In our time-conscious athletics world we sometimes forget that a championship — hell, any race – is first and foremost a competition amongst athletes, not simply a time trial. Thus, with pacers removed from the agenda throughout this past weekend’s USATF Indoor Championships in Boston, athletics fans got to see a myriad of tactical finals that produced some champions who might not have been considered favorites going in, or been winners if the races had been paced.
When a pacer is plugged into a race a number of things happen. 1) the brain is turned off as everyone — athletes and audience — knows exactly what is coming. The only question to be answered is, ‘can you run that pace or can’t you?’ 2) pecking order is an unspoken but powerful inhibitor, meaning the runner with the biggest appearance fee, and for whom the pace is being established, is automatically ushered into the catbird seat behind the pacer. Another competitor can break that rule if he/she chooses, but in so doing risks losing future invitations. 3) no actual racing takes place until the pacer steps off, erasing a lot of any surprise that might emerge from the proceedings.
As we saw in Boston, however, runners in non-paced races have gears and gas available to constantly reshuffle their positions, both in and out from the rail, as well as up and back in the pack. This is because they haven’t been stretched to the anaerobic edge by a predetermined pace. Instead the pack generates its own speed and constitution from amidst the roiling effort. As a consequence we got to see how the middle distance races in the USATF Indoor Championships became elastic bands of surge and resettle, then surge again as the packs reshuffled every time another racer or two hit the gas to ensure a better pack position for the final attack. This kind of racing keeps both the athletes and the audience in a state of rapt attention, precisely because they don’t know what is going to happen. (more…)