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Lessons from the Olympics for us mortals

August 17, 2012

Freya Murray in the women's Olympic MarathonThe Olympics is over. Sadly, a fantastic two-and-a-bit weeks of sport that kept the nation – nay, the world – glued to its TVs has passed and is not due to come this way again for another lifetime.

But while we pick through the highlights, the shock results, the characters, the stories and the horses dancing to the theme from Dambusters, are there any lessons that we can take from the Olympiad and apply to the everyday runner?

Lesson 1: Pacing, pacing, pacing

The men’s marathon was perhaps most notable for the curious pacing applied by one-time race leader and eventual bronze medal winner Wilson Kipsang. After the usual pedestrian start to an Olympic marathon, Kipsang decided to bring it at the 10k marker, suddenly kicking up the speed to world record pace.   

He maintained a hearty lead for most of the race, before being caught by a small chasing pack and was eventually beaten into third place. It wasn’t just Kipsang’s pace that was strange, though – he virtually ignored the drinks stations (everyone appeared to be suffering in the 27C humidity of the city), only once trotting back to a station to pick up a drink when shouted at sufficiently loudly by a Kenyan official.

As much as we are used to seeing elite marathon runners surging and chopping up the pace, this is usually in the final stages of the race and used to wear down the other competitors. Even the elite run better races when they pace evenly – take the USA’s Meb Keflezighi, who gradually worked his way up the field throughout the race to finish fourth.

Lesson 2: Respect the conditions

Sticking with the men’s marathon, Scott Overall was the only marathon runner to make Team GB’s A selection criteria. After a battle with the selection criteria, he was joined on the start line by Lee Merrien. At the time of Merrien’s selection, Overall made a few public comments about the flexing of the criteria, although he later clarified to say that he was glad that Merrien was joining him for the race.

Race day in London was warm and humid – 27C and with blazing sunshine. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted to run in those conditions.

Overall started at around his PB pace, hitting the half-way mark on schedule for a 2:10 or thereabouts finish. Unfortunately the wheels started to come off in the later stages of the race, leaving Overall to come in behind Merrien and to hemorrhage positions.

As Overall later tweeted: ‘Not quite the result I was hoping for. Conditions were brutal out there.Bit more respect 4the temperature, would of been a different outcome’

So, if it’s hot, don’t run a long-distance race like it’s optimal conditions. Perhaps have different goals depending on the conditions on the day.

Lesson 3: Never underestimate the importance of the last 100m

Over in the world of track racing, the last 100m (or, in the case of longer track races, the last 600m) is generally where the race is won or lost. Take Jessica Ennis’s final event in the Heptathlon: the 800m. Ennis was sitting relatively comfortably at the top of the points table for the event. She needed to finish about 12 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor to secure the win.

Ennis set out to lead from the start and dictated the pace for the first 600m. However, on the corner around the 200m mark she was overtaken by two other runners. She only needed to coast home in their slipstream to secure the win, but on hitting the home straight she kicked through and took a convincing win.

Back to the men’s events, Mo Farah’s 5000m was lauded for his double gold. However, it was also notable for its pedestrian start, with the first 2000m ‘jogged’ (or run hard, for us mortals) before the real race began. The final mile was sub-4 and the last 800m was sub-2.

Practice your eyeballs-out pacing and you could end up with a win (provided everything else goes well/everyone else mucks up – delete as appropriate).

Lesson 4: Focus relentlessly on the positive

Yeah, running is partly in the mind, we know that. But do we really put it into action? Going back to the men’s Olympic Marathon, Stephen Kiprotich looked in real trouble with about six miles left to go. Hanging around between bronze and silver position, he was limping slightly and kept hitting at his quad. If he was to medal, we were told (using the now-familiar verb), it would be Uganda’s third ever Olympic medal.

We watched on as he limped onwards bravely, the gap growing. Then, a mile or two down the line, something happened. He stopped limping… he ran faster… he overtook the Kenyans… he was in front, he was bloody winning at all the sports! Uganda’s second ever gold was a convincing win after a bad patch.

Move back to the track and we have Andrew Osagie’s qualification for the men’s 800m finals. Osagie’s original target had been to make it through to the semis, so this was a turn up for the books. (He qualified outright, coming second in his heat, not as a fastest loser.)

In the final, he crossed the line in eighth position. Most of us would engage in a bit of self-flagellation at being last across the line, but Osagie was (rightly) over the moon. He had just run in the fastest 800m ever – his eighth place was the fastest time ever run for an eighth place, and in most Games would have earned him a gold – and knocked a hearty chunk off his PB. He’s still got his career in front of him, and hopefully this will have been encouragement and motivation enough to focus his mind on Rio in four years’ time.

So remember that the tough times pass, that there’s always something positive to focus on, and that can help build you into a better runner.

Lesson 5: Multi-eventers are actually bloody good

We’ve all been there: slogging it out in a gutsy race, you look up and the person in front of you is wearing a tri-club top. Pride, arrogance, whatever, you make it your life’s mission to pass this person because, dammit, you’re a runner and this is your event. If you’re lucky, you win the slug-out, if not it’s just something that’s going to niggle at you.

Not only did Jessica Ennis, in her opening event for the Heptathlon, knock out a GB record for the 110m hurdles, but she was also due to run the pure 110m hurdles race in the Olympics. She had convincingly qualified in the selection races and is currently Team GB’s best female 110m hurdler.

And then we have the curious case of the Brownlees. Having swum 1.5km, biked around a marathon distance, Alistair Brownlee knocked out a 29:07 10k. People we quick to point out that this wasn’t that much slower than Mo Farah’s 27:30 gold medal-winning 10k, and unless they were much mistaken Farah hadn’t just swum or biked.

Sure, that’s impressive. But championship track races are generally slow. Farah’s 10k PB is a good 44 seconds faster than his Olympic race, but a gold is a gold. What’s more impressive, though, is that Brownlee’s 10k leg is the sixth fastest 10k in the UK this year. That’s not just any year either – at the beginning of the year GB’s best athletes were chasing the Olympic selection A standard of 27:45.

So, the next time you’re slugging it out, quads burning, lungs searing, willing yourself to keep on going and you look up and there’s a guy in a tri-club top in front of you, ask yourself this: Are they about 5″10? Slight of build? Yeah, probably a Brownlee. Not so bad now, eh?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom permalink
    August 18, 2012 3:14 pm

    Good article, enjoyed that. Truly more than a bit sad that it’s all over, but what an inspiring few weeks.

    So with that in mind, what’s on the cards for you the next few months?

    • August 18, 2012 7:03 pm

      Well, the Paralympics are round the corner, but after that it’s truly over.
      At the moment I’m still working on speed, but things have gone a bit to seed recently after work kicked up a gear. Planning to clock up a couple of fast 5k Parkruns over the next couple of months.
      What does the rest of the year hold for you?

      • Tom permalink
        August 22, 2012 4:09 pm

        First half marathon this weekend… opportunity came up so I thought i’d give it a go earlier than originally planned. Had the Henley Half Marathon entered for a while (that was going to be the first, but), that’s October. Another few 10k’s between now and the end of the year.

        Joined a running club, and just signed up for parkrun too. Abingdon will be my closest. All good stuff.

        Touch wood, the bit of pain I was feeling in one of my shins has slackened off, so it’s all going nicely at the moment, and i’m enjoying it more than ever.

        Good luck with those parkruns and don’t work too hard (at actual work!). 🙂


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