I don’t win any races outright anymore. Age groups, maybe. But not the whole race.
But I used to win quite frequently. So I thought it might be interesting to share what that’s like, and what it can actually teach those of us who never wind up in first place. We’ll discuss pacing races in both running and cycling, for there are major differences.
First off, lead runners typically work in a fashion that prepares them mentally and physically to win. That means there is empiric data at work in both training and racing. For example, most 10K races at the regional level are still won at just over 5:00 pace per mile. My personal best at 10K was 31:10, exactly 5:00 pace. From high school through college and beyond, 5:00 pace was a gold standard for running competition. Your goal to win races in high school cross country was to run sub 5:00 pace for three miles. We’d train 50-60 miles per week with speed work done on the track and grass at race pace or below. Come race day (and we raced 18-20 times per season in those days) the goal was always to go through the first mile in 5:00, which would put a runner near or in the lead.
From there, the experience was mental as much as physical. To lead a race, you must run with confidence in sustaining your goal pace. Only by doing that consistently enough in practice can you expect to race along at 5:00 pace (or any other) and not blow up.
There are competitive factors to consider as well. If you take the lead, you take a risk that your competitors can or cannot keep up or overtake you. I well recall that flush of anxiety with competitors on my heels. But to succeed, you run to expectations, not fears. That is how you take and keep the lead. If a competitor is faster in the early phases of the race, you may adjust your pace, but sometimes it takes just as much confidence to stick by your own expectations and “lead from behind” and overtake them in the last mile.
During college the racing distance in cross country increased initially from three to four miles. In track we moved from two miles to 5000 meters, or 3.1 miles. That meant an increase in base training mileage was critical to building strength and endurance for the corresponding longer distances.
We trained from 70-90 miles per week in college, and raced four miles close at just above 5:00 pace. That meant we ran 4:45-4:55 mile intervals in practice, usually 4-6 of those as racing prep.
The adjustment to four miles was, at first difficult, but additional physical maturity helped compensate for that. My times over four years racing at four miles dropped from 21:16 (at age 18) to 20:16 (age 21.) Post collegiately I raced 19:49 for four miles on the road.
Yet college cross country had a cruel treat in store. After four meets, the racing distance shifted to five miles! That meant you’d race the four miles you were now accustomed to pacing and had to add on a mile. But the other surprise was fascinating. We raced through four miles at the same pace and continued on to five.
I admittedly led and won only a couple college cross country races, one at four miles and one at five. The mental enterprise of taking the lead in a cross country race at that level is as much capitalizing on opportunity (and a “good day”) as it is a product expectations. In track, where distance runners are spread over three or four events, there was much more opportunity to take a lead and hold it than in cross country, where all competitors were concentrated together.
A race within the race
Instructively, that meant you needed to learn to construct and win a race “within a race.” That simply means that when you are not the absolute leader, you must become the leader of a group or competition inside the race as a whole. With team competitions on the line, this was not hard to do. You might group up and run as a pack, or you might single out competitors with whom you typically ran from week to week. These are known as “rivalries,” and they can be tremendously motivating.
There is also the empiric measure of your race as dictated by time. When you know you ran 26:15 for five miles the previous week, the goals are simple. You break down that pace and determine what times you need to hit to run faster. Then you tune out the other music and run to your best ability. That is constructed a race within a race, and is a most useful skill for everyone that is a runner, or a cyclist.
For every triathlete, the “race within a race” is almost always the dynamic. Within 50 meters of a mass swim start, you lose sight of 99% of your competitors. And out on the race course with the bike, you are not allowed to pace or draft anyway. For that reason, confidence in your own goal pace is critical and the entire definition of “taking the lead” into your own hands.
But there are things to be learned about racing by looking at how bike races on their own typically roll out. So we’ll get to the difference in racing a bike right now.
“Leading a race” is an entirely different prospect in cycling. None of the dynamics are the same in comparison to either competing in a triathlon. In fact, a rider that takes the lead in a bike race is often nothing more than a sacrificial lamb for the rest of the pack. That’s how bike racing actually works.
That does not mean there are not moments when strong cyclists take the lead. But few in a typical bike race can simply “ride away” from the gun and hold off the pack for 30-60 minutes, much less five or six hours, without being reeled back in. Sometimes that conclusion comes late, with only 500 meters to go in the bike race. The peloton is an immensely unforgiving creature.
