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Olympics

Race Strategy 101: Have a Plan and Execute It

How the 800m final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials played out reveals tactical lessons for every runner

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“I didn’t really have any plan,” said Donavan Brazier, the reigning world champion and favorite to win the 800 meters, after he finished last in the U.S. Olympic Trials final last night. In contrast, young Isaiah Jewett, who pulled off an upset second-place finish, said, “My plan was to run hard and get everything out of the race that I could.” And that tells much of the story.

Now that the dust has settled from that wild and fast finals, it’s clear that the U.S. is setting a strong squad of runners to Tokyo. The trio of Clayton Murphy (1:43.17), Isaiah Jewett (1:43.85) and Bryce Hoppel (1:44.14) is not only fast, but it ranks among the best the U.S has ever sent to an international championship.

But Brazier’s performance left heads scratching. Did he choke? Was he hurt? Did he just not have the fitness? It might have been a little of each scenario, but in the end what might have gotten the best of Brazier — and what can be a lesson to anyone heading into any race — was the lack of a realistic outlook that considered numerous ways the race might have unfolded.

Whereas Murphy and Hoppel ran with a smart combination of patience, grit and veteran savvy, Brazier was pulled into surging after Jewett, the fast-starting, new kid on the block who was eager to mix it up with the guys he’s been watching on YouTube for years.

Brazier was humble and forthcoming in his post-race interview, and it was the answer to the very last question, when he revealed his lack of a plan, that shed light on what really happened.

“I’ve been able to win from the front. I’ve been able to win from the back,” said the 24-year-old, who won the 2019 world championship in an American record 1:42.34. “So I don’t know if it was just overconfidence going into the race, just thinking I could do whatever I want and come out successful, but maybe the lack of a race plan was what got me. I didn’t really have too much of an official race plan.”

Bryce Hoppel
Bryce Hoppel in the 800m final, USA Olympic Track and Field Team Trials June 21, 2021 Eugene, Oregon, USA Photo: Kevin Morris

A Strategic Sprint

The 800-meter run is perhaps the most unique event in track in that it straddles the line between a long sprint and an endurance race. The 400m is just short of an all-out sprint and you stay in your lanes the entire way, so the only thing you need to think about is running with some small degree of patience and pace control. The 1,500, however, requires pace control, positioning and the understanding of when to make moves or to cover other runners’ surges.

In between those is the 800m, an event that requires acute attention to the moves of other runners in context with your own strategy. At any level of competition — from high school to masters — the 800m is always over quickly, but not so quickly that it doesn’t require strategy and tactics. Brazier admitted his basic approach to the final was really just to let the race come to him, but without any nuanced perspective of how he could run his best.

And so when Jewett, young, eager and fresh off winning the NCAA Championships the week before in the same stadium, went out hard from the starting gun and gapped the other seven runners in the field, Brazier found himself unsure of how to react. As a result, he was caught up in running Jewett’s race, instead of being patient, trusting his own abilities and using his experience and fitness to his ability.

The 26-year-old Murphy, who earned the bronze medal in the Rio Olympics after narrowly making the team, meanwhile, did what an experienced, elite-level 800-meter runner should do. He went out hard, but with measured intensity, knowing that his strategy wasn’t to match Jewett’s fast-off-the-front approach but to run controlled and finish strong. Murphy, along with Hoppel and Harris, were primed to run a strong but not all-out effort through 600 meters and then be able to summon a strong kick to the finish. Brazier found himself burning all of his mental and physical energy in pursuit of Jewett through the first lap and half, so much so that he was running on fumes over the final 200 meters.

While there are plenty of other variables — including a nagging plantar fascia issue Brazier has been battling for a few weeks — the way the race played out is lesson for any type of runner at any distance to know your abilities, trust your training, be patient as the race unfolds and execute a smartly strategized race plan.

Isaiah Jewett leads the 800m final, USA Olympic Track and Field Team Trials June 21, 2021 Eugene, Oregon, USA Photo: Kevin Morris

How it Played Out

Jewett started in Lane 7 and got out quickly to maintain the one-turn stagger, so he was in the lead after 150m and ahead of Brazier, who might have been surprised to be tucked behind Jewett and boxed in immediately. Once Jewett realized he was in the lead, he actually surged through the 200-meter mark (25.0) and accelerated into the next turn.

