Thursday, September 15, 2011

Peers and pacing

So, when you run your first race, you go out too fast.  Everyone does.  It's a universal truth of running races.  In the excitement of the race, you lose a feel for what your body is actually capable of, and your competitive nature combines with a bit of herd instinct.  You fly past others for a brilliant five minutes or so, before your body says no, and you stop, catch your breath, and slog your way to the finish line.

This tendency isn't unique to new runners -- it's just that experienced runners are aware of it, while new runners are unpleasantly surprised.  All runners face the same issue: you never quite know what you are capable of when you stand on the starting line.  We aren't equipped with accurate fuel gauges, and the blend of race excitement and well-meaning-but-misplaced-positive-thinking can result in overestimating what you actually have in the tank.   It's a really bad idea to rely on how good you feel at the start.

[this is why I HATE going into races confident, and HATE it when people feel compelled to tell me I'm sure to PR, etc.  It encourages it me down the path of bad early pacing decisions.  My best races have all happened when I doubted my ability to even finish as I stood at the start.]

If you're smart, you recognize this, and figure out ways to address it.   One of the easiest ways to do this is to pace off of others.  The thought process goes like this:

"Hey... I remember that person -- he destroyed me last time.  I probably shouldn't run my first mile ahead of him again."

Assessing your pace by others is a useful tool.  And as you race more and more, there are more familiar faces to use as early benchmarks, and so you have multiple points of reference to help you keep the brakes on.   

[Of course, using others to judge your pace can backfire in the case of inexperienced males in their 20s, who employ a variant that is best described as do whatever you can do to stay ahead of all females at all points of the race at all costs.  These guys generally indulge in 2-3 spectacular surges, each followed by a rest break, before death marching the remains of the race.]

There is a hitch, though.  Just as you never know exactly how much you have, you don't know how much those around you have either.  Pacing yourself against others can limit you.  Perhaps today is the day that you finally are faster than Suzy.  At some point, you have to shift to trusting how you feel, and not letting the fact that "she's supposed to be ahead of me" limit you from your true potential that day.  At the end of the race, it's best to be among complete strangers, ironically enough.

The trick lies in determining just when you need to shift from relying on others to relying on yourself.  Just exactly when can you trust that you really are having a good day?

I'm still working on that one.  I think we all are.  If you figure out, let me know.


  1. Love this. :)
    Do you find that racing with your Garmin helps at all? I took mine to the IMTR and what I liked was that I'd decided to run no faster than 10min/miles because it was my first serious trail race, and it helped to have the watch there telling me my pace. But I could see how that could backfire as well... Thoughts?

  2. Nope -- don't trust the Garmin. They do lie. And even a small difference can make a significant different in pacing.

    At the paces I train and race in, a .01 per mile difference means a difference of about 5 seconds in pace, and a .01 per mile difference is very common with the Garmin. They're great for a general sense of pace, but can really screw you up if you use them to to measure pace during workouts or races.

    I think even if you don't race with one, relying heavily on it for workouts can screw you up for races -- you get a flawed understanding of what your true fitness is, and then race based on that fitness. For workouts, I always do either on the track or a trail with mile markers that I know are accurate.

    I rely on manual mile splits.

    I do like to have the GPS running, for two reasons:
    1) if a mile marker is clearly off (i.e. at 1.07 or .95), the Garmin indicates that, and I know not to trust the split;
    2) it's really helpful during the last part of a race to be able to look at it and tell myself "a third of a mile left."

    When I race, I usually use the manual mile timing for the first mile or two, to make sure I'm conservative. From then on, I run off of feel, but try to stay very conservative. My natural impatience and competitive nature generally makes me too prone to GO too early, so I think "brakes" all the way to almost the end.

  3. Ha. Still learning this lesson myself apparently, as I failed this for the first time in many races recently. Big believer in running off of feel in the latter parts of the race, but you're right, there is absolutely no way to tell what you've got at the start. It's almost comical. And, like you, my best races have been those where I had a really low expectation at the start.

    Great post as always Cris

    Caren Jew

  4. Oooh, very interesting. I'm a mess with pacing, because I am TERRIFIED of blowing up and having a death march - although, interestingly enough, I can only think of one race in my life where this has actually happened, and I think it's more because I didn't mentally adjust for the heat. But still. I'm so scared of blowing up that I generally have gas in the tank at the finish line, and then I'm cranky because I didn't leave it all out there. Runners. We're a mess.

    However, this:

    "My best races have all happened when I doubted my ability to even finish as I stood at the start"

    describes the weekend I am about to have, and makes me feel a tiny bit better. :)

  5. I hear ya on the Garmin thing. I go into a race knowing that my "Garmin" pace is going to be faster than my actual pace, and the difference depends on the race distance. The longer the race, the more of a difference between Garmin pace and race pace. I've found that it's helpful to use that Garmin in the first mile to prevent yourself from going out too fast and then running on feel.

    The problem with pacing off of others is that they could be having a bad day, or just using it as a training run, and screw you up! But ideally, it would be nice to have someone in a race you could pace off of reliably. (And not the official pace groups. They are always too fast!!!)

  6. Pacing off other people is a HUGE no-no for me. I'm actually pretty good at reigning myself in during the first few miles, but if I see someone that I "should" be able to keep up with, I'll ignore my legs and just keep up to the detriment of the rest of the race. See: MCM '10. I actually use the Garmin as a tool to make sure I'm in about the right pace range for each stage. I don't try to hit a certain number, but there's a definite too fast or too slow.

  7. The garmin is just too much information for me in a race. If anything, I'll use the average pace as a guide on sections of the course, but the best races I've ever run have been those where I didn't really pay it much attention.

  8. My problem is definitely not going out too fast - it's being too took me a while to realize that you are RACING, not just training. As a swimmer, races were easier because they lasted for barely a minute or two - running is a big challenge for me to figure out what I can do for 6 or 10 or 13.1 miles at a time. I don't doubt that I can finish the half that I have coming up, but that the goal I've set is overly ambitious. We'll see...

  9. I get so nervous with races and hate people telling me I will PR. Then I go out too fast and the last portion of the race sucks.