Racing Hard to the Finish

Wide Angle LensI like watching winners run hard to the tape, and I’m wondering if this is a common sentiment.

Watching Usain Bolt celebrate several meters from the finish in a 100-meter race drives me crazy. Early in 2012, Mo Farah made an “M” shape with his arms over his head as he won. We know your name, Mo. Apparently some were critical of this move over in the UK, and his finishes to his two Olympic races this summer were lacking the “M.” If I had paid for a good seat at a race where the winner spent the end of the race doing tricks, I’d be annoyed. I don’t want to wonder what someone could have run if they didn’t slow down; I want to see what their training can produce, and even if they have a huge lead, how much they can win by. Maybe I want to see the hurt, too. Isn’t there enough time for showboating during the victory lap?

My attitude toward racing was strongly affected by watching the 400-meter final at the 1996 US Olympic Trials in Atlanta. I drove down there by myself from just south of Montreal to watch in person. I don’t remember many of the races, but I definitely remember the 400 final.

Michael Johnson was already a champion runner, but he did not have the 400-meter world record. Since 1968, there have only been three holders of the 400-meter world record. Michael Johnson, in his baritone voice, would not admit that he was going for the 400-meter record at the trials; he just wanted to win the race and make the team. I was sitting four rows back from the finish straight for the 400 final, just behind some of Michael’s friends. It was a strong field, and he hammered right from the gun. He came off that final turn as if shot from a cannon, and I can’t express to you the effort I witnessed. There was no doubt he was going for the world record. It was as if he was calling on every muscle fiber in his body to find some more speed, and you could feel the pain looking at his face. He ran hard well past the finish, and then celebrated. He didn’t get the WR and it took him a few more years to finally get it, but I appreciate that he tried. His effort is lodged in my brain like some sort of PTSD event.

I should mention that I drove down again for the Olympics to watch Haile “Geb” Gebrselassie win the 10-kilometer race, which was spectacular, but my seat wasn’t quite as close to the finish. That’s another story, but I certainly felt privileged to witness that tremendous finish, and I sat in the stands after the race until the entire stadium emptied.

So what does this have to do with ultra racing? I’d like to know what type of finish people like to witness, in any kind of race. Only a small percentage of runners actually win races, but most of us will watch many finishes in some format. I have no idea how Ian Sharman finished his Rocky Raccoon 100, but it would have been really impressive to see him running 7:30 minute/mile pace 12 hours into a run.

Seeing someone jog easily through the finish at a pace the vast majority of runners could handle doesn’t seem exciting. Of course with ultras things get a bit complicated. I don’t want to see people put themselves in the hospital, and jogging a race and finishing at 4:00 minutes per mile pace just looks funny. Another consideration is that a fast time in a longer ultra is likely to involve a slow finish, but in that context, a hard finish can certainly be slow. When you think about it, it is hard to have a great finish without a strong race supporting it, so this discussion also pertains to racing style.

A unique aspect of great trail ultra performances is course familiarity. Anyone who has run a course repeatedly probably realizes the advantage of knowing the course. The specifics of this advantage include being less worried and more relaxed about navigation, greater confidence on technical sections, and the development of an ideal pacing strategy which all combine to allow the runner to push themselves to their limit, whatever that might be. Matt Carpenter spent quite a bit of time on the Leadville Trail 100 course, and Anna Frost spent a month preparing for Transvulcania. Kyle Skaggs lived in Silverton before his Hardrock 100 record. While Hal Koerner didn’t camp out in Silverton last year, he was up there in spirit, suffocating in his altitude tent.

Although the training is always the key factor in great performances, sometimes the essential element of dedication is racing a course enough times to hit perfect weather, like with Ellie Greenwood and Timothy Olson at the Western States 100 this year. Those two carpe diem-ed the heck out of that course.

We all see or read about numerous races every year, but which ones do you remember, and why? Most races have a winner every year, or four years, and it’s hard to remember the winner from every year, even from your favorite races. What I tend to remember are records and very hard efforts. Another PTSD moment was watching the video footage of Jonathan Wyatt crush the Mount Washington Road Race course record (I couldn’t get a good view during the race due to being a mile or so behind). It was crazy; he had a 10-km stride while climbing a 12% grade.

Even if you don’t care who wins, which of your own races are more memorable, and why? I’m guessing most are not races where you jogged through the finish, feeling fresh. The world-record holder in the 800 meters, David Rudisha, ran his first race in the US early in 2012. Here is how he showed his appreciation for the invitation:

Some like to spell their name at the finish, some like to burn their name in your brain with incredible feats of athleticism.

At the 2012 Summer Olympics, I was certainly impressed with both of Mo’s golds; his last laps were brilliant. Then you once again have Rudisha with a wire-to-wire gold at the Olympics in world-record time in the most competitive 800 meters in history.

With ultras, 2012 brought some insane performances; Sage Canaday at the White River 50, Max King and Ellie at the JFK 50, and Mike Morton and Connie Gardner at the IAU 24-hour World Championships. Mike wasn’t exactly being pressured by second place, but he kept hammering until he added 7 miles to Scott Jurek’s American record. Running for the win probably would have been safer, less impressive, less satisfying, and less… 172 miles? Really? I haven’t been able to find the ESPN coverage of the race, but I do know that Connie must have had a remarkable finish. She was less than a mile up on Sabrina Little’s (née Moran) American record, which had to make for a stressful last hour, or three. With Connie being 49 and trying to get the record for so long, her name may turn up if you Google the word “persistence.”

Good luck to all with creating some memorable finishes of their own in 2013. I would not suggest trying for course records at Western States, White River, JFK, a 24-hour record, as those marks were all annihilated in 2012.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • While trail and ultrarunnig fans have long existed in Europe, North Americans are just starting to get behind the idea of attending races as fans. Have you attended (and not raced) a trail or ultramarathon and, if so, what were the race’s most exciting parts?
  • Racing hard and racing hard through the finish of an ultramarathon requires the all-stars-aligned race day to which Ben eluded. Have you found yourself in one of those situations before? Was it as enjoyable to experience as it is to watch?
  • “Showboating” during trail and ultramarathon races is nearly non-existent. This is definitely a good thing, but why do you think it’s absent from our community?
Ben Nephew

is an 11 time winner and course record holder at the Escarpment Trail Race. He has PR's of 3:10 for 50k and 5:47 for 50 miles and holds the fastest known times for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse, the Devil's Path in the Catskills, and the Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains. He has been running in INOV-8's since 2004, and is also sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.