The Master Tactician

Tactics – noun plural but singular or plural in construction tac·tics \’tak-tiks\.
a :  the science and art of disposing and maneuvering forces in combat
b :  the art or skill of employing available means to accomplish an end

I spent a fair amount of time watching the 2015 Prefontaine Classic over the weekend. That included staying up past my bedtime Friday night to watch the HS miles and the men’s 5000m and 10,000m on The next day I watched parts of the NBC broadcast, taking frequent breaks to keep my blood pressure in check (seriously, Tom Hammond, who used to call horse races, should never, ever be allowed to announce another distance race involving humans). I was glad I did watch, because there were a lot of fast and entertaining races.

Two races that struck me as especially interesting were the women’s 800 and the men’s “Bowerman Mile.” In the 800m, Ajee Wilson came within hundredths of a second of beating 2013 World Champion Eunice Sum, running a season’s best 1:57.87 (to Sum’s 1:57.82). In the mile, Matt Centrowitz ran 3:51.20 and came within a tenth of a second of running down 2014 World Indoor 1500m champion Ayanleh Souleiman.

Both Wilson and Centrowitz are considered consistent runners and strong tacticians. Indeed, in almost every race that Centrowitz runs, the announcers make a point of mentioning his mastery of tactics (they say the same thing about Bernard Lagat, who ran 13:14 and placed fourth in the 5000m Friday evening). But what does tactics mean, exactly? Is it something they do differently than the other runners, or is something that they do NOT do? Are good tactics about making good moves — as in chess? Or are tactics a matter of having good instincts to avoid trouble?

Watching the replay of Saturday’s mile, nothing really jumps out at you. Centro’s race seems highly competent, and fast. How much of that was the result of good tactics, and how much the result of being better than the other runners? On repeated re-watching, I think there are actually several important things to say about how Centrowitz employs available means to accomplish the desired end.

It’s worth stating the obvious that Centro’s goal was to win the race. It was not to run a particular time, or finish in the top five, or set a PR, or any of a number of possible other goals, it was to win. Why even mention this? Because winning requires only that you cross the line before anyone else. All other considerations, including the final time, are secondary. I would argue that the first rule of tactics is to identify the desired end and make rational choices that increase the chances of accomplishing that end.

Based on PRs, Centrowitz was not the fastest runner in the race. Centrowitz has a 1500m PR of 3:31.09, which is very good, but is nearly 1.5 seconds slower than Souleiman’s PR of 3:29.58, and over 3 seconds slower than Asbel Kiprop’s PR of 3:27.72. Looking at 800m times reveals even more of a speed gap: Centro’s best 800m time is 1:45.86, where Souleiman and Kiprop have both run 1:43. Centro had to find a way to neutralize the raw speed advantage of his rivals.

One way to level the playing field is to run less distance than your rivals. Another way is to run as evenly and economically as possible. But to do either one of these things requires being in the right position relative to the other dozen runners who are jockeying for the same advantages. The best strategy for being in position to run an efficient race depends on what the other runners do. If the race is very fast from the outset, then lagging in the back might be a fine strategy. If it is slow, then being at or near the front might be a better strategy. Either way, tactics must include deciding whether the cost of establishing a favorable position is worth the expenditure of energy.

On Saturday, the pacemakers did their job, running the first 400m in about 56 seconds. However, for some reason the main pack of runners chose not to go with the rabbits, leaving a sizable gap back to the field. Throughout most of the first lap, Centrowitz had been content to run in about 7th place, typical for him in big races. Nearer to the front, Ayanleh Souleiman had responded to the slow pace by moving up into 3rd, well behind the two pacemakers, but effectively leading the real race.

Now Souleiman’s position was interesting. Conventional wisdom would say that it’s hard to win a competitive mile from the front, since other runners should be able to save energy by drafting off the front runner. But Souleiman chose to run slightly faster than the main pack on that first lap (ensuring a slightly more even pace for the entire mile), passing 400m in about 58 seconds, about a half second ahead of the main group of runners. Seeing this, Centrowitz moved up into 4th and by the end of the backstretch on the second lap had closed the gap and was settled in behind Souleiman, with the rest of the field in tow. The first rabbit hit 800m in about 1:56, and Souleiman led the main pack in about 1:58 with Centrowitz right behind. Morocco’s Abdalati Iguider was swinging wide, making an early move to take the lead.

Where were the other favorites? The fastest man in the field, Asbel Kiprop, was in last place, about 15m behind the leaders. Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano was in fourth. Silas Kiplagat and James Magut were right behind Manzano. The entire field began to wind it up, as they hit the backstretch of the final lap.

With 200m to go, Souleiman retook the lead from Iguider, with Centrowitz positioned perfectly on Souleiman’s right shoulder. Manzano had run himself into a horrible box, with runners on his inside, outside, and in front of him. With nowhere to run, he would fade to 11th. Kiprop had made a massive move on the backstretch to move from last to about 6th, but he would have to run the entire last curve in the second lane, boxing in first Manzano and then Kiplagat. Down the homestretch, it looked like Kiprop might pull out the win, but he had been sprinting so hard for so long that he didn’t have another gear, and Souleiman (3:51.10) and Centrowitz (3:51.20) managed to hold Kiprop (3:51.25) off as they crossed the line.

So what does this race have to tell us about tactics? I’d say that Centro’s tactical sense began with his self-confidence to move up early when he sensed the pace was not overly fast. After that, he made sure he was on the leaders shoulder for the rest of the race, able to defend his position, if need be, and avoid the need for sudden bursts of speed, running sideways, and other faults that steal away valuable tenths of a second. Manzano, who has a great record in championship races, found himself in a bad position with 200 to go and couldn’t recover. His best races seem to be ones where he is able to burst through gaps in a tiring field. Kiprop, the fastest man in the field, gambled on a sit and kick strategy, but even though he ran by far the fastest last 300m, he had left himself too much to do, and in the end squandered his superior speed.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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