Book Review from: Cross Country Journal by Paul O'Shea
How To Race The Mile: Learning Effective Tactics From Great Runners and Races by Jeff Hollobaugh, Mercury-Chronicle Books, 2015, 327 pages, $19.99.
Walk briskly up to the start with your sister competitors. Stop. Look down to make certain your forward toe does not touch the line. Crouch. Listen for the starting signal. Proceed.
What to do next when one of yours is racing one mile or its sibling, 1500 meters, is the subject of one of the most useful and entertaining contributions to the track and field bookshelf. Jeff Hollobaugh's How to Race the Mile takes a comprehensive look at strategy and tactics for coaches and athletes preparing to compete at the highest level, whether the high school conference meet, NCAA competition, World Championships or Olympic Games.
Hollobaugh interviews some of today's elite runners (see under Leo Manzano, Grant Fisher) and a few from days past (Dave Wottle, Steve Scott). He brings to life more than 60 races that show how tactics worked--or didn't--in competition. "By focusing on key races and hearing what they had to say about them, I aimed to give readers the effects of listening in on great racers as they shared their thoughts."
Hollobaugh's thesis is that planning and in-race decision making often produce the best results. He offers chapters on running at the front of the pack, dangers in setting the pace, the mid-race move, and the long- and the short-kick. He tells how to beat a kicker, how to handle championship rounds, indoor racing, even what to do when following rabbits.
Much more than a primer on game plans, Hollobaugh's book examines the middle-distance history of the sport, its heroes, memorable performances, and tells us how competitors like Snell, Coe and Ovett executed.
Discussing trends in racing today, acclaimed Italian coach Renato Canova tells Hollobaugh, "I don't think it's possible, at the moment, to find somebody successfully leading a top race from the start." One who memorably did was Filbert Bayi who took off from the gun and built an insurmountable lead in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500. Bayi opened up a 15-meter margin at 800, finishing in a world record 3:32.16.
Illustrating the fate of one who made a dramatic mid-race move, Hollobaugh remembers the 2005 World Championship 1500 final. After a 2:03 first 800, Alan Webb surged to the front and ran the next one hundred meters in 12.3 seconds, probably near his PR for just that distance. Within the next two hundred he was zwieback, finishing ninth.
Finally, today's most common strategy is undertaken by the sit-and-kickers who come off the last turn and sprint to the finish. Jenny Simpson, Matt Centrowitz and Sheila Reid are distinguished members of this fraternity/sorority, as was Bernard Lagat just a few years ago.
One of Hollobaugh's interview strengths is his ability to find chestnuts that resonate.
Don Paige, the Villanova Olympian who won 1979 NCAA 800- and 1500-meter titles in a 35 minute span, says that were he recruiting a high school runner today, he would ask, do you like to win or do you hate to lose? If the runner says she'd rather win, Paige would lose interest. "Because really, you want those kids who hate to lose. That is a much stronger feeling than loving to win."
Nine-time All American and World Indoor competitor Heather Kampf advises against making too many moves. The Minnesota runner warns: "You've only got so much cash to spend while you're out there, and if you use it up too early, you're working on change in the last 100 meters."
Jeff Hollobaugh is one of our sport's accomplished journalists. For more than 35 years he's watched and written about events across the world, including six Olympics and eleven World Championships. A Western Michigan University graduate with a master's in professional writing, early in his career he was a Track and Field News statistician. Later he became its managing editor and still contributes articles as a correspondent.
Working as a freelance writer in the 1990s he drew assignments from USA Track and Field and ESPN, and created the MichTrack.org website to promote high school track and cross country in the state. In 2000 he began teaching creative writing and Shakespeare at a Michigan high school, and for the past eleven years has directed the Pinckney, Michigan middle school cross country program. How to is his second book. He also wrote The 100 Greatest Track & Field Battles of the 20th Century.
Why focus on a single event? "I've always been fascinated by tactics in the 1500/mile. I think it's the ideal meeting ground of speed and endurance, and the event that is most heavily influenced by tactical choices. Plus, I've found that there's a dearth of writing out there for athletes on what to do after the gun goes off."
Are runners racing more strategically today than in the past? "No, I really don't think so. I believe every generation has to learn its own lessons. Most high school runners are horrible tactically, but by the time they're veterans (if they've stuck around that long), they're pretty savvy. Hopefully, my book will help."
What's ahead for the Michigan native? "I have two books in the works. The first is an oral history of the first generation of American sub-four minute milers, the beasts who did it on dirt tracks in terrible shoes. There are 29 living Americans who did it prior to 1970, and I've interviewed 19 of them so far. The other book is the story of how America's top high school miler and his coach put together an amazing high school career."
In the end, Hollobaugh has written a significant work, both practical and pleasurable.
Comment: from Phil Scott
"The beast that did it on bad tracks(had no choice) and horrible shoes(maybe not as horrible as we think). I have shoes in my collection just as light as modern spikes. I think the training shoes helped more than spikes and tracks better much better. If you took a world class runner today and had them run in Adidas Melbournes or Tokyos. times may not be that different. "
Comment from Jim Metcalf
"The greatest mid race move in the 1500 was Herb Elliot at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
"Elliot makes some very poignant comments about his inner voices during that race and how he overcame some of his own doubts about that third lap. Click on this link. It's only two minutes long, but well worth hearing. Small correction to Jim's comment. I think the leader at two laps was Michel Bernard from France. I don't think Baran was in the race although he made the 1964 final."
Herb Elliott comments on the Rome 1500