of Tim Olson’s course-record time. Based on interviews with Rob, it seems almost certain that he went into the race with a primary focus of doing what he needed to do to win the race. As things unfolded and he took control of the race, it became very clear that he had a shot at the record, at which time he obviously took a stab at finishing it out as fast as he could.

It is logical and tempting to question whether he might have been able to break the record had that been his primary focus right from the start (he ran the first third of the race in a fairly standard time for race leaders nowadays), but based on my past experiences I don’t think it would be safe to assume that he would have been able to run much faster with a different approach.

The one thing that would have almost certainly made him run under the record time would have been if someone else was able to stay with him, or closer to him, as the later parts of the race unfolded. Not to take anything away from anyone else in the field, but Rob essentially ran alone for the last 40 miles of the race and ended up finishing nearly 30 minutes ahead of Seth Swanson, who ran a super-impressive race, in second place. Not to imply that he coasted to the finish, and wasn’t pushing as hard as he could to go for the record in the closing miles, but if he had had the added energy of someone else being right on his heals at any point in the last third of the race, I think it’s very likely he could have run at least a few minutes faster than he did.

The larger point here is that I think it’s entirely justified that almost everyone races to do as well as they can against the other competitors in a specific race, and not simply to run as fast as possible. The simple reality is that ‘as fast as possible’ is almost always faster when we are racing against other people who are pushing us to our limits. No matter how individual of a sport running seems to be, I think it’s certain that racing is very much a group sport, and something which we all can do a little better because of the other folks that are out there pushing us along.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

In what situations do you run your own best race? When you are pushing with other competitors? When you are trying to meet certain splits? When you focus on doing what you need to do to feel as good as you can for as long as you can in a race? What is your personal recipe for success?