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April 25, 2007

Anatomy of an Upset

Have you ever watched a major upset in some sporting event? You know - the type of game where one team is generally considered to have absolutely no chance against a bigger, stronger, more talented team – but somehow they scrape and claw their way to an improbable victory? It happens a lot in college football (like when my UCLA Bruins beat USC last fall – I’m still not sure how that happened), or in the NCAA hoops tournament when a small conference team goes up against a traditional powerhouse.

If you watch a lot of sports – like me - you’ll see it happen quite often. If you’re also someone who has run a lot of races – like me – you begin to identify with the underdog story when facing a difficult challenge. And that’s the context that I’m using to discuss my strategy for this weekend’s Big Sur Marathon. But before I talk about the race, first consider the anatomy of an upset, when you’re cheering for the underdog …

Before the game, you’re just hoping it won’t be a ridiculous blowout, and that your team will make a respectable showing. The other team looks completely intimidating, and you wonder if your guys even deserve to be on the same field (or court).

Then the game starts, and you score a few quick points that briefly stun the other team, but you can tell that they’re not too concerned about it. Through the first half, your team plays out of its mind, and keeps the game much closer than anyone imagined. They might even have a small lead at halftime, but you know there’s almost no chance that they’ll be able to duplicate that effort in the second half.

Towards the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, the sleeping giant finally awakens, starts pushing your guys around and scoring with ease, and it looks like your team has finally run out of gas. But the underdog continues to fight, and the contest stays tight. Midway through the 4th quarter, you look at the scoreboard, and for the first time, an unlikely thought crosses your mind: your team actually has a chance to win this thing.

During the final minutes, as they’re clinging to a slim lead, you see something in the eyes of your players. They’ve come too far and fought too hard to come away empty-handed. They pick each other off the ground, slap each other on the back between plays, and even though they’re running on fumes, they somehow crank up the intensity one more notch. It’s like they’ve collectively decided, no effing way do we lose this game now.

The seconds tick away and the pressure mounts, until the contest is finally over – and to everyone’s disbelief (including your own), your guys found a way to hang on. Probably 9 other times out of ten they wouldn’t be able to, but on this day, they did. And as you watch the celebration, you can’t help thinking to yourself – is this really happening? Did we really just win?

Whether you’re a player or a fan, it’s one of the greatest feelings in sports. It’s the same feeling I’m hoping to capture at this weekend’s race.

I honestly don’t expect to run under three hours, for reasons I discussed last time. But that doesn’t mean there’s no chance of it happening. In fact, it could play out just like an upset on the football field. Here’s how I see it going down …

The first 4 miles of the Big Sur Marathon are mostly downhill. I’m smart enough to not go crazy here, but I will definitely put a little bit of time in the bank early on – kind of like returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. It’s not enough to determine the outcome, but it provides a little spark of hope.

Miles 5-8 are gradually uphill, but it’s still early enough in the race that I’ll have a lot of energy, and I’ll be able to find packs of runners I can draft. This is where I start working harder, but I shouldn’t lose too much time here. Miles 9 and 10 are sharply up and down: one slow mile and one fast one that pretty much cancel each other out from a pace standpoint. Which brings me to the base of Hurricane Point.

Climbing Hurricane Point during miles 11-12, I mentally shift into race mode, and let myself work at a high effort level. I’ll lose a couple of minutes over the two-mile climb, but I’ll gain some of it back on the 1-mile downhill. By the halfway point at Bixby Bridge, I’ll be clinging to a slight time advantage – but very uncertain as to whether I can sustain it for the entire race (that whole "bridge to the unknown" idea).

I’ll keep a strong pace for the next few miles, before the key stretch of road during miles 16-23. The relentless hills simply wear a runner down, like when the favored team storms back and starts beating down the upstart team. If I fall off of sub-three pace, this is undoubtedly where it will happen.

But I’ll continue fighting, and trying to keep the margin tight. And if I somehow survive those miles with a slim time advantage … that’s when things will get interesting.

There will come a point in the final 3 or 4 miles when I’ll look at my watch and think – hey – I’m still pretty close. I’ve still got a chance. And if you happen to be near enough to me in that last 5K to look into my eyes, you’ll see a noticeable change. When I’m that close to the finish after that kind of effort, my resolve stiffens, and I tell myself, no effing way am I screwing up this race now.

The minutes and seconds will tick away, but I’ll continue to scrape and claw my way toward the finish, utilizing every ounce of energy I have at my disposal. (In this scenario, Wildflower won’t be a factor in my exertion. Not one bit.) Somehow, I’ll find a way to hang on to the pace. I’ll cross the line in under three hours, then marvel at how I was able to manage it, as a volunteer keeps my legs from collapsing in the finishing chute.

At least … that’s one way it could happen. Probably nine times out of ten, the race doesn’t play out that way. It’s more likely that I’ll fall so far behind by the time I hit the last 10K that there’s no hope of making up enough time to break three-hours – and at that point, I’ll just cruise to the finish with a solid effort level, and be satisfied with whatever time I get.

But occasionally, and sometimes when you least expect it, everything works out just the way you hope. You have to be prepared to capitalize on the opportunity if it arises – really, that’s what marathon training is all about.

Because you never know when upsets are going to happen. The only thing you know for certain is that inevitably, every now and then, they will.

Hopefully Sunday will be one of those days.


momo 4/25/07, 10:52 AM  

as i got up this morning and headed out on my long run, i remembered this time last year i was getting ready to head to big sur, and then i thought of you and the fact that you're racing this weekend and i had a good feeling about it.

premonition? ya never know.

may the wind be at your back the entire day!

stronger 4/25/07, 1:22 PM  

You go sub3 and I'll pack the darn massage table for Wildflower!

E-Speed 4/25/07, 1:30 PM  

what a great post! Here's hoping that Sunday brings an upset!

Dori 4/25/07, 6:43 PM  

Picture yourself running across the finish line in 2:58. Norman Vincent Peale and all that. You sound like you're in great shape--maybe the cross training will be a benefit. Good luck.

JohnF 4/25/07, 8:00 PM  

You are going to have a great run!

Spokane Al 4/25/07, 8:54 PM  

Good luck to you on Sunday. However it turns out I trust that you will fully appreciate the event, the environment, your fitness, good health and luck to be participating in such a magnificant race.

craig 4/25/07, 11:22 PM  

I hope it's one of those days where everything works the way you planned Donald.

Thomas 4/26/07, 1:32 AM  

You've got it all worked out, haven't you?

SkiRough 4/26/07, 7:06 AM  

Sounds like you have a fantastic plan. Have a great run!

teacherwoman 4/26/07, 10:46 AM  

What a great analogy! You will do awesome...remember how mental this "game" is!

Who knew we shared such a liking for sports!

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