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.

There are 6 comments

  1. Mic Medeska

    I think (to respond to Meaghan's third call for comments) the only reason showboating doesn't exist in trail/ultra running is a lack of wide attention in the sport. It seems like the larger the stage, the more apt someone is to showboat. If you're a showboater you're not going to get the thrill of showing off if the finish line has 10 people at the end, but if there's photographers, TV cameramen, 100's of people, you're going to take advantage of that and come up with a funky dance to do as you cross that line.

    And Ben, you hit it on the head, I love seeing full on effort being given and nothing was more disappointing to me than seeing Usain Bolt pull up almost halway through the race, knowing he had it in the bag. I wanted him to crush everyone and have a proven time, not a "well I could have easily finished x seconds faster if I hadn't slowed up". One of my absolute favorite things to do at a race is after I finish to hang out at the finish line, and just to see people who are battling for 25th place (for example) just going all out with a huge kick at the end. They were there for their time record and wanted to give their all out effort.

    Finally.. I've never been in Bolt's or Mo's shoes though, who knows, after a culmination of 4 years hard training to get to where you are, on the global stage about to prove to everyone that you are the best on the planet, maybe I'd be excited enough to throw my hands up and take my foot off the pedal and just enjoy the moment.

  2. tahoediver

    I think there's a line between obnoxious showboating and well-earned celebrations taking place in a moment of personal triumph. Whether "celebrations" become "showboating" can be very subjective but recently I witnessed showboating that I thought was obnoxious, but was also pretty funny. A friend and I were finishing a trail marathon and the strangest thing happened at the end of my friend's race. I had a finished a little before and was waiting at the finish to cheer him on. I watched him come down the final stretch, over a long foot bridge to the finish line, digging deep for the final surge. Then, all of a sudden, the guy next to him sped up a little, turned around, ran backwards in front of my friend and egged him on to "race" to the finish. Everyone at the finish line could see this happening. I don't know what was going through the guy's head but when my friend didn't take the bait, the showboater turned back around and sped across the finish line. My friend finished his race with a dumbfounded look on his face, but all ended well. This was an obnoxious but funny experience and good for several laughs afterwards, but it was still so odd. And the showboater had one of those mustaches that are waxed and curled at the ends, and his hair slicked back, which made the whole thing even weirder (no offense intended to others with similar mustaches!). The theme for the race could have been "Pirates of the Trail" and he would have fit right in. All Hail the Trail Pirate!

  3. Warren

    Reminds of a 5000 metre race in 1980 on the dangers of celebrating too early.

    Agree with Bolt. I have read he gets a bonus for each time he breaks the WR which ironically is an incentive to slow down near finish line. If his career was to end tomorrow, how awful would it be that he could've run faster.

    Perhaps the reason you don't get showboating is that ultras are rarely decided in the final straight. The relief and adrenalin that comes with knowing 10 metres from the line you have won results in silly gestures or pure relief that they can afford to slow down and savour the moment.

  4. Andrew

    I have to say I find the first half of this post quite petty. What you want to see as a spectator may be one thing, but the athletes, especially when they're young and in their first majar or first global events, are generally out there to win, to hell with the time. They've been training and focussing on nothing but that for years, sacrificing what they see their friends doing, come to a moment where they realise their dreams have come true, throw their arms up in the air, and you wonder about the missing tenths of a second?

    Michael Johnson was nearly 30 in 1996 and hadn't been beaten since '93. I don't think he questioned his ability to win the trials, and therefore aiming for the record became his motivation. He took maybe two or three strides past the line before easing up (yeah, it's on Youtube) and threw his hands in the air within about 3 or 4 seconds of crossing the line, maybe so late because he first had to swallow his disappointment at missing the record, who knows.

    You want showboating, try, like, any other sport; from basketball to triple-jump, there's way more playing to the crowd. How do you feel about Kilian blowing a kiss to the people who show up to to hang around and wait to watch a bunch of masochists jog across a finish line? Too much? Scott Jurek high-fiving spectators before he'd actually finished the race and then, shock horror, rolling across the WS line? Usain Bolt blew the best in the world away and was cruising. That's incredible. And incredibly memorable. Would Ian Sharman's run be diminished if we knew he'd punched his fist in the air just before he crossed the finish line?

    Let them celebrate. You talk about memorable, but don't seem to have any problem remembering these events. Any human pursuit needs personality and personalities, some you like and some you don't. Let them be human.

  5. Mike

    I honestly thought Mo Farah was making the shape of a heart over his head, as in expressing his love/gartitude for the UK crowd cheering him on to the win. I don't know. Let 'em do what they want – these aren't time trials, they're competitions and they're the winners.

