By Jason Koop,
CTS Coaching Director
Author “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
During an interview at Wimbledon, tennis champion Serena Williams was asked what it was like to have athletes up their game in order to play her. Her answer is not only an insight into what has made her the dominant player of her generation, but it also carries a message everyone in ultrarunning needs to take to heart.
“I don’t scout as much, because when I watch them play, it’s a totally different game than when they play me.”
Watching game film or gathering stats on opponents is a common practice in sports, but at some point athletes – especially in individual sports – realize it’s more important to study themselves than to study the opposition. On race day you can’t control who shows up, how well conditioned they are, or what tactics and strategies they’re going to throw at you. Similarly, you can’t control the conditions you will face on race day. Heat, cold, hail, mother nature will always have her way. You always have to run your own race, control everything you can control about your own performance, and be ready and willing to adapt to opportunities, the strategies used against you and the weather on race day.
“I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. “
In marathon running and track and field, there are equations that (fairly) accurately describe how to achieve maximum running velocity for a given distance or timeframe. We generally know the range of times for any world class track event. In ultrarunning, however those equations break down because there are too many variables to account for. The limits of performance in ultrarunning are truly unknown. Every time a course record is broken, we seem to think that it will last for an eternity (Anyone remember Kyle Skagg’s 2008 Hardrock course record?). The reality is that every record is meant to be broken and serves as a carrot for those who dare to try.
This phenomenon holds true on a personal level, as well. YOUR personal records, however you want to define them, are meant to be broken. In order to do so, you have to ‘play at a level’ that’s unknow to you. Unknown, but not impossible.
“It kind of backfires, because everyone comes out and they play me so hard. Now my level is so much higher, because of it, from years and years of being played like that.”
Great rivalries bring out the best in competitors: John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert, Dave Scott vs. Mark Allen, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Dale Earnhardt vs Darrell Waltrip; and of course, Muhammad Ali vs. George Frazier. The best thing a champion can hope for is a strong rival that elevates both athletes’ performances.
In ultrarunning we don’t really have too many personal rivalries, perhaps because the community is so supportive we all want to see each other succeed! Nevertheless, we see great racing that pushes top competitors to reach new heights in terms of personal performances. This is part of the reason I encourage athletes – whether you’re a contender for victory or pursuing individual goals – to run the hard races. Run the races with the strongest fields. Run the races that challenge you the most. They will make you better.
“It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest. So I have to be greater.”
Earlier this year I wrote an article encouraging lottery-driven races to allot more entries to women. Serena Williams’ sentiment is an example of why I believe bigger and deeper fields will be beneficial to women’s ultrarunning, and all ultrarunning in the long run. To develop the best runners you have to run against the best runners, but the benefit also extends well outside the top 10. The competitive level rises for everyone, including the next tier of up and coming racers who will later become next generation of great competitors.
As a sport, ultrarunning is more about you vs. the course or you vs. you than it is about one runner against another. But it is a race, and athletes benefit from learning to leverage the competition in order to elevate their own performances.