On running and racing

2013-02-17 11.04.55

Brighton Half Marathon 2013 finishers. How many of them were racing to win?

Jon Pike has a nice article on the Guardian’s running blog about running and winning – take a look.  He points out that unlike other sports, most people who run in events don’t ever expect to win.  To this he says: “I’ve not really worried about this too much. Winning is never part of the game for me: it’s all about pushing myself, setting a time, having a good race, maybe thinking about the odd interclub rivalry – but not winning (and so not losing, either). And for years, I’ve thought that this is what running is about.”

But then he goes on to describe a recent relay race where this all changed – in part because his team had a very good chance of winning.  He really raced, and found it a completely different experience.  He concludes that most runners “…lose out on key parts of the experience and meaning of sport because we are never even close to winning.”

It got me thinking about my own attitude to races.  In the big mass-participation events like marathons and half marathons, where thousands are running, it has never occurred to me to actively try to overtake anyone or to be bothered when people pass me.  A few dozen places out of 8000 is not important – in those events people you are overtaking and being overtaken all the time.  Even our local Parkrun, where 300 or 400 people run a timed 5k every week, is for me more of a race against my watch than against anyone else – there are just too many people to worry about position.

But earlier this year I did a couple of 10k races where there were about 30-50 runners and it was a very different experience.  I was still nowhere near the top places, and I knew they were out of my reach, but something about the small field made it seem more like a race.  In the first race I ran a very steady pace, and as a result I passed quite a few people in the second half who had set off too quickly.  I was still racing my watch but I noticed that everyone who I passed really tried to keep up with me – they weren’t happy about being dropped.  And about 50 yards before the end I heard pounding, sprinting footsteps behind me – they belonged to the person I’d passed a minute or so earlier.  I thought to myself – well, if he wants to beat me so badly, maybe I should let him have it.  But if he wants to race, he wouldn’t want me to give up, surely? So I sped up too, and just managed to cross the line 6 inches ahead of him.

In the second race a runner was 50-100 yards ahead of me for the whole time.  In the last kilometre I was sure I would pass him.  He sped up: and I sped up.  I came close but faltered, and he finished well ahead of me.  But I noticed the change: these were races against others, and beating or losing to others was starting to make a difference – even if it was not so much about winning the whole race, it was about winning the race with the runners I was most evenly matched with.

I also realised something else that I can’t get my head round: just as I was trying to chase that one position in the second race, I also felt quite awkward and self-conscious about the idea of overtaking him… embarrassed about the swagger of taking it on.  So much so that I think it put me off really going for it.  Could I have caught him? I have no idea but I think I’ve now got an inkling of why “hunger” is so important to success.