Races and Training: Chapter Twenty Two



AS I write this I sit ” choked off.” Very much so indeed ; every bit as much as can be implied politely. In fact I’m told several times over that I am arguing from a false position and that I am completely mistaken and entirely wrong because I don’t understand the subject. And the man who tells me this is a fairly well-known athlete. (KB.—” Methinks the gentleman protesteth too much.”)

Now I’ll admit it’s quite on the cards that he is right ; the mere fact that I think otherwise has nothing to do with it for the moment. But I rely always on the judgment of mature thought, so will leavo it to my readers to decide which of us has steered nearer to the truth.

The subject in question was ” tactics ” as applied in track and road races. My point was that, as practised and taught, they should be eliminated altogether. My choker-off was convinced they were, to use his own words : ” Essential to success.” The best thing I can do now is to put all my cards face up on the table and leave it to you to decide the issue. To start off let me say right out what my definitions of ” tactics ” and ” judgment ” are. I consider judgment refers solely to your own action and that when others enter into it you employ tactics to influence or counteract their action ; judgment for oneself only, tactics for oneself plus others.

Perhaps the best way I can get to work will be to quote from my correspondence : I have had many letters on the subject, not all of them admonitory. And then I can trot out my reasons for considering where we ought to improve. Here’s a specimen : ” Perhaps it is your connection with the pro’s years ago that gives you the idea that tactics implied several men ganging up ‘ to interfere with some other competitors to let another win.” I had of course been referring to what is called amateur sport, for in England we hear very little indeed of any other and are intentionally sheltered ” by our authorities from anything else so far as track and road athletics are concerned. What I had hinted at was that the phrase boxed in” had become quite understood and that such a misadventure really happened at times. I can pass over the implied stigma on professionals because the writer had, according to his own statements, never had anything to do with


professionals and therefore couldn’t know much about them. However I, a professional runner in my later days, had always found my ” pro ” competitors precisely as decent in every way as the best amateurs, which is saying something. (N.B.—Do you hear complaints about the sportmanship of ” pro ” cricketers or footballers ?) But I’ll admit I’ve met many a fellow, NOT because they were amateurs but because their numbers so vastly exceeded the pro’s, who did not come up to my idea of the usual sportsman— fellows who looked forward to winning their events by any sort of trickery so long as it could not be called fouling.

If you haven’t seen men boxed in you’ve certainly heard about it and, except for a second or so, this sort of thing should be next door to an impossibility among decent athletes. I’ve been in that unfortunate position myself for a moment on occasions, but a touch on the arm of the outside man was quite sufficient to tell him I wanted to get out and I never knew it to fail. Others, I have every reason to believe, have known it to fail, but that was only because they were unfortunate enough to be involved with some who didn’t know the real meaning of sport. The fact remains that the phrase ” boxed in ” wouldn’t be so universally known and used unless such a thing had happened fairly frequently.

The writer in this particular instance goes on to say : ” This is not what we know as tactics and I have never known such ‘ tactics ‘ resorted to in our sport.” How was it that he had never known what everyone else knew—what everybody else had coined the phrase ” boxed in ” to describe ?

Here’s another excerpt for you. ” Our idea of tactics is judgment, getting the best out of oneself in relation to the rest of the field.” I disagree right away with the inclusion of those last eight words, except that I readily admit that tactics, as practised, are alterations in one’s action to attune with alterations in the conduct of others. As I am of the opinion that under no circumstances, unless quite unavoidable, should you pay any attention to the rest of the field during a race, this sentence should have read only ” getting the best out of oneself.” That, and that only, is exactly what I approve of : surely that’s your sole purpose in racing ?

You don’t need to be told, you know very surely that to get the best out of any subject you must concentrate on that subject ; any division of your attention to outside affairs at the same time will weaken your concentration and bring about an impaired lesult. Right ; apply that to racing. I say you should concentrate on your best running—practice will have taught you just about what your optimum pace will be—and ignore completely, so far as you are able, all other competitors ; that to make any alteration ” in relation to the rest of the field ” is to waste your own time and effort at the very moment when these are most urgently needed for the purpose of doing your very utmost. There is only one ” best ” that you are capable of, and any unnecessary change from that set speed involves loss of time that can never be made good. That is one of my chief reasons for suggesting the entire


elimination of tactics. There can be only one ” best ” as far as you are concerned—YOUR best ; therefore every time you divert your attention to others you are dividing your energies between yourself and them instead of concentrating all on yourself. That was why I disagreed with the writer’s definition of useful (?) tactics. His reason for his opinion, in the light of what I have said above, will show you what sort of teaching we have had to put up with until now. He says : ” Your lack of experience in middle-distance running is no doubt the reason why you do not appreciate the vast difference between a race such as an 880 yards and one of 50 miles. In the shorter event you must take note of what your opponents are doing.”

