Track Coach

Racing Adversity

This piece by Track Coach editor Russ Ebbets first appeared in the March 2019 issue of HMRRC Pace Setter.

By Russ Ebbets

Only bad things happen fast.

That’s a little adage I’m not totally on board with. Maybe I’m an optimist. You find a $20 blowing down the street or you fall in love with just one look or you win the lottery. They all can happen pretty quick and most would think they are all “good things.”

Of course, somebody could counter—you throw your back out bending over to pick up the $20. And the “love at first sight” only seems to work out in the movies. And the lottery? Eighty per cent of lottery winners go bankrupt within five years. I guess it is all about how one defines “fast.”

Bad things can happen fast in running too. There is a twisted ankle, you lose a shoe or the simple act of getting tripped and you wind up hitting the deck. But as with much of life, you fall down, and you get up.

It’s a great running trivia question: has anyone ever fallen in an Olympic running final, gotten up and won the race? The initial gut answer is that’s not possible. Can’t happen. Fall down in the 100m and the race is over before you get back on your feet. But what about a longer race?

Jim Ryun fell in the 1972 Olympic 1500m semis and that was it. American 5000m hopeful Abby D’Agostino fell in her 5000 semi at Rio, tore her ACL and that was it for her too. But then you think Rio, Rio? Didn’t Mo Farah fall in the 10K, get up and win?

Bingo. But there is another incident in the Olympics in the last 50 years. Your hint is that it was also in the men’s 10K.

Lasse Viren fell in Munich (1972), got up and won. Farah and Viren, two two-time 10K winners, some pretty tough guys.

How did they do that? I’m going to suggest that falling down actually gave these guys a slight advantage. While that may seem like a ridiculous statement, hear me out.

Admittedly the fall caused both the runners to temporarily “lose ground” in the race. It might have been 15, 20 or 30 yards. The secret for both these guys was not trying to make up the lost distance all at once. They did not panic. Slowly they got back into the race. But how could a fall be used to one’s advantage?

Using a fall to your advantage doesn’t make sense. Almost certainly something has gotten scuffed and is bleeding and if there is not pain now, it is going to come. But it is important to distinguish between pain and hurt. Just because something is painful doesn’t necessarily mean one is hurt. You can run with pain, but not run when hurt.

One of the things the shock of the fall caused is a surge of adrenalin in the body. Adrenalin is the hormone that helps to supercharge the body, it is the “fight or flight” hormone. It increases blood flow, carbohydrate metabolism and dampens pain. Think about that for a second: benefit, benefit and benefit. These are three situations one’s competitors do not have. The competition races on becoming more and more fatigued as their energy stores are slowly depleted.

A graphic example of an adrenalin surge is the final lap of the 1964 Olympic 10K final. There is something about the 10K, I guess. Billy Mills was attempting to pass world record holder Ron Clarke and was violently shoved and staggered to the outside of lane 3. He broke stride, broke contact with the two leaders and looked like he was out of the race for the gold medal. As Mills struggled to right himself, he felt an immediate surge of anger (the “fight” of adrenalin) and resolved to chase after Clarke, tackle him and pummel him for the unnecessary foul.

But in the 5-6 seconds it took Mills to catch Clarke he re-directed his energies and resolved to beat Clarke to the finish. Mills surged past Clarke and Mohamed Gammoudi in the final straight and charged to the finish to win going away. If you check out the YouTube link below I’m confident it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It is a thrilling finish and considered the greatest upset win in Olympic running. Would Mills have won without the shove? That’s a good question too.

Timing has much to do with how an adrenalin surge is going to affect you. Too soon and you can become exhausted when you need it. I once had two guys get into a fight before an important meet. Come race time they were both flatter than pancakes. Both completely bombed.

A similar thing happened to Rob Myers in the 2008 US Olympic 1500m Trials. Early in the final Myers was pushed or bumped and he angrily turned with a “how dare you” attitude. This was in the first 20 seconds of the race. Come lap four he was nowhere to be seen. Anger, an adrenalin surge, came too early and exhausted his reserves when he needed them at the end of the race.

Not every race goes perfectly. And while I am not recommending falling down as a race tactic one needs to understand that it is not necessarily the end of the world either. One needs to do a quick assessment—are you physically hurt or just in pain? Another point is that the shock of falling causes time to slow. A second on the ground may seem like an eternity. Right yourself, assess yourself, get back on your feet and get going again.

A third point is—don’t panic. Attempting to “get back in the race” with an immediate, valiant charge will drain one’s resources and usually backfires. Take your time to get back into the race.

Pre-hab conditioning plays a role in how quickly one can get up off the ground. The daily use of planks in the various positions tones the body’s core muscles and will allow for a quicker movement from the ground.

The winds are on the side of the most able sailor. I do like that adage. The Samurai “prepared for everything and expected nothing” in their lives as warriors. As track or road warriors a similar level of reckoning will prepare one for the various challenges or “winds” that competition may bring.

YouTube links:

Mo Farah— Short clip but you can see the fall and how quickly Farah was back on his feet.

Lasse Viren— Clip is a little fuzzy but one can see the fall and how quickly Viren got back up.

Billy Mills— Clip is 2+ minutes long but you can see the foul and how Billy Mills recovered to win the race.

Rob Myers— Check out the shoving that takes place around 24 seconds into the race…Rob Myers faded and was not a factor late in the race.