A Good Rabbit is Hard to Find

By Daniel Winn

March 8, 2020

Most runners make bad rabbits. However, with the Olympics looming, and therefore qualifying-standard-chasing upon us, as well as runners everywhere hoping for new PRs, well-paced races are a necessity.

I’ve had consistent success rabbiting high profile races, but not because of some innate metronomic ability—that is actually my weak point. My rabbiting has been effective because I follow a few guidelines that make it much easier for me to get the job done.

I want to share them so I never have to watch another rabbit gap the pack again.

My most important piece of advice is this: Take the lead as late in the race as you can. This is counterintuitive, but in most races, it’s not imperative that a rabbit takes over until 100m into the race.

I reached out to legendary rabbit Matt Scherer to hear about what made him so successful. He told me he was usually in third or fourth place at the break of an 800-meter race, “I wanted to let the competitors set the tone and allow me to lead them,” he says.

Runners always get out faster than pace, so trying to beat them out of the gate can force you through the 200m too quickly. Instead, if you sit on the outside until the last possible second before diving onto the rail, it’s hard for you to gap the field and easy for the field to latch on. You pull the race leader with you as you take over. I never give my race leaders a choice to go with or let a gap form; I pass them and they follow. Because I’m not especially adept at hitting splits (ask any of my training partners), letting the field show me the tempo over the first 100 meters helps me find the right pace.

In a 1500-meter race, the rabbit has the whole first 100 meters to cut in. In an 800, the first, say, 150 meters. Races that start on the bend don’t give you as much time, but a rabbit should still not be in front until after 50 meters. In races with double waterfalls, you have all the way until the break.

When rabbits get away from the field early, it’s always the rabbit’s fault. Many rabbits will get out just a little too hard, compensate just enough, hit their split and tell themselves (sincerely, but untruthfully), that they have done a good job. They have not.

Simply hitting your split does not suffice. You must hold the field’s hand (metaphorically) and pull them to hit the split as well. Don’t neglect the psychological aspect of your role. Seeing someone in front get out too fast encourages the field to overcompensate. My general rule when a rabbit gaps the field is however ahead of pace the rabbit is, the field is likely to be that much behind pace. A rabbit one second fast suggests the field will be one second slow.

Psychology is important pre-race, as well. It is your job as a rabbit, no matter how nervous you are, to show the field (who is always nervous) that you are prepared and confident…but not so overconfident that you aren’t taking your task seriously. In an interview with SPIKES, Bram Som said, “I think the hard part is that you want them to follow you. So they have to trust you. They have to trust you will do a good job.”

“I always tried to make a point to talk to the group in the staging area so that for sure everyone knew who I was and what my pace was and how far I was going. It also, I think, relaxed everyone at that point because you’re all dead zone mentally ready for the gun to go off but you have fifteen minutes to kill. So breaking the ice and letting those that want to be distracted listen to you for thirty seconds can be really beneficial,” Scherer told me.

I imitate my pre-race routine as much as possible. It makes it easier for me to approximate a race-type focus. You want that pre-race adrenaline to get you through your task. You don’t want it to be a glorified workout (even if it is).

I don’t wear a watch for a similar reason. Most races I rabbit are well-equipped with clocks and split-yellers, so a watch is superfluous. I would never wear a watch in a race and checking it would be out of the question. I don’t like to break the rhythm of my stride by moving my arm out of its natural carriage, nor do I want to deal with clicking a button as I get off the line.

Meet organizers are often bad at organizing meets, so the rabbit will frequently be seeded on the inside. I simply ignore my hip number when I rabbit. I go to the outside and if any official tells me I’m in the wrong place, I simply explain that I’m the rabbit. I’ve always been able to negotiate this position and I think that the other athletes like to see that I’m taking my job seriously – and know what I’m doing. As I’ve said, they are all nervous, and the more you can assuage their nerves about the pacing, the more they can focus their nervousness on their own performance. You do not want an inside lane, not just to avoid getting boxed in, but so you don’t have to even worry about the possibility of being boxed in. And so that you can take the lead late.