Having been told off like this I thought it might strengthen my position if I gave the writer chapter and verse of the sort of tactics I was up against, the sort he said never occurred. I had no difficulty about that ; I just quoted a few sentences from an article on road running by an international man written approximately at the same time as our letters. Here are the tactics advocated : ” Don’t rush at the bottom of a hill but always try to encourage an opponent to do so. If you wobble a bit and look round fearfully you are quite likely to entice a man behind into making a big effort.”

If that’s not attempting to make a man do less than his best I don’t know what is. And to implement it you’d have to do less than your own best, would have to waste energy on trickery when you needed every bit of it for running. Yet I was told the same evening by another athlete—with a long career behind him—that he considered these tactics perfectly fair and above-board and could see nothing but commonsense about them. I applied all the arguments I have given you above but with no effect at all; he was convinced that such tactics were usually taught and were ” all part of the game.” To hammer his point home he wanted to know what you wore a head for if it wasn’t to help you to win. I left it at that, for I reckoned that until he was able to think logically there wasn’t the slightest hope of convincing him that such tactics were NOT in the interests of clean sport.

Mind you, I’m not blaming these men for what I think are mistaken opinions ; I know well enough they are quite sincere and have nothing but the best intentions. All that I can hope is that sooner or later the opinions of those who are able to reason more purposefully will compel them to look into and reconsider much of the faulty teaching that we were all brought up on. I also pointed out to this second man that we are all agreed on the necessity for progress, but that you couldn’t get progress without change. If only for that reason any proposed change should be given careful consideration.

Here’s another point of view where a correspondent looked at things one way while I found I was definitely on the opposite side. This time the reference was to a recent race where, as he admitted, a, second-rate man won, decisively beating four others, all of whom 


were acknowledged to be faster merchants. It was pointed out that this second-rater won on his merits because he used the tactics he had been advised to employ.

Here are the chief details of the event. “A” is a strong runner but without the speed possessed by many of our best men ; the strong rugged type, coming through fast at the finish. If it was a fast-run race (he was taught), ” hang on to the leaders as long as possible and use your strength over the latter stages to hold on to the leaders as long as you can ; if a slow-run race (880 yards) go all the way from the bell (half-way).” When the next event came off the competitors included ” B,” ” C,” “,D ” and ” E ” and all these men had the beating of “A.” The race was run very slowly, first lap being 62 2/5ths. At the bell “A” dashed to the front and went ” hell-for-leather ” all the way. ” E ” followed him but could not close the gap of 1½ to 2 yards ” A ” had opened up. Then the others suddenly realised that they were getting a bit too far in front to make it comfortable and went after them. But try as they did they failed to catch “A” and ” E.” ” B ” did come through very fast to capture third place and was fast catching up on the leaders. At that point it was assumed I’d agree that “A” won on his merits. I did not, however. To my mind “A’s ” merits would have placed him in fifth position, since there were four others known to be his temporary masters at the game. These four, in my opinion, lost their places because they employed tactics ; they went very much slower in the first lap than they could have decently managed, each intending to outwit the other with a sudden and surprising burst later on towards the finish. Had each of them gone at his best racing pace from the start “A,” who was not so fast a man would have been left behind at once and could never have caught up. Had “A” tried to stay with them he would probably not even have finished, for he would have been run to a standstill in the first half.

When you take the circumstances into account I’ll agree that perhaps “A” deserved to win ; they were all trying to trick each other and, as trickery and not running was the first consideration, “A’s ” tactics came out on top. Actually what really happened only went to show what a disastrous mistake the other four had made in using tactics at all. “A,” to my mind, didn’t ” win on his merits ” but won because of the lack of merits on the part of his rivals. He could never have won up to that time against any of those four had sheer running ability without tactics been the order of the day, so the victory can’t have been an altogether satisfactory one either from his or his rivals’ points of view. From all of which I would argue that the use of tactics, relative to others, once more proved quite unworthy of consideration. What’s your verdict ?