Jim Dunaway for the IAAF
11 August 2001 – Edmonton - I was lucky enough this week to hear Sebastian Coe, the 1980 and 1984 Olympic 1500m gold medalist, share some of his thoughts about strategy and tactics in middle distance racing.
Coe was a member of a shoe company panel on technology early in the week. The discussion somehow turned from technology to the human side of running, and to the differences between championship racing like the Olympics and World Championships on the one hand and Grand Prix racing on the other.
Coe feels that a lot of athletes today haven't learned to race really well because of the nature of Grand Prix racing. Every race has a pace-setter, or pace-setters, and the objective is to run fast...period. You'll see GP races where the fourth, or sixth, or eighth finishers all set national records, even though they finish well behind the winner.
"But they haven't served their racing apprenticeships," Coe said. "When they get to the Olympics or the World Championships, they often don't know what to do in the competitive situation of championship racing.
"When I was racing, people spent a lot of time thinking about how to race. Today they don't learn to race. You run 10 or 12 races where a rabbit takes you through 600 metres, then another takes you through 800 and a third through 1200 and all you have to do is run as fast as you can."
That's very different from racing without a rabbit, he notes, where you have changes of pace, lots of sudden moves, and a plenty of physical contact...really rough physical contact. That's what you get in championship races.
"You have to protect yourself," Coe says. "It can really get rough. Once I was in a race with Bronislav Malinowski. I was on the inside and he was on the outside, and I wanted to get out of the box. I sort of tried to move him so I could get out, and he gave me an elbow that broke one of my ribs."
"I think a really good racer has sort of an on-board computer when he's racing. He's constantly checking his position, calculating distances, and planning escape routes. I was always thinking about escape routes, about where I could go and how I could get out of trouble."
Watching the two semis of the men's 1500 tonight was a lesson in what Coe was talking about. In semi One, Olympic bronze medalist Bernard Lagat of Kenya took the field through quick first lap, but was passed Reyes Estevez of Spain with 2 laps to go. This left Lagat boxed (with no "escape route") and while he was stuck along the rail most of the pack passed him and he found himself eighth or ninth.
Lagat had the speed and strength to come back and win the race in 3:35.82, but he certainly expended a lot of energy in the last lap making up all the ground he (unnecessarily) lost.
In the second semi, world record holder Hicham El Gerrouj, who almost always has a race plan, jogged along behind a 1:02.61, 2:06.17 pace -- staying out of trouble by running two or three wide (where you rarely need an "escape route"), then took the lead and pulled away with a 53.1 last 400m to win in a comfortable 3:39.54.
Both won with a fast last lap, but who used up the most energy? With two days' rest until Sunday's final maybe it won't make any difference -- but maybe it will. What if it comes down to a couple of hundredths of a second?
There was smart racing and dumb racing in both semis. Some of the latter racers made the final, but they needed luck as well as speed to get there. The smart ones made their own luck.
Half an hour later, the 5000 final was run. After the race final, winner Richard Limo of Kenya said that the three Kenyans in the race had a plan. "We sat down before the race and made our plan for the race," he said. "And it succeeded."
The plan was simple: Sammy Kipketer would set a fast early pace to take the sting out of the finishing kicks of Ali Saidi-Sief of Algeria and Million Wolde of Ethiopia, who finished 1-2 in Sydney. Then Limo would move up in last lap and try to outsprint whoever was in front.
Kipketer led through a swift first four laps in 59.2, 2:02.14, 3:03.33, 4:05.97, and when he faltered late in the race, Saidi-Sief took the lead for the final couple of laps. He ran the next-to-last 400 in 57.5, but by then Limo was right behind him. And in the last 200 meters, Limo passed the Algerian and drew away to win by 10 meters or so in 13:00.77.
Racing - championship racing, at least - is still a thinking man's game.