Which leads me to another crucial aspect of rabbiting properly: getting the right rabbit for the job. The right rabbit is someone who could be in the race (or, at their fittest could be in the race), not someone who is approaching their ceiling just to run whatever abridged distance they are tasked with. A rabbit who needs to approximately PR to get the job done is a poor candidate. The pace must remain fairly steady, which isn’t how someone PRing runs. More significantly, the body language of someone at their maximum is too effortful. A rabbit should look relaxed, for the calming effect that that has on the field. A tense, flailing rabbit leads to tightness among the finishers—it’s as contagious as a yawn.

Not only should the task be within the rabbits’s comfort zone, but the event should also be a familiar one as well. Each race requires a level of fluency.

“The worst pacing jobs I see are 800m races where a 400m or 400m hurdler is pacing for the first time,” Scherer says. “A meet director (probably without many options) can see that that athlete can hit a 400-meter split easily and signs them up. But without knowing the athletes and how the event is raced, that is a recipe for disaster.”

The right rabbit is the athlete who least stands out from the rest of the field.

Then there’s the dismount.

You have to get off in such a way that encourages the field to keep the pace up. Most importantly, this means not getting in anyone’s way when you get off or before you get off. It is a rabbiting sin to make anyone run outside of you ever. If someone begins to creep up on you before your scheduled exit, you have to either increase the tempo so they can run the pace they wish to run (regardless of whether you are already running the “right” pace) or step off.

You do not get to say, “Well I am running the right pace, so if they want to run long that’s their problem.” You must always defer to the finishers.

If you begin to get tired or tight before it is time to get off, the right thing to do is hold out as long as you can at pace and then get out of the way. It’s forgivable to go too short because your fitness failed you; it is unforgivable to go the right distance but slow because of your pride (or some other foible).

If you step off wide, you had better know, and not just think, that you won’t get in anyone’s way. Runners could be moving wide to make a pass at the same time. Don’t get in the way of any runner, especially ones that want to take over the pace.

You should be accelerating slightly when you step off. Not so that you break away, but so that you encourage a windup from the athletes.

“You have to go out at the right time. You have to give them the right pace and you have to leave them at a really high pace, so if you slow down, you also slow them down. You have to go out at the right time,” said Som.

This can make all the difference, especially in shorter events where the rabbit leaves just before the kicking begins and the kick is such a large part of the race. A lull before the kick can subdue finishing times dramatically.

Rabbits should be results-oriented (usually you shouldn’t be results-oriented). It is not good enough to tell oneself, “I hit almost exactly what they wanted, they just didn’t go with/close/have it/et cetera.” You have to be invested in the outcome.

Som said, “I remember when I was racing, there were races where maybe [Yuriy] Borzakovskiy asked for a 49.5 and you always knew, he won’t follow, he just wants to have a fast race. I would always think, ‘Okay, what kind of race is it going to be?’ and I guess my advantage of knowing a lot of the athletes can help during the race.”

Meet directors and even athletes don’t realize how much ambiguity there is to the task. You should be invested enough in the outcome to clarify what exactly is being asked. Rabbits should be asking follow-up questions. It is rarely made clear by anyone what exact distance is being referred to near the middle of a mile. If you’re supposed to go through in 2:00, that could mean either at 800 meters, at 880 yards, or at 809 meters. Very often, a rabbit in a mile believes him or herself to have done a good job, while every finisher believes the opposite. “I thought you wanted that through 800m,” is not a valid excuse. Be precise in your preparation so you can be precise in your execution.

If you want to see an example of an excellent pacing job, look at how Dani Jones paced the Pre Classic 1500 meters in 2018. Because the field got out so fast, she didn’t get in front until after 100 meters. She let the pace progress from the too-fast pace asserted by the field (thirty seconds through 200 meters), to the correct tempo, without stepping on the breaks. She won’t have the most even splits to show for her performance, but she has eight women under 4:03 to brag about, which is what matters. Jones could have competed in the race herself, so it is no surprise she did a good job.

Well, I think (and hope) I’ve accomplished my task with this piece, so I’ll stop here.

Daniel Winn

Runner and coach for the Brooklyn Track Club, drinks water with his head upside down to get rid of hiccups, has never been exiled, throws lefty.