Thursday 4 June 2015

Distance Running's Generation F(ollow)?

Unlike our science-phobic Prime Minister, I am not afraid to "commit sociology" to explain novel patterns of human social behaviour when I see them in my area of expertise. I refer in this instance to the current epidemic of so-called "tactical" racing among elite/serious (but, interestingly, mainly male) runners at every level above that of junior high school. While the old fashion "tactic" of attempting to outrun one's opponent with superior pace is still deployed from time to time, the default racing strategy at every level, from the global to the local, is rapidly becoming that of "sit and kick", as it used to be called. So much the default approach to racing has this strategy become (and I sometimes fear that I may never see any other kind of race when more than a few serious competitors are gathered-- unless their are financial time bonuses!)that it is really no longer a "tactic" at all: it betokens the complete demise of actual tactical deliberation. When there is only one acceptable tactic, there are no longer any tactics at all!

What used to be known as the "sit and kick"-- the tactic in which the athlete or athletes possessing what he/they believe to be the best top-end sprint speed, best acceleration, or whatever else it takes to win a race run at extreme sub-maximal paces, decline(s) to lead, hoping the pace will remain slow for as long as possible, making the effective distance of the race as short as possible-- has now been simplified by the current generation to something like "never lead, under any circumstances, no matter how slow the pace!". Leading a race at ANY pace has now been deemed, whether by rational choice or the simple lack conscious choice-making, automatically the least favourable racing tactic for almost every runner in almost any situation.

Again, it's not that "sit and kick" is a new tactic. It's been around since the dawn of the sport as one among an array of possible race strategies. The first time I witnessed it in its purest form was in the late 1970s (a World Cup 1500 race, in which some of the best runners in the world ran five seconds a lap slower than they were capable of before unleashing a furious last 250m). I had seen races that were not run full-out from the gun, but I had never seen world class runners choose to turn a distance race into a pure sprint in quite this way. And while I would see it again from time to time, it remained relatively rare, until just a few years ago. For the next 25 years, I would be just as likely to see (and to participate in) races in which an athlete ran well below goal pace for the first few laps of a race, injected torrid mid-race surges, attempted to maintain a steady but manageable pace, cooperated with another athlete to ensure an optimal pace, or launched a sustained finishing drive from several laps, or kilometers, from the finish. In other words, I would, within a given season or year, witness the full array of possible race tactics, as per the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the various dramatis personae in each instance. What was obvious, and what appears to be increasingly rare today, is that athletes at all levels were willing to take direct action to ensure that the race played to their strengths, even if this entailed a deliberate and forceful seizing of the initiative. Even when they knew they could not win, athletes in earlier decades seemed to be more willing to take action to shape a race in ways that seemed to ensure the highest possible finishing place. Today, even the slowest footed athletes often seem content to remain in lockstep within a dawdling pack, waiting for someone else to make the first move, knowing that their chances of the highest possible placing are being reduced with each meter run. And why? Simple reluctance to ever assume the lead, it would seem. And here is where the sociology, or probably more precisely, the social psychology, can be brought to bear. Why have runners today become more reluctant to lead races than in the past?

But first, some anecdotal support for my basic claim that something new is indeed happening when it comes to race tactics (or the increasing disappearance thereof). In my career I have run over 1000 races covering all distances, in all conditions, and on all conceivable surfaces-- from 800m to the marathon, from midday tropical sun to winter snowstorms, and from state-of-the- art Mondo to glare ice. And I have watched at least twice as many races at every level live, on TV, and, increasingly, on the internet. After all these years and races, what are the odds I would see any really novel event or pattern when it came to race execution? Not great, one would think; yet, in just the past few years, I have indeed seen a few things I've never seen before. And I've seen some things I had seen only very infrequently in my first 25 years in the sport begin to happen with greater regularity, and at all levels.

