Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Eating my words

Dylan Wykes ran a super race on Sunday with a time of 2:10:47. This is well under the Athletics Canada marathon standard of 2:11:29. Awesome job.

And now for me to fess up. In an earlier post "Raising the Bar" I stated "Dylan Wykes will (probably) not go to the Olympics". Well there you have it, Dylan is going to the Olympics, I am undeniably wrong and in the best possible way. Having a full roster of men is going to be great for aspiring runners. They might even focus on the distance in pursuit of their own Olympic bid.

Not to ruin the moment, but I still maintain that AC is being overly strict about its cutoff for Olympic bids. Can I really say that after we've got three men heading to London? Only time will tell. My concern now is the energy -both mental and physical- they spent in attaining these standards. It is easy to lose focus that while setting interim goals is good, the ultimate aim is to run your best race at the Olympics.

What I am wondering, and what we would all like to know (but don't), is how much competition is healthy, and how much is unhealthy? There is no easy solution to this problem. Achieving high internal standards is not the goal unto itself unless they help you improve. The job of AC should be to make sure people are setting PBs at world competitions and not a world-qualifying competitions. Which scenario better fits reality? If AC sets standards too high people will give up. If they set them too low then...? Athletes turn stale? Don't try as hard? At the elite level I am curious if any individuals will race faster if simply asked to. I think some do and other don't. I am being sincere when I say I don't know. I doubt even the athlete themselves know, at least sometimes. A lot of PBs are set in surprising ways; some go slower than normal but then have extra energy later on, some holding on to a perfect pace the entire race, and then some who go what seems too fast early then manage to hold on.

My best races are the ones I remember the least, which means I have to learn from bad races, as they're the only ones I can properly recall. The wonderful book Sojourner recounts the tale of the design and landing of the first Mars rover (I vividly remember those first panoramic images of martian soil). Picture a project where no matter how many test simulations you do, nothing replicates the actual mission itself. On a tight budget and a strict deadline, one shot is all you have to get it right. If 1000 test cases worked but the actual mission failed, the overall mission wold still be a failure. Circumstances such as these ought to be familiar for any would-be Olympian (in case you were wondering where I was going with this).

The revealing aspect about this book (written by the mission leader) was that instead of aiming for 'perfection' in the rover, they instead focused on the thousands of possible disaster scenarios. Every day they they came across new challenges that required immediate attention, and if there was ever a day without problems they'd invent some of their own. This is how Olympians need to be trained: when you have one shot at doing it right, instead of doing amazingly well on practice (and qualifying) days, the best use of time is to create a robust athlete. Train them in heat, cold, rain, on days they are tired, days well rested, in clean air as well as dirty. Run them alone, run them in large groups, in front of fans, in races too fast, tactical, and slow. Imagine everything that can go wrong, and expect that a few cases to be right.

With the (successfully) landed Mars rover, so many problems were encountered and fixed that almost nothing was left to go wrong for the actual landing. A few problems did arise but mission control had been planning for much worse; the problems they encountered were trivial by comparison.

I believe AC needs to spend less time on preparing fast CVs and instead work to create robust talent. Consider, for instance, the heat exhaustion of Paula Radcliffe in Athens or the start line falters of Perdita Felicien and Jeremy Wortherspoon. They too had fast qualifying times. What had been an asset turned into a liability and left them vulnerable to more immediate disasters. For the marathon, in particular, it is best to train runners with flexibility in mind since conditions vary considerably one race to the next. Remember, running fast comes last.

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