These next two weeks will mark the end of the 2017 marathon year, first with the 71st Fukuoka International Marathon this Sunday in Japan, followed by the 45th Honolulu Marathon on December 10th (where I will be sending reports beginning next Wednesday).

But as the sport gears up for these big year-end competitions, I wanted to go back for one last look at what will go down as the defining race of the American running year, Shalane Flanagan‘s historic win at the TCS New York City Marathon November 5th.

Going back over the news coverage, I noticed an interesting observation in the New York Times story of the women’s competition.  And I was wondering whether other racers noticed it, or saw it as I did.  Here’s how the Times story led up to the moment of truth in the women’s race.

“After 21 miles, the lead pack whittled to three: Keitany, Daska, and Shalane Flanagan, a 36-year-old from Massachusetts, who finished second in New York in 2010. Keitany finally removed her sleeves. The race was on.”

Shalane leads Keitany and Daska down Fifth Avenue (Photo by Photo Run)

As I watched that critical stretch, Shalane, especially, had the contained but concentrated appearance of an athlete with horses at the ready, all controlled energy with a tight hold of the reins. To my eye at least, it looked like from the 20-mile mark on Shalane kept waiting for the real Mary Keitany to show up and throw down because she was poised to respond.

Both Mary and Shalane had come a long way since their marathon debuts in NYC 2010 – – where Shalane took second behind Edna Kiplagat by 20 seconds, with Mary in third, another 21 seconds back in 2:29:01.  Every race has its Alpha, though, and with Ms. Keitany coming in as three-time defending champion and women’s-only world-record setting London zephyr, there was no doubt as to who the leading lady in New York 2017 was.

But as Shalane, Mary, and Mamitu Daska battled down Fifth Avenue alongside the row of elegant apartment buildings on the Upper East Side this year (with Edna trailing in 4th place, BTW), Keitany’s face revealed a mask of just enough discomfort to betray a lost cause.  If she had been the Keitany of the last three years, one would have thought she would have tried to leave a long time ago – hell, last year she won by over 3 1/2 minutes! –  especially at what had been a desultory 2:32 marathon pace early on, no more than a tempo effort for the 2:17:01 winner in London this past spring.  Daska in her NYC debut was the wildcard.  Here’s the Times story again.

… as they made their way down Fifth Avenue, one runner began to break away. Surprisingly, it was not Keitany…In a bizarre decision, Keitany began to drift toward the east side of 5th Avenue, away from Flanagan’s tail, before zigzagging back into the customary route. At that point, though, it was too late to catch the runner from Massachusetts — .”

It’s that bold section I want to draw your attention to. Here’s the question, was it really a bizarre move? Unusual, yes, but – 

For years, when non-running people found out that I broadcasted running events they would often ask, “what do you say?  They’re just running.”  True enough, I’d tell them, but distance running is a nuanced game full of seemingly small elements, which later turn into major differences.  Just as some coaches warn their athletes not to turn around during a race for fear of emboldening a chaser – and Shalane never did turn back to check where Mary or Mamitu might be in NYC after she broke away – an athlete in crisis is a tangle of competing thoughts and challenges.

What is a race, after all, but a series of questions that mount in importance as the distance plays out, until the cerebral acuity of Johannes Kepler is what’s needed, while you find yourself slapping foreheads with Mo, Larry, and Curly.

That’s the great paradox of this sport. Just when you need your wits about you the most, the fewer of them you have at your disposal as fatigue strips you bare of your remaining assets.  So you play head games, trying to trick yourself into believeing that victory is still possibile, even as you feel it pulling away. That’s why when you are being gapped in a race, you bevel every thought into ‘it ain’t over yet’.

I’ve seen it a hundred times in road races, experienced it myself.  You don’t see it on the track because you are running around a big oval with the inside lane being the path of least distance.  But on the roads, as the gap begins to open on a long straightaway (like Fifth Avenue in New York City), you can find yourself drifting to the far side of the road because, from that cross-angle view, the gap doesn’t appear to be as big as when you are directly behind the person pulling away.  So by sending out a psychological escape pod, you put a new eye on the gap, make it peripheral, and in so doing lessen the perceived distance between you and your opponent.  Nothing blocking you now, no one shouting encouragement to your opponent, everything open out front. Like a horse wearing blinders, everything is positive.