To wit, from the global to the local, and from the grand to the tiny:

1.Four consecutive global men's 5000m and 10,000m races (two Olympic and two World Championships) in which, despite not unfavourable weather conditions, a dozen or more of the best runners in the world were content to run at a speed that all but guaranteed victory to the fastest middle distance runner in the field, and that turned earning a medal into a crap-shoot based on top-end sprint speed, positioning in the final 400m, and plain old luck-of-the-draw. At least one half of the the tactical brilliance of the winner of all four of these races (Mo Farah of GB) was the unprecedented, repeated, tactical paralysis of the rest of the field. In the 2012 Olympic 5000, run less than a week after Farah's sit-and-kick win in the 10,000, athletes allowed the pace to slow such that the winning time was reminiscent of the 1960s-- the slowest winning time in 34 years, when the race was run in Mexico City, altitude 2,250m.

2. Two high level men's cross country races in the same season (2014), run in nearly ideal conditions, at paces approaching 20 seconds per mile slower than the all-out ability of the average participant until well past the halfway point. The most bizarre and telling of the two-- the 2014 NCAA Championships-- saw 90% of the field still in contention past the halfway mark of the race, and the front group spread 25-30 wide as runners gathered at the front but refused to set foot in the actual lead. The NCAA XC Championship, famous for decades for its hell-bent front running and wars of attrition, was for the first time in its history turned into a so-called "tactical" affair. What was remarkable was the unwillingness of any of the 50 or so top contenders to ensure even the kind of moderate pace that would have winnowed the front pack down to a manageable size before the final push. Even with plenty of room to run, every athlete, the slow and the fast alike, it appeared, favoured his chances in a kick more than his chances off of a moderately fast pace-- that is, if he himself had to play a leading role in setting that moderately fast pace. And even at a pace that must have been conversational at times, no team of runners (and XC is at some level a team sport) attempted to hatch a plan to shape the unfolding of the race in ways favourable to it own fortunes-- unless every team somehow wanted the race to come down to a 2k free-for-all.

3. A final leg of a relay race (the 2015 Penn Relays college men's distance 4x 1mile, featuring several teams of athletes all capable of sub-4 mins) in which, in order to avoid setting foot in the lead, the two frontrunners nearly came to a standstill on the back-straight of second lap, and in which the rest of the field, now having caught up to the jogging leaders, also declined to take the lead, even when doing so would have entailed simply maintaining the pace they had been running up to that point! So unusual was this spectacle that the experienced crowd gasped before commencing the boo the athletes. Some observers later pronounced the whole thing "entertaining", but none seemed to deny that they had seen something probably unprecedented in the 100 year history of the meet.

4.An IAAF Diamond League meet (the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Portland, Oregon) featuring many of the world's best distance runners, racing in ideal conditions and at a time of year (late spring) when most would be ready to run at personal best levels, in which whole fields of athletes repeatedly chose NOT to follow the paid pacers agreed to by the athletes themselves, their coaches, and agents! Only in the men's 10,000m did the top athletes all attempt to stick with the agreed upon early pace-- but even they would slow down shortly after the exhausted rabbits quit the scene.

5. A national championship 10,000m (the 2014 Canadian Championships) in which, in a tiny and fragmented field, two athletes with superior seed times remained in single file for 20 laps behind a less experienced leader, and in which one of the two followers completely ignored the eventual winning move in favour of continuing to sit on the shoulder of the old leader and now second place runner till the final lap, in order to take as little risk as possible in ensuring, not the win, but second place!

6. A midwest NCAA Conference meet (the 2015 Big 12 Championships) in which the men's 1500m was won in 4:05 (a time more than 25 seconds slower than the personal bests of the top athletes in the field), after an opening lap of 83 seconds-- slower than the typical opening pace for a primary school girls' 1500m!

