When does running 4:04 for 1600 meters leave you out of the money? Well, in the men’s Olympic 10,000 meter final to list just one instance. For those of you who have continued to read, you know that is four laps of the track and just nine meters short of the imperial distance known as the mile.
For those of you who watched the recent 2016 Olympics in Rio, there were many exciting Track & Field events, including multiple world records. On the opening day, the women’s 10,000 meters set the tone with an amazing world record run by Ethopia’s Almaz Ayana. Following a rarely seen opening 5,000 meters of 14:46 by Kenyan rival Alice Nawowuna, Almaz did the unthinkable and increased her pace to cover the final 5,000 in 14:30. Her amazing final time of 29:17.45 broke the long-standing world record of 29:31.78, set by China’s Junxia Wang from September 8, 1993. Ayana covered the 10th and final kilometer (1,000 meters) in a speedy 2:54.57. That is averaging 69.8 per 400 meters for the final K and under 2:57 per K for the entire 10,000 meters.
The men’s 10,000 was conducted the following evening and featured Great Britain’s Mo Farah and his attempt to repeat one of his gold medals earned at London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Track experts anxiously waited to see if the rumored strategy of the Kenyans teaming together to wear down the MoBot and tame his well-known final “kick”. As everyone is very aware now, they were not able to do so.
It is always interesting to read or hear comments by many non-elite and even former very good runners regarding such races. Many opine that someone should have run hard and fast earlier to ensure that Mo used more energy and couldn’t kick. More than one commenter espoused that American Galen Rupp should have thrown in a surge earlier and by doing so he would have been able to place among the top three and medal for the USA. Another stated that the American should have gone out at 26:40 pace and that would have garnered more success than his (Rupp’s) 5th place finish.
Hogwash! It has been well documented that a faster than needed earlier pace in distances above 800 meters is not successful in producing top finishes in more than 90% of competitions. What many observers didn’t quite grasp was that the men’s Olympic 10,000 was indeed a “fast” race. Let’s take a quick look at Mo’s 1,000-meter splits: 2:58.7, 2:49.8 [5:48.5], 2:42.8 [8:31.3], 2:43.7 [11:15.0], 2:39.7 [13:54.7], 2:43.2 [16:37.9], 2:41.7 [19:19.6], 2:42.0 [22:01.6], 2:35.4 [24:37.0], 2:28.2; for a final time of 27:05.17. And remember, he took a tumble to the track during the third kilometer, but got back up quickly and resumed his quest.
Another view would be Mo’s final 2K segments. He covered the final 2,000 meters in 5:03.6 or an astonishing 60.72 per 400 meters, the final 1600 meters in 4:01.2, the final 1200 meters in 2:59.0 (59.6 per lap), the final 800 in 1:56.6 (58.3s), the final 400 in 55.3 (now we’re moving), the final 200 in 27.3 and the final 100 in 13.4.
So why did it come down to a final kick over the last 400 meters? Why not? In almost every running event over 200 meters, the runner who covers the final 400 meters the fastest (if within reasonable striking distance after completing the penultimate lap) either wins or comes very close. The trick is staying with the lead pack to be able to attempt a “kick.”
For many reasons, many “track fans” despise a slow early pace and desire what they term an “honest” pace from the start. They believe that is a more honorable method for racing. Well, the British believed that marching in unison, while wearing attractive red coats, was an “honorable” method to fight a battle. And how did that work out in the American Revolutionary War? Not so well.
The object is to win, not to see who can run the fastest for the first portion of the race. In Rupp’s case, he covered the final 1600 meters (remember that’s almost one mile) in 4:04 (approximately a 4:05 mile) and could only garner 5th because four others closed just as fast or faster. But what if had run faster earlier in the race? Then he would not have been able to close as fast as he did and would more than likely have finished 6th or worse.
Many opined that Rupp couldn’t kick. That depends on how you classify a kick. He did run a 56-57 second final 400 meters and a sub 1:59 final 800, so that seems to be a pretty decent “kick.” But Farah, Paul Tanui, Tamirat Tola and Yigrem Demelash were just a little bit faster on that night. Fifth in 27:08.92 was still a very good effort for the man who is probably the USA’s greatest track distance runner, if you look at his consistently fast times and top performances over the past decade.
Postscript: Rupp later earned the bronze medal in the Olympic Marathon.
Note: this article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of PACE Running Magazine.