Running fast behind pacers is a thoughtless act. You know what’s coming — in fact, it’s been negotiated — and you can either do it or you can’t. But there is no thought required as there is in a pure racing format like the Olympic Games.
One of the many highlights of the Rio Games was Matthew Centrowitz’s stirring front-running win in the men’s 1500 meter final. Yet, historic as it was — first American to take that title since 1908– there are some who question the standard of that gold medal run, because the 3:50 winning time was the slowest since the 1932 final.
Notwithstanding the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, such time-based considerations miss the entire point of the endeavor, and help define what’s missing in the staging and presentation of the sport in general.
Racing requires having your wits about you at a time when you have fewer of them at your disposal. When we race hard and find ourselves near the end of our tether, blood is being shunted at a premium to our legs rather than to our brains. That is why when you’re running hard and you see the clock or lap counter along the side of the track (or on your wrist watch) you see those same numerals that you have seen every day of your life, and yet somehow at speed you can’t quite absorb them in a meaningful sense, because the brain is being starved of blood so the the legs can receive the massive supply required to fuel and sustain that pace.
This is the reason racing is more compelling than time-trialing. There is more involved in the outcome than physical ability. If the 2014 Boston Marathon would have been a paced affair, Meb Keflezighi would not, in all probability,have been the winner of that race. Want to know what a pacer means at the World Marathon Majors level? Last year at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, an event generally won in the 2:04 – 2:05 range for the last decade, in 2015 with no pacesetters, Kenya’s Dickson Chumba won in 2:09:25. Pacing at the world-class marathon level equals five minutes, or a mile-plus in distance. For 1500 meters it evidently means 20 seconds or more.
They say courage is grace under pressure. Championship racing is cool thinking in the caldron of competition. And part of what makes a champion a champion is the ability to discern the correct line through the swirling whitewater of the pack, deciding when the moment to strike reveals itself, or just having the fortitude to forge an attack in the first place.
The great U.S. marathoner of the 1970s, Bill Rodgers, had a great line once saying, “you’re already going hard. Then somebody makes a move, and you don’t want to go, but there is no two kilometers ahead. There is only this, and this is for victory!”
Some people have a runners’ mind and can tow onto a pace and put their racing mind on standby, no different than you can partially power down your computer at home. And those athletes can produce record performances that can truly astonish us all. But there are other people who have the uncanny ability to make decisions under intense pressure with the split-second timing that wins major championships.
Somebody once said that history is created by men and women who, metaphorically, can stand at an open window as a horse comes galloping by. And in that split-second as the horse passes in front of that window, the only time that it’s possible, they leap from the window onto the back of the horse and ride off to make history. Miss that split-second timing, and history passes you by.
That’s what makes the Olympic finals special. That’s what makes the World Championships a cut above. And that’s why as the sport returns to its usual cycle on the Diamond League tour in Lausanne tomorrow, and goes back to its incessant paced time trial format for every event 800 meters and above, they will appeal once again mostly to their hard-core constituency, as pure racing for high stakes is what grabs the attention of the common man.
A record should be the icing and cherry atop the cake, not the purpose of the enterprise.