So bike racing as a pure sport is still more often a collaborative rather than a solo effort when taking the lead. A group of four to five riders may make a breakaway in a criterium or road race and share the load of riding in the lead. Only the absolute strongest cyclists can manage a solo breakaway. When that happens with a rider like former pro Jens Voigt, the effort can be inspiring. But Jens was from Mars, not Earth.
Circumstance plays a huge role in cycling, and you’d better learn how to read it or learn from hard lessons along the way. While racing in the Elk Grove Criterium, on a bike course that featured a tight hairpin turn, I’d raced the entire 40 minutes catching back onto the lead group through the hairpin. Stunningly, I found myself slingshotting to the front of the pack come off a turn past the grandstands. I wasn’t trying to take the lead. We were suddenly going into a wind that had picked up in advance of a coming storm, and heading for the last hairpin turn. I accelerated thinking it would be an advantage to head in first and not have to catch back on with an energy-sapping sprint going into the last lap.
And to my horror and instructive peril, I came out of that turn with cyclists whipping by me as if I was going backwards. That’s because I’d already hit the gas too many times during the main part of the race. I had nothing left in the tank. I was left pedaling solo as the group plundered on. I rolled in 35th overall.
That was the wrong kind of “lead” to have built. The real “leaders” of that race had done two critical things right during the event. They’d “led” from just behind the first people going into every turn, and positioned themselves consistently for smooth transitions through the hairpin. They saved their energy for the last lap.
The same strategies can be important in distance running as well. On windy days, it typically does not pay to race ahead and bear the full brunt of the wind for lap after lap in a track race.
I once led a steeplechase race on a day where the wind blew 50 mph. I took the lead but my competitor brought gloves along and was literally hurdling the barriers sideways to cut down on his effort of jumping barriers in a gale. It was despicably ingenious. He nearly beat me. It was a nightmare. But I still won.
Leading a race at every level obviously requires confidence. At that moment when you surge to the lead, you are making a statement. “I’m fitter than you. Catch me if you can.” In cycling, of course, everyone typically knows that an early leader is a liar. The pack quickly reels in those with too much enthusiasm and not enough training to hold off the peloton. In running, it takes some time to figure out if the leader actually can hold the pace.
In running, it takes some time to figure out if the leader actually can hold the pace. And there are codes to obey. If you’re behind in a running race, you tend to reel things in slowly. But if you get “gapped” in cycling, you waste no time getting back on. The longer you’re off the back, the more you’ll suffer in the wind going solo. If you hope to lead near the finish, there is no choice but to hit the hammer and catch a wheel. Otherwise, you are gone, gone, gone, my friend.
Which points out the fact that there are two kinds of confidence actually. One is built from the training you’ve done. That is confidence earned from practice and knowing what pace you can run or ride, and for how long. There is also racing confidence, built from experimentation and risk-taking in actual competition. It generally takes a few “failed” attempts in races to build full racing confidence. If that sounds contrary or ironic, it surely is. But until you’ve guttered home defeated and disgusted by your blowup, you might not learn the lessons you need to know, or find the motivation to overcome your previous malaise.
In other words, sometimes you just have to get pissed off enough at losing to finally get motivated enough to win.
The will to win
Let’s be honest about something. Competition is not a pretty thing. In nature, creatures get eaten if they have a bad day. End of story. And you can parse it any way you want, but human competition can be just as cruel and terminal. If you set out to win and do not accomplish that goal, you have lost.
That doesn’t mean you are, by definition, a loser. That only happens when you quit trying. And remember, victories can come out of some of the strangest circumstances. So never quit trying.
Motivation and the will to win requires that you want to do better than others, and better than you have done in the past. But let’s be blunt: taking the lead is a slap in the face to all those you have bested. That is why some angry people make really good competitors. They keep score and have scores to settle. They don’t forget who beat them last time, and care deeply that they don’t get beat again.
The will to win is therefore seldom a product of nice guys (or gals) finish first. You don’t have to be mean to others in order to win, but you might have to be mean to yourself now and then. You can forgive your own competitive failures, but you also must learn from them.
The next time you “take the lead,” whatever that may mean in your own racing context, there is no question what you want to do. You want to win this time. And nothing’s going to stop you. And that’s what it’s like to lead and win a race.
Authors note: All these rules apply to swimming in some context. But I have not yet competed in swimming as an adult. When I do, I’ll share those lessons too.