7. Heat two of three in a routine spring all-comers meet, featuring 15 nameless teenage and 20-something male athletes, held in perfect weather conditions, in which the athletes, having selected their own seed times order to ensure an opportunity to run fast against suitable competition, decide, not 50m after the gun, to run "tactically", so as to avoid having to lead. The result was that only one athlete equaled his seed time. Apparently, even when nothing matters but finishing time, young athletes today will sometimes abandon their pre-race goals seconds into a race-- if, that is, pursuing them entails taking any individual initiative!

8. A local high school boys championship 3000m featuring 2 competitors-- technically four, but the other two fell over a lap behind before the 2k mark-- in which one athlete literally hid behind the other until the final 120m in order to avoid taking even a single step in the lead, and in which the frustrated leader nearly came to a complete stop on the track in order to force his pursuer assume duties (which he refused to do)! The winning time was the slowest in the history of the championship, by more than 30 seconds, and the winner was subsequently beaten handily by the loser in a faster paced race not one week later.

I could go on. Most of these examples are taken from just the past few months.

How do we explain these phenomena-- both the increasing frequency of once rare events (such as the sit-and-kick global track championships, or the failure of world class athletes to pursue appointed, paid rabbits) and the truly novel variations on the theme of "lead-aversion" (such the mass sit-and-kick XC championship, or the "tactical" all-comers heat)? As a seasoned observer/competitor and an erstwhile social scientist, I offer that there is a narrow, sport specific explanation, and a broad sociological explanation, with my preference being for the broad one.

The narrow explanation is that the current extreme preference for following over leading in almost all race situations is due to the influence of the era's greatest distance track athlete-- the aforementioned Mo Farah of GB. In this account, younger athletes have recently been engaging in a fad-like (and over-literal)following of the example of this highly successful athlete-- a fad that that will abruptly end along with his dominance, at which point the racing style of the new dominant player, whatever that may be, will become vogue. Supporters of this sport-specific explanation will point to the earlier influence of athletes like Emil Zatopek or Steve Prefontaine, who made courageous (sometimes to the point of foolhardy) front running the preferred tactic of the young in their respective eras. They might also point to the more recent craze for incautious marathon pacing ignited by the example of the late Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru (which, interestingly, now seems to be giving way to the old orthodoxy of even or negative-split pacing).

The broader explanation does not deny this narrower one, but rather absorbs and expands it.

The example of top athletes-- whether in the area of personal style, training methodology, or race tactics-- has always had a trickle-down influence on the behaviour of younger athletes. And, this narrower, sport-specific explanation would account for the fact that aversion to leading seems to have become something of a cross-cultural phenomenon, at least when the various national and ethnic cultures that make up distance running meet in global competition (and the sport is mainly what members of these different cultures have in common). But, I think a broader, more sociological explanation is required to account for apparent extreme affinity of the current generation for this passive race tactic (at least in some places), and for some of its particulars.

First of all, there is evidence that aversion to leading has not taken hold in the national strongholds of the sport-- Kenya and Ethiopia. Athletes from these countries are as familiar with the exploits of Mo Farah as anyone. Yet, at least when they are racing one another at home or on the roads and XC courses of North America and Europe, they seem just as inclined as ever to attack the lead with abandon (their torrid front running in every race at the recent World XC Championships in China shows that they still prefer fast starting and hard racing). The same appears to be true of Japan-- the non-African world's centre of distance running excellence and popularity, where the post-race collapse (whether feigned or real) remains a requirement. Second, aversion to leading is a distinctly gendered phenomenon, whether at the global or local level. Extreme sit-and-kick women's global championship races are not unheard of, but they are not nearly as common as men's, and are often weather related. And this kind of racing is almost unheard of among women at lower levels. Women and girls in almost every situation still appear far more inclined to default to maximum sustainable pace in race situations offering favourable atmospheric conditions. For instance, at the 2014 NCAA XC Championships-- venue of the infamous sit-and-kick men's race-- the women's winner soloed to a near course record in the same somewhat windy conditions as the men faced an hour later.

So, a broader more sociological explanation would seek to explain why extreme aversion to leading races is becoming primarily a North American (and possibly European-- I'm not sure) male phenomenon!

