How to Run the Perfect Race

跑步

, by Matt Fitzgerald

We can all learn a lot from Kenenisa Bekele's performance at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. Photography by: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Have you ever run a perfect race? In other words, have you ever finished a race knowing you couldn’t possibly have gone any faster?

It’s a wonderful feeling. Just ask Kenenisa Bekele, who ran a perfect race in winning the 2019 Berlin Marathon. Although he fell just two seconds shy of Eliud Kipchoge’s world-record time of 2:01:39, the legendary Ethiopian runner wasn’t the least disappointed, aware he couldn’t have gone any faster. “I knew I was very close to the record, but I couldn’t quite make it,” he told reporters at a post-race press conference. “Before the race, I did not expect a world record, so I am very happy to take 80 seconds off my personal best.”

Perfect race execution is mostly a matter of perfect pacing. And perfect pacing, in turn, depends on three key mental traits: body awareness, judgment, and toughness. Athletes like Kenenisa Bekele have an abundance these traits, but anyone can develop them with the right approach. My new book, How to Run the Perfect Race: Better Racing through Better Pacing, teaches everything you need to know about pacing skill development. Let’s look at a few examples of the techniques I’ve found useful in cultivating Bekele-level body awareness, judgment, and toughness.

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Body Awareness

Body awareness (or what scientists call somatic awareness) relates to a runner’s feel for their performance limits. Although pacing can be assisted by objective data (as evidenced by Bekele’s frequent watch glances in Berlin), it is done mainly by feel.

In winning the 2019 Berlin Marathon, Bekele was just two seconds off the world record - and delighted with his performance. Photography by: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

All competitive runners share a common goal of reaching the finish line in the least time possible. Throughout each race, a single question looms: Can I sustain this effort level for the remaining distance? The answer comes not in the form of numbers or words but as perceptions, a continuous evaluation of present levels of effort and fatigue in relation to past experience.

That same looming question could also be formulated this way: Am I feeling how I should be feeling at this point of the race? Body awareness enables runners to answer this question decisively, one way to heighten body awareness is by doing what I call locked-in tempo runs.

Try This - Locked-In Tempo Run: Choose a route with rolling hills. Warm up and then run for 20 to 40 minutes at a pace you could sustain for 60 minutes in a race. Try to keep your pace perfectly consistent regardless of whether you’re running uphill or downhill or neither. Alternatively, use power as your intensity metric and try to lock into a precise wattage. In this case, your pace will fluctuate with the topography but your effort (and power output) will remain steady.

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Locked-in tempo runs are a great way to develop a better feel for distributing your effort evenly when running hard—a hallmark characteristic of effective pacing.

Judgment

Thirty kilometers into the 2019 Berlin Marathon, Kenenisa Bekele fell back to third place. Fans watching on television—including me—thought he was toast. But his decision to let Berhanu Legese and Sisay Lemma get away from him was just that: a decision, and one that not every runner would have made.

A perfect race is really just the sum of a lot of good decisions. And good decisions come from good judgment.

In his post-race remarks, Bekele revealed that his left hamstring had tightened up when he’d tried to respond to Legese and Lemma’s surge. Although frustrated by the ill-timed anatomical malfunction, Bekele knew better than to resist it, so he shifted his focus from staying with the leaders to limiting his losses and remaining in a position to take advantage of their faltering, should it happen. And it did happen because Legese and Lemma had made a mistake—specifically, a pacing mistake—in surging too hard too early in the race.

A perfect race is really just the sum of a lot of good decisions. And good decisions come from good judgment. The practice of post hoc analysis can improve your decision-making in races and workouts, bringing you that much closer to your perfect race.

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Try this - Post Hoc Analysis: Take a few minutes to analyze and evaluate your pacing after each workout and race. Identify what you did well and what you could do better, and plan to apply the takeaways from your post hoc analysis to the next workout.

For example, suppose you’ve just done an interval workout comprising 6 x 800 meters at 5K race pace. In a perfectly executed workout of this type, your split times for the six intervals will be very close to your actual 5K pace, there will be no more than a few seconds’ difference between the fastest rep and the slowest, and your fastest rep will come at or near the end of the session. By comparing and contrasting your actual pacing against this ideal standard, you will get better and better at making the right judgment calls during workouts and races.

At one stage during Berlin Bekele fell behind Berhanu Legese and Sisay Lemma - but did not panic. Photography by: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Toughness

Most runners are tough, but Kenenisa Bekele demonstrated a rare kind of toughness in going after Kipchoge’s world record in the “I-don’t-care-how-much-it-hurts” manner he did in Berlin. There is no way to objectively measure how hard one is trying. A runner might feel they tried as hard as they could in a given race only to plunge even deeper into the pain cave in the next one, when perhaps there’s more at stake.

In running, the limit is always mental, the pain tank filling before the gas tank empties, and the tougher a runner is, the closer they can get to their physical limit before they hit their invisible—but no less real—mental limit. Building toughness requires regular, controlled testing of one’s limits, and one way to do this is with kamikaze races, as I call them.

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Try this - Kamikaze Race: Choose a goal time for a race that you believe you have a 10 percent chance of achieving, then calculate the associated pace and try to hold that pace in an actual race. If you’re able to sustain it for the full distance, you’ll end up with a breakthrough performance, but even if you don’t, you’ll get valuable practice in running tough.

In running, the limit is always mental... and the tougher a runner is, the closer they can get to their physical limit before they hit their invisible—but no less real—mental limit.

An example is the “sub-2 or bust” approach that Eliud Kipchoge took in a pair of exhibition marathons held in 2017 and 2019, as well as in the 2022 Berlin Marathon. Although Kipchoge fell short of the two-hour mark in all but one of these “kamikaze races,” he succeeded once (running 1:59:40 in his second exhibition) and set an official marathon world record of 2:01:09 in Berlin (since broken).

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For us mortals, it’s best to try this method of building toughness in shorter races, preferably 10K or less, as the consequences of imploding are less severe. But keep in mind that implosion is not the end of the world. You will emerge from the experience a bit tougher regardless of whether you hit your goal.

Progress Over Perfection

In pursuing the perfect race, be sure to maintain a healthy perspective. Don’t beat yourself up for falling short of perfection, which is hard to achieve. Instead celebrate your progress, which will lead you to your “Bekele moment” eventually.