Tactics vs. Speed, in Marathons and Life

I’ll be watching the NYC marathon this weekend. Running the race may or may not wind up on my bucket list, but every year, the marathon helps me celebrate my anniversary of taking up running. I had always been intrigued by this simplest form of exercise, and finally, in 2004, after watching Paula Radcliffe’s hard-fought NYC victory — which literally came down to the final 100 meters when she won by 3 seconds —  I went for a jog. And kept at it. My husband and I ran a half marathon in September 2005, another one in February 2006, and then I finished the Big Sur marathon in April 2010, and the Philly half marathon last November.

Those of us in the mid to back of the pack are usually just running to finish, or perhaps running against the clock for a personal best. But among the elite runners, there’s been a fascinating debate concerning what the marathon is about. Is it about tactics, or about speed? Over the past few years of following competitive running, I’ve learned just how much strategy is involved in racing 26.2 miles. The pack stays together for most of it, perhaps taking turns setting the pace. There is always the question of whether you set a slow pace, allowing everyone to conserve energy, or whether a few fast runners break off. They might tire — that’s the downside — but they might build up so strong a lead that the rest of the runners can never over take them. You’re always watching to see if someone else peels off. You might go faster or slower depending on how the pack is feeling. You form alliances and then split the alliances — breaking off with a fast competitor to set a fast pace together, but then turning on each other in the final miles.

Boston and New York are known as tactical marathons — largely because these days neither allows pace setters (“rabbits”). Some other marathons — like the Berlin marathon — employ rabbits to set a world record pace (for the men’s race, they cycle through multiple rabbits who can run, say, 4 miles at world record pace but not 26; for the women’s, sometimes they use male pace setters, who could potentially run longer). While rabbits make the actual racers run faster, they make the race easier, mentally. Everyone just follows the rabbit. You don’t jockey so much for position, and you don’t worry that someone else will make a break for it, at least during the early miles. Running is largely mental.

The traditionalists who lament the use of rabbits sometimes overstate things. They claim that rabbits make races boring, even when people set world records. But Paula Radcliffe’s 3 second victory in NYC in 2004 involved pace setting (NYC did away with it in 2007). You can have exciting races with them, and exciting races without them (like Boston’s men’s race this spring, when the world record was “broken” — albeit not officially — on a very hilly, difficult course). But I think this question offers an interesting way to look at how we motivate ourselves in other aspects of life. Do you draw motivation from the clock, or from other people? Do you work to hit certain metrics, regardless of what else is happening, or do you work harder when you see others working harder?

As a free agent, I spend a lot of time trying to motivate myself to hit certain metrics I’ve deemed important. But I sometimes wish I had more of the combo of collaboration and friendly competition that one could get from colleagues. Some of the best professional writing groups have a strategy element to them for precisely this reason. You help each other out a lot, with career planning and introductions to editors, clients, and the like. But you also spur each other on as you try to match successes. She got a book deal? OK, now how do I get one too?

Do you just get up and run? Or do you look at how fast others are running?


One thought on “Tactics vs. Speed, in Marathons and Life

  1. I don’t look at others because we’re not running the same race. I don’t know anyone else with my particular spacing of kid spacing, professional opportunities, etc. I do try to support others- I just babysat for a friend with 5 kids who is starting an in-home childcare business as her husband returns to nursing school. Her race is different from mine.

    Perhaps those in more urban areas have an easier time finding others “running the same race”.

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