Monday over Coffee: Tactics for Racing

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Tactics for Racing


I'm an Olympic enthusiast. The competition of the 1972 summer games, the first I'm old enough to remember, captured my imagination, spurring on my love for sports. More importantly, the hostage standoff in Munich's Olympic Village and the shocking loss of 11 Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists during those games, infused my young mind with the notion that the drama of sports can transcend the idea of a mere contest, providing not only emotional life lessons, but inspiration to overcome the hurdles the world so reliably placed before us. After the tragedy, the Munich games went on in a way that etched what followed even more deeply inside me: the seven gold medals of American swimmer Mark Spitz, the energetic athleticism of a young Soviet gymnast named Olga Korbut, and most memorably for me, the track and field achievements of Lasse Virén of Finland.

Virén, from a small rural town northeast of Helsinki, skied cross-country from an early age, then began to run fast. Very fast. As a college student, Virén attended Brigham Young in Utah, focusing on an innovation the track world had newly discovered—altitude training. When he returned to Finland, he added another training tactic called peaking—rigorously aiming to hit the apex of his physical and psychological condition right at the moment of his biggest races, which for Virén was the Olympic finals. Even in Olympic preliminaries, Virén didn't mind finishing a little lower. His rivals might run 30 seconds faster than was needed to qualify, while Virén ran more sensibly, qualifying, but reserving his energy for the finals.

Another racing tactic Virén employed was called 'bend mathematics.' He'd always run the curves of the track as close to the inner edge of the first lane as possible, providing him with the advantage of simply running less yardage than his rivals. If you watch his races, Virén only passes other runners on the straightaways. His competition would sometimes give Virén an advantage of as much as 40 or 50 meters in a long race as the Fin hewed carefully to the innermost part of the track. Sometimes another runner might even run a little faster than he did, but Virén still prevailed by a second or two because he was simply running a shorter distance.

Even with all his training, intelligence, and tactical thinking, as is the case with most things, Virén's first Olympic finals, the 10,000 meters, didn't go as planned. Just before the halfway mark, Lasse fell. At such a competitive level, even if a runner manages to get up, the shock and trauma of a fall makes it impossible to get back into contention. But Virén calmly rose and began to chase the pack down even as it advanced ahead at a blistering record pace. He relocated his rhythm, relied on his training and tactics, then began to pass runners, on the straightaways, one by one.
Despite falling, in what some consider the greatest comeback in the history of sports, Lasse Virén not only won the gold medal, but set a new world record. A week later, he defeated Steve Prefontaine and a roster of some of the greatest distance runners of all time to win the 5,000, breaking another Olympic record.

Four years hence, in 1976, Virén won Olympic gold again in the 10,000 meters in Montreal. He then won the 5,000 meters again. Then, the next day, Lasse lined up for the marathon, completing it in 2 hours, 13 minutes. Though he finished fifth, it was the first marathon he'd ever run. When asked about his tactics for the 26-mile race, Virén told reporters he simply tried to focus on Shorter. Frank Shorter was the reigning Olympic Marathon champion.

Here in 2021, as we forge ahead emerging from a tragic season, perhaps there are some resonant life lessons deeply etched in your psyche already. There might be some more, embedded inside the tactical way Lasse Virén trained and raced: First, recognize you've been doing some difficult high altitude training. It's going to get easier soon. Second, think about the idea of peaking. Look ahead on the calendar for a moment in the future you want to be at your very best. Aim for it. Third, take the bends smart. Don't run farther than you have to needlessly. Fourth, if you fall, calmly get back up, and find your rhythm again. And finally, in this race of life, find the right person to focus on. Then follow.

God—

You provide inspiration from so many places. In Christ, You give me someone to focus on. May I run in this manner, and ultimately, take hold of the prize. Amen.
– Greg Funderburk


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