There has been a niggling feeling lurking around the murky depths of the running community for the past couple of months (possibly years). The whispering that goes on behind closed marathon doors. People only want to watch fast races and see fast times, the whisperers are saying. The perception that time is king and the actual racing is secondary.
Are we so obsessed with time we cannot enjoy a race unless it is fast? No. This opinion undermines the intelligence of running fans. Everyone wants to see an exciting race. And what is more exciting than two or more people burying themselves late in a race in an attempt to get rid of their competitors? Nothing.
But running fast is also exciting. I don’t think fast running deserves the bad rap it seems to be getting from the learned running media.
It is not, as many people would seem to have us believe, an on-or-off situation. Actually you can have your cake and eat it. If you love the racing you don’t have to hate the time. And if you love world record attempts you don’t have to hate racing. When you think about it, that is a ridiculous proposal anyway. But that is the choice we are told we are making.
Well I reject that choice. Distance fans are smart enough to appreciate a race and a course for what it is. No-one would say an elite marathoner who wins a race has run badly in that race because he was five or ten minutes slower than his Personal Best. Those guys run races to win. Fast times are secondary. In the choice between a fast time trial and a tough attritional battle between gladiators, as a spectator it is a no brainer. And for the competitors it is win first, time second. If you can win in a fast time, well that’s just dandy. But just as the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, they aren’t joined at the hip either.
What needs to be remembered is that writing off time as being pointless is just as foolish as saying it is all that matters. Sure you want a close race, but it has to be reasonably fast, by default. What does reasonably fast mean? That is the question. Not because we want it fast, but because if it is not reasonably fast you will have dozens of contenders for the win. We might not care as spectators but you can be sure the elite runners in the field will care. The top half dozen runners don’t want a bunch of guys they don’t know hanging around the lead pack waiting to show off their unheralded kicks. Fact is it has to be some form of fast. Fast doesn’t relate to an absolute pace. Fast in Berlin might be 2:03, but fast in New York might be 2:05, and fast in Honolulu might be 2:11. Fast in Mumbai might be 2:15. In road racing terms, speed is a relative thing.
In cross country, pace is completely arbitrary. Yet there again you know the pace is “fast”. You know this because top quality runners are being burned off left and right. Guys who have run 27 minutes for 10k on the track, which is fast by anyone’s definition, are barely in shot as the camera follows the lead pack. So you know it’s quick. More than that it doesn’t matter. It is all about the race.
Pure racing taken to the extreme is just as bad as solo time trialling. In more 1500m and mile races than I care to remember, I have seen the group go out at a pace barely above crawling. They creep around for 3 laps and then blast the last lap. There are plenty of people in contention but I wouldn’t call it exciting. I don’t want to watch a bunch of 1500 guys trying to decide who the quickest 400 guy is. An honest hard pace for 3 laps and THEN a kick. That’s when the final lap split counts. Who has the quickest 400 once when your legs are full of lactic and your lungs are burning and you can taste blood in your mouth. That’s compelling racing and has both a time and a race element.
Let’s summarise if possible.
Two competitors repeatedly attacking each other over the final miles of a race IS incredibly exciting.
Mass sprint finishes CAN be exciting.
Solo races against the clock CAN be exciting.
I don’t see the need to write off races based on a pre-conception of “how races like this go”.
There is one rule that applies across the board. Racing must come first. But really this is the default position anyway. When Haile Gebrselassie was chasing marathon world records in time-trial fashion a few years ago, he went out hard with the clock and pacemakers as predetermined company. However when he hadn’t shaken off a competitor or a couple of competitors by the 20 mile mark he made that his priority. Win first, time second. And he would state it afterwards. “once I saw I hadn’t shaken off x or y, I knew I had to forget about the world record and go for the win”. That’s not a direct quote but it is generally words to that effect. All professional athletes have this understanding.
I can say that with certainty even though I am far from a professional athlete myself. It is clear that winning trumps a fast time, every time. Moses Mosop ran 2:03:06 in Boston last year, second to Geoffrey Mutai in 2:03:02. Geoffrey took the bulk of the limelight but Mosop ran an incredibly fast time. If you have offered Mosop the win but said it would be in 2:04:06, a minute slower than he ran, what do you think his response would be? I know what I think. Winning is the thing. Bill Rodgers won Boston four times and New York four times. An amazing marathoner. A hero. Probably a lot of hard-core marathon fans know the times Bill ran, but outside of them, people tend to remember the winning. Grete Waitz, who held the world record for a while in the marathon, is remembered primarily for one outstanding achievement: Grete won the New York Marathon NINE times. Nine times! That achievement surpasses any of the quick times she managed, and she was quick.
Road cycling teaches us this lesson in unequivocal terms. One-day classics or individual stage wins in a three-week grand tour. It’s the winning that matters. When Mark Cavendish wins a sprint finish no-one cares about the time. It has no meaning. A great post which goes into far more depth on this, and on the odd occasion where people do pay attention to times in road cycling, can be found here, on the incomparable inrng website. Long breakaways or bunch sprints, the underlying principle remains: it’s the racing not the time.
However, while this is a good lesson, it is not one that running can swallow hook, line and sinker. Because running is intrinsically different. Track racing is track racing, and cycling has track too, so for sensible comparisons we will ignore the track elements of both sports.
Marathons are a very precise distance. 26 miles and 385 yards. Because of this standardised length, times are unavoidably compared. Courses are different and this is accounted for in winning times anyway. Every running fan can appreciate that a 2:04 marathon, no matter where it takes place, is incredibly impressive. But it doesn’t have to work the other way, i.e. that a 2:12 is NOT impressive. There are always factors on the day that have a major influence on time.
Then, on certain occasions you get great racing and great times. Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing is a great example of this. Dog-eat-dog racing with scant regard for race conditions, AND a three minute improvement on the Olympic Marathon Record. The outcome was a very special event that people identified straight away as being something we will remember for a long time.
This shows that there are certain occasions, when the planets are aligned and the stars are shining brightly, when we can be treated to great racing which we get to watch unfold at record speeds.