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March 3, 2017

In defense of takin’ er easy: Why slow races rock

Hi, I’m Paul. I like my music abrasive, I think the Jackass movie is one of the funniest things ever made. While living in New York, I’d occasionally seek out a Little Caesar’s to nab a Hot-N-Ready. I really hope all of the distance events this weekend in Albuquerque are comically tactical.

I admit, many of my tastes and preferences are difficult to defend. And I doubt very much I could blog at you with such force that you’d walk away loving Ceremony’s first couple of albums, appreciating Johnny Knoxville’s genius or with an inkling to order Domino’s while on vacation in Manhattan.

But I do genuinely think that most people are wrong when they bemoan tactical racing and so I invite you to open your mind, as well as a new tab in your browser, to watch this video of the men’s 5,000m at the 2013 USATF Outdoor Championships in lovely Des Moines, Iowa.

Okay, got that puppy all buffered? Go ahead and watch it or as much as you’d like of it, then come back here.

Right off the bat, by virtue of watching a replay of the race, we’re blessed with some wonderful dramatic irony at the beginning of the telecast. The World and American records flash on the screen as the announcers intro the field. Only, not so fast, boys! This race isn’t going to come within two minutes of either of those. And as soon as the gun goes off, that becomes pretty clear. With a first lap in the ballpark of 85 seconds, instead of the commentary on the hilarious race unfolding, we hear about Bernard Lagat’s family and his impressive work-life balance. Eventually the pack settles into five-minute-mile pace and the guys in the booth really have no choice but to mock the athletes, and continue to harp on about fairly irrelevant stuff.

Basically, the first reason we should hope for more tactical races is the absurdity of it all. Sports broadcasting is centered around impressing to viewers how otherworldly the feats being displayed are. It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and telling you that you can’t do what you’re seeing. As soon as the audience can envision themselves superimposed onto the happenings on-screen, that illusion is shattered and the entire act of presenting an activity billed as impressive becomes a joke. Who doesn’t like to watch the world burn, in small, very controlled, instances? It’d be like going to see your favorite band play an intimate show, and halfway through they just start playing The Cure covers — is it what you wanted or expected? Nope. But it’s still awesome, because The Cure’s hits rule and also because it’ll piss off a lot of people, while you get the last laugh, you cool guy/girl, you!

The other main reason we should all be hoping for the distance races this weekend to go out at well above five-minute pace, is that it opens up the race to everybody in the field. Ultimately, in sit-and-kick races, the cream’s still gonna rise to the top. But sometimes, weird, weird things happen and that’s the whole reason track is interesting.

Even in the race I linked to earlier, despite the the first two miles being probably slower than tempo pace for those guys, there were casualties as soon as the race picked up. Hassan Mead dropped hard and he’d go on to become an Olympian, and run 13:02.80 for the distance a year later. There are obviously factors that weighed into his inability to roll with the field that warm Midwestern day. But the fans don’t know them, so when Mead falls off, while a relative unknown (at that point, and still competing for NC State) like Ryan Hill doesn’t, it’s pretty damn confusing.

The fact that the lone collegian in the race closed in sub-four, and made a World Championship team was wild stuff. At that point, Hill had only run 13:31.67 and was coming off of a 9th place showing in the NCAA 1,500m. That field had three dudes in it who had broken 13:00. If the pace were honest from the gun, would Hill have stood a shot? Probably not.

If it’d been a 13:15 race, would the three favorites have taken the top three spots? Once again, probably not, but the fourth best guy might have been the only one to capitalize on the late-lap fading of his higher seeded peer. It’s just not as interesting, frankly.

So there we have it, slow races with crazed finishes make for high comedy, in a sort of Lynchian, dystopian sense of the phrase, as well as for way more intrigue in the late stages of the race, when somebody you’ve never heard of upsets the field’s Goliath on a wild-legged kick from 200 meters out.

If you’re convinced at this point of my correctness of opinion, great. Blog accomplished.

But if not, I implore you, you clock worshipping fan of track (nerd), to put some duct tape over the segment of your screen that reads the elapsed time for each race, and just enjoy some races for what they are, a contest between athletes, not to beat the clock, but to beat each other. What do you have to lose?

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