Could it be that the general lassitude, risk aversion, and penchant for conformity that have led some to speak of a crisis of masculinity in North America (which has its mirror in the increased relative academic and general leadership performance of girls and women in the past quarter century) is now being expressed, however perversely, in the tendency of male distance runners to freeze up and refuse to take the initiative in race situations, even when doing so would be in their individual interest (perversely because male distance runners are gender and generational non-conformists in the very fact of being distance runners)? As a coach of many serious young male distance runners, and as an acquaintance of many more, I have been privy to their accounts of races in which the pack freezes and soldiers along at a pedestrian pace. In some instances they will offer than they did not lead because leading is always the worst option ("the early leader always gets out-kicked"). But most of the time their response will be passive. They may say that they had wanted to run faster, but that the race "just didn't go that way", as if races are things apart from the runners who make them up. And when asked how they feel about their result after such a race (if it wasn't the finish place they had wanted or hoped for) they will often just say that "the race was tactical", implying that finish places other than first in such situations are rendered somewhat irrelevant, because an extremely tactical race isn't actually a "real" race. Sometimes, though rarely, they will say that no one generally tries to lead anymore, because the younger generation is tactically savvier, having learned from earlier generations the grave folly of pushing too hard from the front (as if running all out from the front were the only alternative to jogging and kicking the final 200m). In all but the last instance, the common element in these responses seems to be that no one bears any personal responsibility for the way a particular race unfolds-- except perhaps, in instances where someone does try to force the pace and does not win, "that idiot who tried to lead". Here it would seem that failure in a group, if such thing is even considered possible, is always preferable to failure as a risk-taking individual (even when it is impossible to say whether the risk-taking individual actually finished further back than he might otherwise have, and hence actually "lost"!).

If this broader explanation has any credence (and I'll admit to a little facetiousness, born of frustration, in offering it), I leave it to the reader to consider its deeper cultural underpinnings;-)And, I offer a challenge to the current generation of distance athletes to reconsider their fear of leading. For many athletes, in many different circumstances, it is the highest percentage tactical option.

PK POMs/POY: They're Back

After some uncertainty around prizing (and, yes, falling too far behind in monitoring performances in 2014) I had suspended the POM/POY feature. I'm pleased to announce that it's back for 2015, meaning I have some catching up to do!

Race participation was at its usual very low ebb in January, so there is no POM for that most wintry month.

The winner of the February's POM was junior Branna MacDougall's very fine bronze medal performance at the Pan Am XC Championships in Barranquilla, Colombia. It's rare when an athlete of Branna's calibre does anything truly surprising, but a medal at one's first international competition is most certainly POM worthy! Congrats, Branna.

Branna would go on to lead the National Junior Team at the World Championships in March, but the March POM (which is based on the scale of performance relative to the athlete's abilities and personal circumstances at the time) goes to the amazingly renascent master's runner Steve Blostein, for his win at the provincial master indoor championships (50+ 3k). Steve is a model of tenacity and has rebuilt himself after years of injury, such that he is now seeing race times he has not seen since his mid-40s. This was more example of his recent rebirth.

April's POM was uncontested. Again, while age class performances by talented young athletes are usually not the stuff of POMs, some such results cannot be ignored. Brogan MacDougall's front running 9:39.9 3k in her first ever track 3k, and first high track race period, was simply off the expectational charts. No Canadian girl of the same age or younger has ever run the distance faster. Congrats, Brogan!

May's POM came on the month's penultimate day, and was put up by none other than the 2013 PK Performer of the Year, Blair Morgan. Following a solid but unspectacular (by his standards) 2014, Blair notched a significant PB over 5k at the Penn Relays in April (a 21 second improvement of his best of 14:57, set in 2014). A month later, in rainy and windy conditions, he peeled another 16 seconds from this best, reaching a whole new level of lifetime performance. Can he repeat as POY in 2015 with this, or perhaps another jaw dropper!?