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The Inside Lane: Just Let ‘Em Race

Racing is exciting. Chasing and pacing are not.

I love racing. In no other form of athletic competition does the uncertainty and unpredictability of a given outcome create a type of drama and suspense so compelling that you’ll hang on the edge of your seat for anywhere from a couple seconds to a few hours screaming at your screen just to see what happens.

Which is exactly why I was bored by Jordan Hasay’s “Chase” for the world championship 10,000-meter A-standard last night at Portland’s Roughrider Twilight Meet. Despite the presence of seven other women and three male pacemakers on the starting line, it was not a race, but rather a meticulously arranged time trial that could have been so much more, well, exciting.

OK, you’ll say, the excitement was in The Chase. An exciting race wasn’t the point in this situation. The point was for Hasay to run faster than 31:45 and punch her ticket to Moscow next month. Fine, I get it. Standards are standards and without one you’re not going anywhere. And I know how hard competitive 10,000m races are to come by in mid-July, especially in the U.S. I applaud Alberto Salazar’s efforts to set up a meet stateside where Hasay, along with her Oregon Project teammate Tara Erdmann, could have the opportunity to go after that magical mark. I was more than a bit dismayed, however, by his pre-race charades and the uncertainty of when and where the meet would be run while he watched the weather forecast for the ideal day and window of time where conditions would be just right for the attempt. It sounded all too familiar. Perhaps more disappointing, and confusing, however, was the announcement just a few days before the race that Erdmann, who finished one spot behind Hasay at last month’s U.S. championships and also needed to hit a time standard to be on the team for Moscow, was not going to be in the same race and would instead make her own attempt at 31:45 a few days later at a time and place still to be determined.

So I followed along on Twitter last night as Hasay tucked in behind her hired pacers and clipped off laps between 75 and 77 seconds. By halfway it was clear she was a few seconds behind schedule and it would take some effort to make up ground over the final 10 laps. From here, let’s fast-forward to the end of the race because the next 9 laps weren’t all that exciting. At the bell, Hasay went past the final male pacemaker and kicked home the last 400 meters in 71 seconds, missing the A-standard by just over a second while setting a 20-second personal best — no small feat in itself.

So what did this all mean?

In short, it meant that Hasay had just punched herself a ticket to Moscow (her 31:46.42 finishing time was well under the world championships B-standard of 32:05, the minimum mark she needed to hit last night), but in order for Erdmann to go with her, she will need to run faster than 31:45 before July 20 or she’ll be left at home. Had Hasay run under 31:45 last night, Erdmann would have only needed to run under 32:05 before July 20 in order to join her teammate in Moscow next month. Yes, the rules are silly, confusing and hard to follow, but that’s a topic for another column.

Like many others around the country last night, I was cheering for Jordan Hasay to run fast and make the U.S. team. I’m willing to bet that a lot more people would have been cheering louder, however, had she and Erdmann been chasing the standard together and helping one another make it to Moscow. Fans love competition, especially 1-on-1 situations. Think Dan vs. Dave, Jordan vs. Bird, or even just racing your friend to the mailbox in front of the rest of your peers when you were a kid. In 1997, before I ever even had an inkling of interest in running or the sport of track and field, I remember watching a special 1-on-1 showdown on TV between Michael Johnson, the great U.S. 200 and 400m runner, and Canadian sprinting sensation Donovan Bailey. The race was a bust, of course, as Johnson pulled up lame with an injured quad, but the excitement and drama before they even took off from the starting line was off the hook! There were a reported 30,000 people in the stands at Sky Dome that day. People love a good grudge match.

Not that Hasay vs. Erdmann would have been a 25-lap grudge match, but it would have been a heck of a lot more exciting than two separate, solo A-standard attempts, and I believe it would have worked to the advantage of both women to compete against one another last night rather than go it alone. As an athlete and a coach, I have always been a big believer that competition will always bring out the best results, not a perfectly paced time trial under sterile conditions. Yes, depth in a women’s 10K is going to be hard to come by in July, but I believe if Hasay and Erdmann had followed their pacers patiently through 8K (Note: I have no problems with them using pacers, even male ones, given the lack of depth in the field) and then just had at it themselves over the final 5 laps — may the best woman win — at minimum an A- and a B-standard would have emerged, if not two As. The problem of whether or not they should pack their bags for Moscow would have been solved. Fans of the sport would have been exposed to off-the-rocker excitement. It could have been a win-win situation for everyone.

Or, then again, maybe it wouldn’t have been a win-win for everyone. Either Hasay or Erdmann might have missed the standard and had to kiss their dreams of Moscow goodbye. That would have been unfortunate, but unpredictability and disappointment is a part of racing. Regardless of how perfect of a scenario you try to set up, there are no guarantees that you’re going to do what you set out to do. That’s why you run the race.

Remember a couple years ago when coach Salazar was trying to set up an American record attempt in the 10,000m for Galen Rupp? Remember how before the race he pulled a lot of the same crap in regard to waiting until the last minute to decide if the weather conditions were good enough for Rupp to race or not? Well, at the end of the day Rupp broke the existing American record of 27:13, but Chris Solinsky broke it first and became the first American to run under 27 minutes for the distance. When the pacemakers stepped off the track, the real racing began — and the time took care of itself for both athletes. Racing works. That’s just one example.

“They were calling out splits every 200 meters but I never really paid attention to them or added them up or anything,” Solinsky told me a couple years ago. “I purposely tried from the beginning almost to fall asleep and stay relaxed. I didn’t want to think about splits. I just wanted to put myself in position to contend for the win and I wasn’t going to let myself get dropped.”

If you have a half an hour to spare today, watch the replay of that race on Flotrack. Listen to the excitement as Solinsky breaks the tape in 26:59.60 and Rupp runs the second fastest 10,000m in U.S. history at the time. Or go watch Amy Begley’s last-lap flurry in the 10,000m final to run under 31:45 at the Olympic Trials in 2008, or Kim Conley’s dramatic kick at the end of the women’s 5,000 final from last summer’s Trials in Eugene. Even though you know how those three races end, chances are you’ll still start screaming at your screen. You may even be inspired to go out this evening and hammer a workout of your own.

I did not wake up this morning and want to head to the track to grind through a set of intervals after watching Jordan Hasay run against the clock last night. I know why she was running against the clock, and while there was some degree of uncertainty and unpredictability behind it (will she hit the time or will she not?), there was no competition (second place was 37:46), no drama, no screaming at my computer from the couch. Pacing and chasing just isn’t that exciting. I didn’t love it.