|THE DOUBLE - Race Strategy Part 5
Monday, December 10th, 2012
A Runner's Chess Match
by Dave Prokop
This brings to an even 50 the possible strategies in the Double Road Race™ we have discussed in this five-part series.
While the observation made by Bob Anderson, the creator of the Double, is intrinsically true – “There are as many strategies as there are runners in the race” – we’ll conclude this analysis, at least for now, in the hope we have accomplished what we set out to do, which was to illustrate how tactical and strategically complex the Double can be, and in so doing, that we provided greater insight into the nature of the competition and how to approach it.
See you at the Pleasanton Double on Dec. 23.
Photo: Fernando Cabada from Boulder Colo is a runner to watch at the Double in Pleasanton. He plans on running the 10k in 30 minutes, then pick up the temp and run 14:30 for the 5k leg.
41. THE WHERE-HAVE-YOU-BEEN-ALL-MY-LIFE STRATEGY – There are those among us in our family of runners who relish hard training, hard racing, hard work. They’re not always the best runners or the most talented, but they’re tough and they like to take it to the limit. Go with them on a trail run, and they want to run the steepest hills, on the most godawful terrain – you know the type. We sometimes refer to these individuals as “animals.” You can only imagine how someone of this ilk would embrace a competition like the Double. I’ve known several such runners during my many years in the sport. “Strategy? Who needs strategy?” they might say, “Just go out and run!” Well, that’s one approach.
42. THE BASE-YOUR-GAMEPLAN-ON-THE-COURSE STRATEGY – Although the idea, at least initially, is to stage each Double on flat road courses to allow for easier and better comparison of performances and times, that does not mean that the Double Road Race™ could not be held on hilly road courses or even trails or cross-country courses. In such a situation the nature of the course could influence one’s strategy in various ways: What kind of pace to run, where you might try to get away from your competitors the most effectively, how aggressive do you want to be, how can you make the course work to your advantage, etc.?
43. THE BASE-YOUR-GAMEPLAN-ON-THE-WEATHER STRATEGY – The same general idea. If the weather is very hot or cold, or you’re going to be running in the rain, that would obviously factor in to how you approach the competition. In cold or wet weather, you’d want to be careful not to stiffen up too much during the recovery break. In hot weather, you’d want to be careful not to go out too hard.
44. THE BETWEEN-A-ROCK-AND-A-HARD-PLACE STRATEGY – Imagine you’re a very good runner entered in the Double. Let’s say you’re Galen Rupp. Is your imagination that good? Also entered in the Double are the two best Kenyan runners who are on your level of ability. The gun goes off in the opening 10K and one of the Kenyans tears off at a stunning pace, while the other one, keeping his eyes on you, moves off at a more conservative pace. You’re in this thing to win, and these are the guys you have to beat. What do you do? Try to keep up with the first one, who might have it in mind to run the both of you off your feet and leave you a sitting duck in the 5K as the other one, who conserved his energy in the 10K, will be ready to run a barnburner of a 5K? Or stay with the second one, who might even slow down purposely if you do that, so his countrymen can build such a big lead it’ll be impossible to make up the time in the concluding 5K? What do you do? Go with the first one, i.e., the frontrunner, stay with the second one, or hang somewhere between the two of them? You have just entered a strategy Twilight Zone where you’re not only between a rock and a hard place, but you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Note: In a situation like this, where you have three very evenly matched runners, all hoping to win, if two of them “gang up” on the third in this manner, one of the two would almost definitely win, because the third runner has very limited options to try to counter this. Remember, this is an aggregate time event, the race consists of two legs, and it is a competition where strategy is particularly important. Here the strategy advantages are clearly on the side of the two runners using teamwork against the third one. If it was a straight race, the dilemma wouldn’t exist. You’d just stay with the leader. But this is not a straight race. This is the Double.
