The American Way of Racing?

Recently I’ve read three interesting online posts about endurance sports racing.  While each interesting on its own, it was after reading the second that I asked myself whether American culture has a greater effect in how athletes perform than raw talent itself.

I first came across Toni Reavis’s “Perilous Peak of Perfection” on October 24th while scrolling through the This Week In Triathlon twitter feed.  Reavis, one of the more distinguished names in running journalism and a long-time broadcaster, uses Ryan Hall’s recent withdrawal from the New York City Marathon (his third straight) as a way to look closer into his status as an elite-distance runner – and how it compares to some of the world’s best.

In addition to casting a big question mark on whether or not Hall’s best career days are behind him, Reavis delves into why East-Africans, in particular Kenyans and Ethiopians, have been so consistently successful.  According to Reavis (as Hall learned while briefly training in Kenya), “Kenyans race to win from the front, going with the leaders for as long as they can before succumbing, while hoping they don’t.”   So much so, that at any given race, as Hall once described, “You can’t tell the difference between the 2:04 guys and 2:20 guys.”  While there’s only one winner, and many end up jogging to the finish (if not withdrawing), they all share the same winning-is-the-only-thing mentality at the start. 

Furthermore, the Kenyans’ and Ethiopians’ group-training approach in particular and “single mindedness” also contribute to what Reavis describes as a sense of breaking-down and defeating their American counterparts before the race even begins.  Isolating themselves for months at a time to complete big training blocks with other world-class runners and little outside distractions, while Americans choose a more individual angle, often dealing with the distractions of everyday living.  This advantage, Reavis argues, is before raw talent and cultural reinforcement is even factored into the equation.

The second piece of writing I referred to above wasn’t so much a blog, but some excerpts from American pro triathlete Jordan Rapp in response to a post in the “Kona poor PERFORM-ance” thread on Slowtwitch.  A thread, referencing Andrew Starykowicz’s statement that his performance at the World Championships was a result of a tainted/spoiled on-course drink.  Starykowicz, an outspoken triathlete by anyone’s definition, had set out to break the Kona bike-course record (4:18:23) after setting the fastest Ironman bike-split record of all-time (4:04:39) earlier in the season.  Unable to go sub 4:18, Starykowicz, subsequently blamed – in part – the drink by Powerbar, and stirred (no pun intended) a heated discussion amongst forum members including fellow Kona pro-participant Rapp (who himself withdrew from the race, though admittedly not due to the on-course nutrition provided).  And while not overtly dismissing Starykowicz’s theory, it was clear Rapp found the evidence to be on the strategy of the über-biker, or rather lack thereof.

As the thread evolved into a more general discussion about nutrition, there was one sentence in particular I picked up from Jordan’s post that stood out:“it’s not really about ‘going’ as fast as possible. It’s getting to the finish line as fast as possible.”  To be fair, and not appear to take things out of context, it was not in reference to Starykowicz’s race in particular but more about a coextensive discussion on whether poor performance in an 8+ hour event can be blamed on one single factor such as pace, nutrition, or racing conditions, the argument being that they all play a role.  Jordan’s sentiment being that pace is the only “true” controllable factor, which I thus interpreted as an acknowledgment by him that it is the most important of the aforementioned factors.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting revelation by Rapp.

Having just read Reavis’s article, however, could Rapp’s sentence be a clue into a deeper issue?  Does it prove Reavis’s claim that Americans don’t have the same competitive mentality when they toe the line at endurance events as non-Americans (in his case marathons)?  In particular, that they’re more prepared to finish where their time places them, rather than “starting out as a 2:04 even if they’re truly a 2:20” – as to say, Americans race their race, instead of racing to win.  Possibly, but perhaps there’s not enough evidence by looking at that sentence alone.

Interestingly enough, an earlier paragraph in Rapp’s same post, read as follows:

Most people walk at about 15-20min/mile. I figure that 9min is a reasonably satisfactory – though not super fast – IM marathon (3:55). The point of all of this is that if you run 8min miles for 20miles but can’t stomach your nutrition and walk the last 6 miles, you will end up finishing MUCH SLOWER than if you just ran 9min miles the whole way. It’s astounding how slow walking is compared to basically any sort of consistent running. 

While a statement of fact, when compared to the approach described by Reavis, it seems to be opposite of the attitude East-African runners would exhibit.  And to some extent, different from the mentality you find in über-bikers such as Starykowicz, Vanhoenacker, Kienle, Stadler, and others that would more closely resemble that of the East-African runners.

Which is the better approach?  In the running world, the results speak for themselves.  And while some of that may be talent, some their group-training mentality, strategy has to certainly play into it.  In long-distance triathlon, it’s hard to say.  Short course tends to have a more “race hard” mentality with the elite often driving the pace throughout the race.  Javier Gomez, Jon and Ali Brownlee are known for, from the beginning, race everyone to pieces.  Long course is another story.  Though we’ve certainly seen a fair share of wins by those with the kamikaze mentality, we’ve also seen some epic blow-ups.  The only thing that’s a fact, however, is that without the hard-race mentality in long course triathlon, we most likely wouldn’t have seen some of those great performances, or blow-ups for that matter.

Screen-shot-2013-02-21-at-10.10.21Marino’s Blow-up at Kona in 2012 Photo Credit: Triathlete Magazine

Looking back at results over the last decade, is it coincidence that the last American to break the World Marathon Record was the Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi in 2002, the same year the last time an American was crowned Ironman World Champion?  Are the Americans that much more inferior when it comes to talent in both sports?

Lastly, I recognize that even though one of many American professional long-course triathletes, Rapp is one of a small group which on any given race-day has the ability to go up against the world’s best.  However, will he ever reach his full potential by racing to get to the finish instead of just racing?  There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Kevin Helliker titled The Slowest Generation – Younger Athletes Are Racing With Less Concern About Timein which he describes a shift in how [non] competitive the younger generation tends to be.  Helliker writes that it no longer is so much about winning as it is about competing and finishing.  Perhaps there’s a correlation.

Whether I’m right or wrong it’s a discussion worth having, especially given that over the weekend Starykowicz broke his old bike record and became the first American to go sub eight-hours.  Maybe there’s a reason that since the turn of the century both long-course triathlon and the marathon have been dominated by only a couple of countries.  The Australians and Germans have dominated long course triathlon, while the Kenyans and Ethiopians the marathons.  What do they know that rest don’t?

Feel free to comment below.

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  • andres says:

    Thanks for the comment Justin. I think he’s certainly an exception being one of the “über-bikers”. He seems to be less calculated than others. In the sense that his only calculation is getting to the line as fast as he can. And if along the way he doesn’t get there, that’s racing.

  • Justin Green says:

    I think Starky pushes the envelope and races, sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. Clearly it paid off in Florida this weekend.

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