Hoppel felt the sense of urgency and went with Jewett briefly on the outside of Lane 1, as did Isaiah Harris, who was directly behind Jewett. Near the top of the turn, it looked like Murphy was going to move up a little on the outside and, with Jewett pushing hard off the front, and that’s when it appears that Brazier got antsy.

Brazier surged and moved to the outside in front of Murphy and continued surging through the 300m mark. Hoppel, sensing Jewett was absolutely flying, backed off a step, thus creating an even bigger gap in Jewett’s wake. Brazier kept surging down the homestretch of the first lap, but so, too, did Jewett, who led the way through the 400 win a blazing 50.60 split.

Jewett might have been plenty impatient and overzealous in his own approach, but he had the fitness and the physicality — not to mention 45.5 open 400 speed — to execute it. Plus, he had nothing to lose. He had already exceeded his goals and was excited to lay it on the line.

“I was nervous through my whole body,” Jewett said. “But my plan was to run hard and get everything out of the race that I could. I wanted to run in such a way that I was going to be happy if I win or lose. I wanted to be happy with my outcome, whether I was first or dead last. My coach just told me to stay confident through the first lap and he told me to just have fun on the second lap. That’s what I tried to do on the second lap, have fun, keep it honest and keep it going.”

50.60 is crazy fast, just off world-record pace, and similar to how world-record holder David Rudisha opened up in his fastest races. But the difference with Rudisha was that everyone knew he could maintain and then kick off that pace. That didn’t seem likely with Jewett, who entered the race with a fast and respectable 1:44.68 PR but also with limited experience and tired legs from the NCAA meet the week prior. Brazier (51.00), Hoppel (51.23) and Harris (51.46) were still very much in contention, while Murphy (51.67) was willing to be patient — or maybe just more realistic. But you could sense Brazier felt panicked at the 400 (and he later admitted as much), even though he was in second and only about a stride and a half behind Jewett.

“Yeah, Jewett was pushing the pace and that definitely (impacted me),” Brazier said. “I knew it was happening, but when it happens, it’s a whole different thing. When he pushed it, we had that gap and I didn’t like that gap. But that gap was allowed to happen and I tried covering it and I couldn’t.”

The crazy thing is that Jewett surged again midway through the third turn and actually increased his lead by the 500m mark, really taking the legs out of Brazier. As Jewett was increasing the gap down the backstretch, Brazier was still running in second but wasn’t able to make up any ground. As Jewett passed through the 600m mark in 1:16.70, Hoppel and Murphy, who had accelerated off a more relaxed pace, came up even with Brazier. Then, with four runners chasing three Olympic berths, it was time to put the hammer down. The race hadn’t been decided yet, but it was about to be based on who had the energy to execute to the finish.

“I think I executed it to perfection,” Murphy said. “This weekend I’ve been very patient and confident through that middle part of the race. I knew I had to be slightly more aggressive in this race than the semifinals, so I moved down the backstretch well and didn’t let anyone get in front of me. I wanted to run aggressively down the backstretch so I could put myself in position with 150 meters to go to put myself on the team and a chance to win the race.”

Rounding the north end of the track, Brazier was unable to move. Murphy surged through the bend, followed by Hoppel and then Harris. Amazingly, Jewett was still at the front, passing through the 700m mark in 1:30.2. At that point, Brazier was in 5th and fading physically and mentally as he watched Murphy, Hoppel and Harris give chase in front of him.

Down the homestretch, it was Murphy who had the most left in the tank, and his final 100m finishing kick absorbed and gapped Jewett, giving Murphy a strong victory in a world-leading 1:43.17. Jewett held on for second in another new PR, followed by Hoppel and Harris running season-best times. Brazier shut it down and jogged it in for a humbling 1:47.88 last-place finish.

“I knew at about 200 to go when Clayton passed me and I couldn’t match it,” Brazier said. “There were just seven people that were better than me today. I can’t take anything away from this experience, I ran pretty (bad). Those guys can have their day because they ran well. I’ll be back and be back to being that guy who thinks he can win every race. But today wasn’t that day for me.”

Murphy, Hoppel and Hewett will have their work cut out for them next month as they try to advance through two rounds of races and get into the finals of the Olympics. The need to balance patience with the need to cover moves will be even more acute, Murphy said, given the higher level of talent from the international field.

Murphy said he dealt with a lot of adversity and adjustments in the last few years — including leaving the Nike Oregon Project and reverting back to training under his college coach — as well as over the past few weeks. He came in banged up and had a tight hamstring when he arrived. But he was focused on running how he knew would give him the best chance at finishing in the top three in the final.