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Racing vs. Time Trialing

There is a big difference between racing and time trialing. They can both be extremely hard efforts, but they have fundamentally different goals and have really different race strategies to execute. Racing is all about what place you finish. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the overall rankings, age group, whatever. If you’re racing, the objective is to finish as close to the top of the list of finishers as possible. Time trialing is a completely different thing. Time trialing is about trying to run the fastest time you possibly can.

The start of the Humboltd Bay Marathon, 2017. A few guys were racing, but more were time trialing for their Boston Qualifier. #ItWasFun

For most of us mere mortals that “race” on the weekends, the thing we’re really chasing is often a PR or some other form of finishing time. We may end up on the podium for the overall rankings, or win our age group, but fundamentally we’re there to run the fastest time possible. It just happens to work out that our fastest possible time might result in a good finishing place. We may even “race” other runners as we finish, but that’s really just a strategy to get more out of ourselves. Although it does feel good to out-kick a high school or college age kid who is 15-20 years younger than you. The point is that from the time the gun goes off, we’re thinking about race execution in such a way as to get to the finish line in as short of a time as possible. From a purely theoretical standpoint, the fastest time you can run is if you expend the least amount of energy possible, consistently as possible, and run out of gas right as you hit the finish line.

Racing, on the other hand, is all about finishing place. Our finish time has zero bearing on whether or not we feel it was successful or not. Our only objective is to win. Or at least finish as high in the rankings as possible. A PR is great, but it’s just a metric of how competitive we are compared to the other runners before the gun goes off at the next race. It incorporates the game theory side of sports. The best option may change depending on what everyone else is doing. If the objective is to finish before the other guy, then you can employ a variety of strategies after the gun goes off. Typically we see champion runners hang in the back or middle of the lead pack, forcing their competitors to do more work as they draft off of them and then out-kicking their tired foes in the last bit of the race. This is why the first bit of a championship race is often really slow. No one wants to be the one suckered into leading and doing more work and not have the capability to out-kick the competition. Alternatively, if you know that someone is quicker than you and you know you won’t be able to out-kick them, you can try to grind the legs off of them earlier in the race. This is typically harder to do because it forces you to lead the pack, allowing those you’re trying to break the benefit of drafting off of you. It's also one of the reasons we see racers drop out of a race more frequently than time trialers. Once they are out of the running, they'll drop so as to not put them in a compromised position for the next weekend's race. But occasionally there are competitive athletes that aren't the quickest, but can grind. It turns the race into a suffer-fest for everyone, but if you can suffer better than the other guy, it can work. Assuming you can sucker the other guy into going with you. It does has a lower probability of success in a theoretical sense, though.

Winning the Lake McMurtry 50k. The race was long enough that trying to out-kick the competition (especially on trails) wasn't the best option for me with my low leg speed. So I pushed them hard from the start and ground them down.

Racing may not result in the fastest time you can do because you spend the majority of the race below your theoretical PR pace, but it doesn’t matter if you’re goal is to finish in a higher position. Even if you are a "grinder" instead of a "kicker", you'll probably still get to the finish line faster if you pace it right (i.e. even splits) instead of blowing up and struggling at the end.

Team racing can be a nice change of pace for folks that spent a long time simply time trialing. It allows you to focus on a different goal, as your position is (typically) what matters for the team score. But realistically, most of us are time trailers. You don’t get into the Boston Marathon by winning the local small town marathon, you have to run a qualifying time. Even if we are racing for age group awards or even a small cash prize in a local race, everyone else in the race is time trialing. We may be racing them, but they aren’t necessarily racing us. Which means they’re going to unintentionally try to race the legs off of us. We can still tuck up behind someone who is going the right speed and use them as a rabbit, but we’re still kind of forced into the time-trialer’s strategy of maximizing our efficiency and running out of fuel right as we cross the finish line.

Kevin Colon after running for the win at the Remember the 10 5k in Stillwater, OK, 2016. This was his first race after wrapping up his collegiate career at OSU. He intentionally ran just hard enough to grind the second place finisher down.

Because it’s something we don’t normally get the chance to do unless we’re on an actual team, if you get the chance to actually race, take it. It will be a completely different kind of experience, and you’ll only grow as an athlete for it. It will let you appreciate racing in a different way. It can help you learn how to really engage that competitive side of you that can be useful in the later stages of a “time trial”, teaching you how to dig deeper and run faster and harder. It can teach you how to hang on to the pack as it starts pulling away, allowing you to run a faster time because you’ve learned how to draft. It can also help teach you to be patient as you wait for the right moment to make your move, which is something a lot of folks could use some more of in the endurance disciplines.

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