Late in a marathon the mind rules because the body has long since concluded, “I got the point., this hurts, we can stop now”.  So it is all left up to willpower after we have entered those dark places of pain, doubt, and faltering resolve.

Yet that same move out of the slipstream to the far side of the road is, in itself, an acknowledgment that real trouble is afoot.  Only after the break has been sealed do you see the drifter come back to the tangent line to maintain the race for the next place that might be up for grabs.

Logically, it is a counterintuitive move, yes, but as four-time NYC winner of old Bill Rodgers once said, “racing isn’t a rational endeavor.”

Have you experienced this racing phenomenon yourself?  Do you see it another way?  Comment below.  As always, thanks for reading.


25 thoughts on “MIND GAMES

  1. I haven’t ridden on quite as many lead vehicles as you, but still plenty and I’m constantly amazed by how many elite runners fail to follow the Shortest Possible Route, which is the line we measurers ride when certifying the course. I remember one of Shalane’s early road races, in Central Park, where she hugged the left hand curb for the entire race even though the course often curved to the right. When I asked her about it afterward she said “I guess I’m too used to running on a track.” Apparently she’s learned her lesson since then. I often say every elite road racer needs to measure a course, or at least tag along on a measurement ride, to see what cutting the tangents really means.

  2. Looking at the video, it’s a definite tactical move. If Mary were near dropping out, she wouldn’t have “darted” over to the other side of the road. And she finished well, just not “Shalane well”.

    Maybe her intent didn’t deal with Shalane at all. Maybe Keitany was trying to lose Mamitu Daska.

    After the runners went through the little chicane and back onto the straights, she has gain a little on Daska. Who knows.

    Has anyone suggested getting a hold of her agent?

  3. I haven’t seen this in years but one tactic, when in distress, is to shift to other side of road so that your competitor thinks you have been dropped and steps off the gas. This would be consistent with her darting (versus a mindless, worn meandering) to the other side of the road. This tactic is particularly useful when running against disciplined competitors (shalane in this case) who know better than to turn around for a more clear look back. I’m inclined to think this was a tactical decision by a pro with increasingly few options. I’m too am fan of the racing nuances and appreciate your observations!

    1. Wade,

      Very good point. Still waiting to hear from her agent, but the common denominator in all our speculations is that she was an athlete in trouble. Thanks for adding to the conversation. Toni

  4. Hi Toni,
    Another great blog as always. When I saw Keitany drifting to the left of the roadway, I was initially puzzled because she knows the course well enough. When I observed her body language it appeared that she was ready to throw in the towel. Fatigue can do strange things to people. We won’t know what precipitated the move until word comes from her camp.

  5. Toni maybe when Shalane made her surge to the front Mary felt the move so strong that she may not have been able to stay with her decided to drift right and just maintain instead of making any extra effort to stay with her

  6. In the (understandably) overlooked men’s race, Geoffrey Kamworor was running on the wrong side of Central Park South, and, given how close that race was, it almost cost him the win. See 2:54:40 of the linked feed. Keitany had also drifted left toward the end of the Bronx segment. There seems to be quite a bit of shifting around throughout, with Flanagan and Kipsang running better tangents. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYrfL2L6VnM

  7. Interesting discussion. Total amateur here, but at the time I was thinking that she was moving over because she was thinking of dropping out (for whatever reason), and then moved back to the tangent when she decided to keep pushing to the finish.

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for joining the conversation, I think your point is well taken. Most likely a combination of what you say, potentially wanting to drop out, and trying to keep the flame of hope alive at the same time. It’s that delicate line that’s always being played as fatigue takes hold and has its way with us, even the top amongst us like Mary Keitany. It is one of the beautiful aspects of the Marathon distance.


  8. One other notable example comes to mind: Toshihiko Seko, unable to respond to Bill Rodgers’ winning drive on Heartbreak Hill in ‘79, crossed over diagonally to the right hand side of Commonwealth Ave. as Bill inched way from him. Never saw that move again (save for one off day for Kromer on a Hate Run … but I digress) until NYC this year.

