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How I’ve Beaten Rivals Faster Than Me — And How You Can Too

The sweet art of playing with competitors' minds to outsmart them to the finish.

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For most of my racing life, like the majority of runners, my primary rival has always been myself. Sure, it was fun to win the occasional age-group award, but I was under no illusion I’d ever compete for the top places in any major race — or most smaller races for that matter. A good day was one on which I beat the clock. If others ran faster, that’s just the way it was.

But there have been a few times when I’ve come up against someone I really, really want to beat — either a long-standing rival or someone who just shows up out of the blue and made me think, forget the clock: I want to win.

Sucker Into Surging

One of my first experiences with this was in a tiny 5-mile race — so small that you were pretty much guaranteed an age-group award simply by showing up. In my age group, the overall win was on the line.

I was up against a guy I knew was faster. He was favored to win, but I was fitter. So, at the start, somewhere between “runners take your marks” and “go,” I discarded my race plan, threw him the most challenging look I could muster…and went out at a suicidal pace.

Had he not gone with me, I’d have immediately adjusted. But in addition to knowing I was better trained, I knew he was extremely competitive, and as expected, his competitive juices got the better of him. I dragged him through the first mile at a time at least 20 seconds faster than either of us had any hope of sustaining…at which point, when he saw the split, he gave a little gasp and suddenly dropped off pace. I pushed another 400m at the same pace, trying look like I could do it forever (as if!), then slowly edged off into a steady set of positive splits, as that fast start took its toll.

My finishing time wasn’t my best, but I won. By a huge margin, as it turned out, because however much damage I’d done to myself with that too-fast start, I’d gotten him to play my game and, in the process, self-destruct.

This may be part of what the surging tactics of the early East Africans were about. Surging and recovering is a great way to train; it builds aerobic capacity in ways steady-paced training probably can’t match. But it isn’t the most efficient way to race.

If you’re trained to do it and your rivals aren’t, however — and if they feel obliged to match you, even when they shouldn’t — you can inflict more damage on them than on yourself.

I asked Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay, about this and he agreed. “When you train for it, and know when you plan to use it, you are in control and have the chance of breaking others who are competitive, but not thinking,” he said.

Hoodwink on the Hills

Another of my favorite races (better, even, than the 5-mile win) was an age-group victory on a hilly course, against a guy who should have beaten me tidily.

It was a point-to-point 10K that started with a 150-foot drop, rolled a while, then finished with two miles, flat. My race plan was to work the downgrade, dial back at the bottom and treat the rest of the course as five miles of rolling-to-flat. If I was lucky, I figured, I’d be about 30 seconds faster than on a course without a net elevation drop.

And, that’s exactly what I did in the first mile, dialing the pace back at the end of the downgrade and settling in for the rest of the race.

On the first roller, I did what I coach others to do. Don’t charge the upgrade. Run at a controlled effort, accelerate over the top, and feel “released” on the downgrade (as opposed to needing to recover).

That’s when the other guy caught me, passing me on the ascent. I let him go, then took him back as I rolled over the crest, and gapped him on the descent as he was forced to recover from his uphill charge.

On the next hill, he again put on a charge, again passing me, though this time his gap on the upgrade was less, and mine on the downgrade was bigger.

I was pretty sure he was in my age division and that we were running for a medal, so my plan changed from “run fast” to “beat him.” I actually started holding back on the upgrades, because he was determined to regain contact with me at the top, and each time he did that, he was playing my game.

On the last hill, about two miles from the finish, he veered off to a trashcan to puke. I responded by putting down the hammer for the next 800m in order to maximize the gap, then prayed he wouldn’t somehow come back on me in a final kick.

At the end, he wasn’t quite sure what had hit him. His PR was about two minutes faster than mine, and by all rights, he should have been out of sight, ahead of me.

But I knew what had happened. I’d gotten him to play my game, then baited him into self-destructing.

Manipulate Mentally

When I told him the story, Simons called it “a great example of getting someone to play into an inefficient race on their part.”

It can also be done, he said, by surging on courses with sharp turns, where you can add to your lead while briefly out of sight, or with any other type of planned accelerations that go just a little over your target pace before settling back in. If you do that, he says, the people you’re dueling with “might feel they have lost ground, and either accelerate inefficiently or give up — no longer racing ‘forward’ but mired in negative thoughts.”

Chances to do this don’t come along often for those of us in the pack. But when they have, I’ve found the result to be nearly as much fun as a PR, because I won not just by running faster, but by being better at psychology, pacing, and the racing equivalent of chess. It really doesn’t get much sweeter than that.