photo credit: OldOnliner
Once upon a time I was a member of my high school cross country team. On the last race I ran with the team (end of the season) I learned a very valuable lesson about running. We had gone over the course in advance of the race so during the race I knew where I was relative to the end of the race – I knew how much further I had to go and how much energy to put in so that I would not run out before the finish line. As I came to the last long incline before the end of the race I knew that I could push myself and I decided to attack the hill. I was a short distance behind another runner, perhaps 15 yards, and I knew that I was in tenth place overall. As I attacked that hill I quickly closed the gap and overtook him shortly before the course turned and went down a steep incline to the final flat to the finish line. As I passed him, he sped up, not wanting to lose a place. I was still ahead when I got to the edge of the hill and I stretched my stride and let gravity carry me down faster than I could have sprinted and certainly faster than I could have gone if I had tried to remain in control of my pace. I got going so fast down that hill that my momentum on the flat carried me to very quickly catch up with two more runners who had not even been in sight when I started attacking a the bottom of that last hill.
A real understanding of the lesson about attacking the hills did not sink in until many years later when I ran my marathon. In that case I started off running much better than I had anticipated for the first seventeen miles but then I came to the first hill of any real significance and I failed to attack. I lost my momentum, my legs turned to jelly, and I took at least an hour longer on the last nine miles than I should have.
I am learning to apply this lesson in other areas of life as well. It seems that there are three ways to make progress on things. When there are obstacles to be overcome it is time to attack the hills. When momentum is on your side it is time to relax and lengthen your stride. When there are neither significant or specific obstacles nor significant momentum to carry your forward it is time to simply run the race, making progress while retaining some reserves for use when you come to face the next obstacle.
For those who are curious about the end of my last high school race, it unfortunately ended as a demonstration of my not giving enough. The two runners in seventh and eighth place saw or heard me coming and picked up their pace. I pushed them hard and was right on their heels but as we came within twenty feet of the finish line I realized that I was not going to be able to pass them. I let up my pace and finished two seconds after the two of them. The tenth place runner never caught me and he told me after the race that he had given it everything he had trying to catch me because he mistakenly thought that he had fallen from tenth to eleventh place when I passed him and that he would not medal unless he could catch me. That was some consolation for me, but in my heart I know that seventh place should have been a three-way tie rather than having me settle for ninth so close to the end.