    1. Thanks for that memory, Odie. I have seen that move many times, myself, and have reached out to Mary’s agent to find out how she meant that diagonal detachment on Nov. 5th.

      Best to all,


  9. Interesting theory. I don’t buy it. In addition to the reasons already mentioned by other commenters, it doesn’t look like she “drifted” left. To me it looks more like she “darted” left. Here’s the video:

    I remain hopeful that someone will end the speculation by simply asking her what the heck she was doing.

    1. AJ,

      Thanks for the video. That’s the moment all right. I agree it was less a drift than a dart, but the jury remains out as to her motivation, if, in fact, there was any conscious effort involved.

      After much prodding I have indeed reached out to Mary’s agent, and am awaiting a response, which I will pass along when received.

      Interesting little sport we’ve got here, huh?


      1. Thanks Toni. I look forward to her response. It’s been driving me nuts for almost a month now.

        My guess is that in her fatigued state she just got confused and thought there was another left turn before Engineer’s Gate. Having run NYC I don’t see how anyone — particularly a three time champion — could make that mistake, but the marathon does some weird things to the brain.

  10. Toni – as Brian states above, running the tangent is optimal, even if/when an opponent whom you’re shadowing doesn’t – despite the trail runner then losing the benefit (physical and psychological) of hanging on the leader’s shoulder or back (unless they’re into a strong headwind). On a long stretch of straight road, to swing wide so the leader in front of you is less of a visual/psychological distraction defies the obvious greater benefits of staying tucked in behind the leader. Perhaps Keitany was, as you alluded, momentarily a bit delirious?

    As others suggest, great question for you to toss her way next press conference:-)

    1. Jack,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. And all of what you say is logical. But part of my contention is that racing, especially deep into a marathon, isn’t always a place of rationality. As Bill Rodgers once famously said, “sometimes you have to go a little crazy.”

      But the physical benefit of tucking in on somebody’s shoulder or backside works when you still have that belief and strength that you’re just sitting in. It’s when you feel the tether begin to stretch and you can sense yourself losing contact that the psyche searches for something to hang onto, even if that may seem irrational on the merits.

      I can just imagine the head games you must have been playing on Patriots Day 1976 during your win at the famous “Run for the Hoses” Boston Marathon as temps soared to nearly 100F. I was standing along Beacon Street past Cleveland Circle cheering as you ran by.


    1. Greg,
      What is the correct side of a straight road that will eventually take a skinny right turn into the park at 90th Street? Seriously, though, it’s amazing how the minds of racers work in order to keep their bodies going when every fiber of their being is saying, STOP! TR

      1. The correct side is the right side. It’s a wide road. Why go all the way from right to left and back to right again. Unless you think you are making a left into Central Park. In the mind numbing state late in a marathon, she might have thought that. But again, you can just ask her. I can’t. Unless you give me her email. We are all curious.

  11. Toni, I just wonder if she drifted over because she was one more negative thought away from just dropping out altogether.

  12. In the scenario where I am chasing the leader and I have him in my sights, I may not always run the tangents if that means I can keep him in my sights. One thing that annoyed me when I watched the NYC marathon were the lead vehicles and cyclists weaving between the competitors. If it were me chasing someone and there wasn’t empty space between me and them, it would seem much more difficult to catch them.

    1. Nathan,

      I agree with that empty space acknowledgment. Anything that gets between you and your target is another barrier, at least psychologically, and at that stage in the race every little thing becomes a major, major thing. TR

  13. Toni, I certainly understand your point(s), but I must confess that since Rod Dixon’s magnificent 1983 New York City Marathon win, I haven’t run a race where I have taken one more step than I absolutely needed to; I run the absolute tangents in every single race, line of sight, one turn to the next.

    I must confess that I laugh to myself when I am at races, and I see one competitor follow yet another around the outside radius of the turns. What I’m saying is, I really don’t care about the view; I follow Rod’s advice to the letter, and try to run my best race, which also means the shortest distance necessary. The only difference is, Geoff Smith isn’t in front of me.

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