Middle-distance racing is peculiar. Often, runners will bunch up and wait for someone else to push the pace, rather than take charge and run as fast as they can. Traffic jams ensue, and can result in elbowed ribs, trips, falls and -- this summer -- at least three lost shoes in major races.
At the U.S. nationals, American-record holder Shannon Rowbury got spiked in the left heel a third of the way into the 1,500-meter semifinals. She ran a full lap with her white Nike flopping like a slipper before jettisoning the shoe with a lap and a half to go. She finished in a sock and qualified for the final. Two days later, Ajee Wilson lost her right adidas three-quarters of the way through the 800-meter final and made the world team.
And at the world championships in Beijing in August, Jenny Simpson was vying for her third consecutive medal in the 1,500-meter final when her left heel got speared with two laps to go. Her toes clung to the front of her green New Balance as long as they could, but finally, it flew off on the backstretch and she ran the last 650 meters on a completely bare foot. And when the competitors ran the final lap, the shoe was still lying in lane one, toes pointing at the infield.
"I was like, 'Noooooo,'" Simpson recalls. "It was the saddest thing, running past it."
Simpson and Rowbury had each lost a shoe only once before, in college. Rowbury was running an 800-meter race for Duke when the same thing happened so she knew she had to ditch the shoe quickly this time.
And at the 2007 NCAA championships, Simpson got a "flat tire" while defending her steeplechase title for the University of Colorado. That time, she just moved over, tugged the shoe back on, and kept racing.
But the questions remain: Why run in traffic when you're fast enough to avoid it? And how do you stay sane in the pack and break free from the chaos? Simpson and Rowbury explain -- and offer six tips that may translate to your own racing on the road.
Why do people race in a pack?
"I enjoy the challenge of trying to maneuver through people," Rowbury says, but it's one thing to race with 12 people and another to race with 20. "If there are a lot of bodies in the way, it can be a challenge to move up cleanly."
And while professional racers are accustomed to it, Simpson allows, "it did take some getting used to."
Most runners think that tucking behind the leader conserves energy (even if it's just psychic energy), but running isn't exactly a motor sport. "I don't believe that you get this incredible drafting effect," Simpson says. "It's not a big aerodynamic advantage."
Rather, in the pack, Simpson says, "You have a better gauge of how the race is unfolding. When you're in the front, you have no idea; you're running kind of blind and scared thinking, 'I don't know if there's one person behind me or no one.' Also, you don't have to do any thinking. It's tit for tat, so you're not making a lot of decisions. When they go, I go. When they slow down, I slow down. Finally, you're preparing for when you're going to strike. It's empowering to determine when to strike. It's a much more predatory position than leading a race and having to fend people off."
How to survive the pack
No. 1: Own the space you're in.
"In high school in the U.S., sportsmanship is so important and so emphasized, and pushing isn't allowed," says Rowbury. "People from different countries aren't necessarily taught the same views. I saw that first-hand in 2009 when I was tripped in the world championship heats. From the gun, an Ethiopian athlete elbowed me, then kicked my legs out from under me. I got up and she continued to elbow me. And in [Lausanne, Switzerland,] I ran the 800, and before the race, the woman I shared a lane with warned me, 'You no push,' then proceeded to push me all over the track. Honestly, it made me laugh. You just have to be really grounded and refuse to let anybody push you around."
No. 2: Use the pack to gauge your own progress.
"You can gauge how people around you are feeling by their body language," Rowbury says. "Watch the mechanics. See if their knee drive isn't so good, their legs are going wide, their shoulders are raising or their arms are flailing. You can also gauge your effort. Are you keeping up? Wanting to clip their heels?
"Or if you're trying to catch a group: Find a point on the road and after they pass it, count how long it takes you to get to the same point. What's the distance? Is it changing over time? Are you getting closer or are you getting further?"
No. 3: Have patience.
While altitude training in Mexico, Rowbury sometimes did tempo runs with two-time New York City Marathon winner German Silva.
"It was fun because he was teaching me tricks that he used for road racing," Rowbury says. "In one workout, my teammate was a bit ahead and he said, 'Let's try to catch her.' As a middle-distance runner, I immediately picked up the pace and he was like, 'Slow down, there's a long way to go. Slowly reel them in.'
"So have patience and try to close that gap in a way that doesn't leave you exhausted by the time you catch your target."
No. 4: Don't make erratic moves.
"It's important to hold your ground," Simpson says, "but you have to do it in a way that's authoritative and not malicious.
"Don't ever do anything really erratic or sudden that people can't reasonably respond to. When people dart out in one direction and cause a pile-up, that's when they're getting really desperate. Of course, people might try to box you in, but more often than not you'll find a little bit of room and you'll eventually get your way out. You can figure it out without doing something erratic."
No. 5: Nothing is personal in the pack.
"If you're on the receiving end [of a hard elbow], soldier on. People get really worked up and upset. I just don't. It's over. There's nothing you can do," Simpson says. "I guess maybe you can turn around and yell at them after the race, but a 1,500 is over so quickly. Defend your space, and just let it go.
"Similarly, in road racing or marathons, sometimes it seems like people are magnetically attracted to another. They run so close, even though they have a huge road to share. In these moments, you just have to switch your mind to another place and remember that when they're cutting you off or they're annoyingly getting closer and closer to you as you're trying to move further and further away, these people are totally focused on themselves.
"I believe they're just not paying attention to you. They're actually so out of touch with you being there that it's the furthest thing from being personal.
"But if I have to run next to somebody for 30 minutes in a 10K or two hours in a marathon and they keep gravitating closer, I think you can politely ask them to stop, you know? That's my opinion. If I knew I was going to be with this person for over two and a half hours, it would definitely come up."
No. 6: Know when to strike.
"The right time to strike, I think, is totally instinct," Simpson says. "You practice so that when you're racing, you don't have to decide, so you have the instincts to make the right move.
"Whenever you do decide to break away, you have to be willing to say, 'Can I finish at this pace alone?' The hope is that when you leave that group, they can't keep up.
"Whether you're in a road race or the final of the world championship 1,500, it's the same idea: 'Do I need this group for another hundred meters, for another mile, or for another five minutes? Or do I think I can now finish on my own?' That's the determining factor of when it's time to move on."