  6. Dwayne

    As corny as it sounds, I think these guys are placing a stamp on their victories… living in that moment. Is that truly so awful? As stated earlier, none of us have been in the position Bolt was in and have no clue of how we'd express ourselves. As a fellow West Indian, sometimes humility is not our best attribute. : ) Mike (above me), I too thought Mo Farah was making a heart after his win… I don't get the obnoxious showboat vibe from him, but then again what do I know.

    1. Ben Nephew

      Runners can celebrate however they want, none of it objectively awful. There are different opinions on what is appropriate, and I wasn't even trying to say that celebrating before the line is inappropriate, it is just not something I prefer to watch. I like Bolt. What I keep thinking about is that what he if he gets hurt, or is never able to beat his current WR times, could he have run faster during those races? I know Mike Morton is wondering where he could have found 70 seconds at Badwater, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't due to premature celebration!

      I don't follow sprinting, but watch Aries Merritt's WR in the 110 hurdles. What a perfect race, unreal.

      I had to check on the heart idea. Apparently the M is called the Mobot, and was created on a UK game show.

      At the time I wrote the article, I had no idea where it came from, and also did not know about Mo apologizing for the doing the Mobot 100 meters from the finish of a 1500m heat at the UK Olympic trials. Maybe the trials incident is when he decided not to do it during his olympic races?

  7. Steve Smith

    Ahhh, you mention an Ian Sharman finish…

    I was standing at the gate at Placer High School for last years finish of the Western States 100. When Ian hit the track he dropped his water bottles and sprinted the last 300 meters faster than I have EVER seen in person. It was like he was shot out of a freaking cannon.

    One hundred miles, sub 16 hours, fifth place and completely smoked the finish!

    I'll never forget it.

  8. JP

    I like to see un-checked emotion in life, and sport is often a good place to find it. Whether that emotion comes out before or after the finish line, I don't mind, but asking people to keep it under wraps until after the moment passes seems like a rare opportunity lost.

    The flipside is premeditated showboating, or anything that isn't a pure expression of an athletes emotion. I have no interest in it and would prefer not to see any of it, before or after the finish. Its just marketing, and we all get enough of that thrown in our faces at every other step.

  9. Max

    If I run an awesome race, blow away the competition (or realistically just my expectations), I will celebrate. High five the spectators, throw a fist pump, scream out. Will I wait until I cross the line to do that? No, I'll let lose the moment I get close enough to know for sure that I've done what I set out to do. Look at the guys coming into the finish for UTMB, they are celebrating the last stretch. Same with western states, that 3/4 lap is the victory lap.

    And as for the Olympics, I assume Bolt knows when the race is such that he cannot lose, and at that point he can showboat all he wants.

  10. Jimmy Mac

    I think the lack of showmanship has a lot to do with the level of humility ultrarunners have to have in order to train and race at these distances. Unless you tear a muscle, you're going to get around the track once or twice. But once you start adding on mile after mile there's another component- you start to race against the voice in your head that says "oh man, this hurts", "let's just sit down a minute at the next aid station", etc. Hell, I do this on long training runs. So it becomes less about beating someone and beating yourself. Put a mirror at the finish of an ultra, I'll be the guy looking into it saying, "told you so" to my (lesser) self.

  11. Brian

    Watch David Goggins finish either his '06 or '07 Badwater races. He didn't win either race but if you want to see someone who is washed out and left it all out there, watch his post race interviews. I like that as much as watching Bolt celebrate well before the tape, it's just two different animals with two different motivations. Seeing someone use every drop is more my style but then again, I've never been one of the fastest men in the world.

  12. Astroyam

    If anyone wants to celebrate and even showboat before, during, or after a finish, more power to 'em. It's a totally natural and genuine response. I'll take that anyday over a contrived response.
    I get a kick out of Bolt's antics, he's hilarious. Ditto for anyone who makes the scene fun while kicking butt too.

  13. Heath

    When I finish an ultra, you'd think I was Usain Bolt the way I celebrate…albeit I'm normally just a few places ahead of the caboose award, and am celebrating because I can finally stop running (I mean jogging slowly) and sit down!

  14. Ben Nephew

    He was just thankful he did not get a closer view of the bear on the course, or run over by the dirt bike rider coming around the blind turn! I'm sure I was paranoid in the last mile about Keith coming back on me, those Schmitt boys are a bit competitive. I was probably chasing one of Leigh's CR's? What a blast from the past, hard to believe that was 14 years ago!

    Thinking about where my own views came from, neither my high school coaches nor my father were big fans of major finish line productions.

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