Photo: Runners of all abilities will be running the double in Pleasanton Dec 23 and everyone will be deciding what strategy to use to complete the Double.
45. THE TWO-AGAINST-ONE STRATEGY – Same scenario, but from the opposite perspective. Let’s say you and your friend are elite runners, and your main competitor is someone who’s very close to you in ability. An available strategic option (not necessarily one you might elect to use) is for you and your friend to take the aforementioned approach the Kenyans used – you could lead at a ultra aggressive pace, your friend could follow at a more conservative pace, or vice-versa, and the two of you would then coordinate your efforts based on what your opponent does. If he follows the leader and you’re the leader, your job is to keep cranking up the pace to the point where he either drops back or you both self-destruct – remember, if he follows the lead, the leader’s responsibility is to make that opponent pay such a heavy energy price, he’ll have nothing left for the 5K. If he holds back and matches strides with the individual running a more conservative pace, and that individual happens to be you, your responsibility will be to purposely slow down, thus depriving said opponent of any pacing help, and theoretically enabling your partner in strategy to open an even bigger lead. One way or the other, either you or your friend should win, assuming all three runners are of relatively equal ability and running to the best of that ability.
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46. THE LATCH-ON-TO-SOMEBODY STRATEGY --–We’ve all used this strategy, almost instinctively, during a race to run as fast as possible: Latch on to somebody who’s running a little faster than you and let that individual pull you along. You could, in fact, do this several times over during the course of a race. Follow one runner for a while, fall back, then latch on to somebody else who can pull you along. The key is to always pick someone you can hang on to, at least for some appreciable distance, without self-destructing. This is a way for middle-of-the-pack runners to take advantage of their racing instinct and the runners around them to maintain a pace they couldn’t otherwise run.
47. THE VLADIMIR KUTS STRATEGY – Let’s say you’re good enough to win the Double, you have a lot of endurance, but not much of a finishing kick. You know if you don’t win the 10K and build a good lead, you could have trouble against the speedier runners in the 5K. However, if you simply push the pace in the 10K, you’re concerned the other top runners will just sit on you and then outkick you at the end – especially since you probably couldn’t afford to run absolutely to your max in the 10K with a 5K still to come. What’s to be done about this? The 1956 Olympic 5- and 10,000 meter champion Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union used a blunt and brutal strategy against his great British rival Gordon Pirie in the 10,000 meters on the opening day of the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia that could be used effectively in the Double – if one had the guts and stamina to try it! Knowing that Pirie, with his far superior speed, could easily outkick him over the last lap of the 10,000 if he was still in contact, Kuts made sure he wouldn’t be. After a blistering first lap of 60 seconds (just to get everybody’s attention), Kuts settled down to a more normal pace – for two laps! Then he started an endless series of murderous surges, sometimes sprinting 200 meters almost flat out! In order to maintain contact, Pirie followed these surges lap after lap after lap until he finally cracked with five laps to go in the 25-lap race. Kuts went on to win the gold medal, Pirie was so destroyed he faded all the way back to eighth place. Well, that’s one way to get rid of a runner who’s sitting on you. On the other hand, if Kuts had simply tried to run a hard but steady pace, no matter how hard, Pirie probably would have been able to hang on to him till the last lap and then outsprinted him. As it was, Kuts not only won the 10,000, but Pirie was so demoralized that in the 5,000 meters Kuts won by the length of a straightaway, Pirie finishing second. This remains to this day the largest margin of victory in the 5,000 meters in Olympic history. Note: If someone mentally and physically strong enough were to do to his competitors in the opening leg of the Double what Kuts did to Pirie in the 10,000 meters at Melbourne, do you think those competitors might be a little demoralized in the 5K leg as Gordon Pirie was in the 5,000? Three guesses and the first two don’t count.
48. THE LONG-FINISHING-KICK STRATEGY – In a highly tactical competition like the Double, runners with a strong finishing kick have a particular advantage because they can use that kick twice, at the end of the 10K and again at the end of the 5K, to steal a time advantage. So in the Double, if you’re running along with a group of runners at the end of the 10K or the 5K, you know you’re going to lose time to those with superior finishing speed (and you know it could happen twice) unless you launch a long finishing kick of your own from 600 to 800 meters out or even farther – to take the finishing kick out of the kickers. Indeed, a strong elite runner with a suspect finishing kick is almost forced to do this in the Double, or try to set such a strong pace the others simply cannot keep up, because that runner surely can’t afford to have competitors with superior finishing speed near him or her at the end of the 10K and the 5K, thus facing the almost certain prospect of being outkicked twice!
49. THE CAN-I-DO-THIS STRATEGY –In a recent interview Bill Rodgers said, speaking about the Double, “I think the challenge is interesting in that it gets people to think, “Can I do this?’ “ Anyone who enters the Double with this mindset will presumably have prepared carefully, thought through and settled on an appropriate race strategy, and will concentrate and fight very hard during the competition to achieve the desired goal, whether that goal is just to finish, or run a specific aggregate time, or finish in a certain position. “Can I do this?” is not a bad place to be psychologically going into a competition – indeed, Roger Bannister probably was asking himself that very question the morning of the day he became the first man to break the four minute barrier in the mile. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re someone of limited ability who lacks confidence or faith in yourself, or that you’re a tailender as a runner. Rather it means you give the challenge at hand the respect it deserves and proceed accordingly – both in training and the competition itself. You do your best, which is all any of us can do. So the I-Wonder-If-I-Can-Do-This Strategy equates to taking the competition seriously, preparing as best as you can, and executing a well-thought-out plan during the competition (whatever that plan might be) carefully and to one’s maximum, not cavalierly and without much thought or psychological foundation. It’s a strategy of being in a zone, a mindset, rather than just merely having a gameplan.
50. THE BUILDUP-TO-THE-CHAMPIONSHIP STRATEGY – It is our hope and vision that in the future the Double will be popular all over America as well as internationally, with state championships, a national championship and even a world championship. When the Double as a competition reaches that state of maturity and development, it’s almost a certainty that the top competitors will approach the early season Doubles as a buildup (with all that implies) to the championship competitions. So these athletes could experiment with different strategies, run harder or slower as their training and preparation at that stage of the season dictates, etc. Who knows? Someday the Double might even be an Olympic sport, like the Triathlon has become, featuring three athletes per country selected at Olympic trials. Will this ever come to pass? Who says it can’t.
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Chess anyone? As you can readily see, there are an endless number of ways to strategically approach the Double Road Race™, which is why we call it a distance runner's chess match on the roads in shoes, shorts and a singlet. That's what makes the Double so intriguing. Because of the strategy possibilities and variations, the Double is a competition where the best or strongest runner will not necessarily win if he or she makes a strategy miscalculation -- and there's a greater probability of this happening in the Double than in a regular road race, where the strategy choices and demands are not as varied or critical.
Welcome to the new world of running competition. Welcome to the Double, the thinking man's and woman's running competition, where tactics and thinking go hand in hand, only here it's step by step, with strength and stamina.
The Double has so many tactical variations, one wonders if Bob Anderson himself really envisioned all its facets and possibilities when he created the competition. A competition that will not necessarily go only to the fastest and strongest, but will reward the smartest, fastest, strongest and most experienced.
In that regard, the Double is somewhat reminiscent of the sport of orienteering, where running ability is important, but the winner also has to be handy with a compass and must master the strategy of how to get from checkpoint to checkpoint in the fastest time possible. With that comparison in mind, the Double is not merely a running event, but like orienteering, a whole new and separate sport.
Have fun! And, remember, no one is suggesting you run an all-out effort in the 10K, then suffer through the pain -- with time needlessly ticking by -- of running the 5K with your energy on empty.
The Double is what you make it, so make it what you want it to be.