Cherry Picking an Age-Group Award
by Rick Lovett
The Dexter Community Education Fund Run was a typical small-town 10K, drawing about 100 people for an autumn circuit of the farm country of southeastern Michigan. I felt fit and strong, and was hoping for a PR, a goal that I did indeed achieve. But along with it, I accomplished something even better: the Fund Run was the race that taught me, more than 20 years ago, that with persistence and careful race selection, anyone can win an age group medal.
For years, I'd watched friends and older training partners collect awards, wondering what it felt like to step forward amid the cheers of friends and the polite applause of everyone else. But, although I was faster than most people, the award-winners in my 25-29 age group were usually several minutes ahead of me. Winning a ribbon or a medal, I figured, was about as likely as landing a berth in the Olympics.
All of that changed at mile five.
"You're in tenth place," a race official called to me as I rounded a corner into the last 1.2 miles of gently rolling pavement. "Keep it up!"
Suddenly, I had a realistic shot at glory. Of the nine people ahead of me, one was a 45-year-old clubmate. Another had silver hair - clearly not in my age group. A third was a 14-year-old boy who I'd been following for most of the race, and another was a woman. That left only five people to worry about, and the medals went three deep in each group. If I was even moderately lucky, no more than two of the five would be my age - and one of these was potentially catchable, only a few yards ahead.
I'd been gradually running him down for more than a mile, but he didn't succumb easily. As I drew near, he picked up his pace, leaving me a half-step behind, wondering how long I could keep up. Rather than backing off, I countered with a surge of my own. That reversed our positions and, with him now hanging off my shoulder, I pressed the pace harder and harder, all the way through that now-endless mile. At the six-mile mark, I made one final attempt to break him¿ and suddenly he vanished. One moment, he was dogging my steps - and the next I couldn't even hear his breathing. I didn't dare look back until the finish, when I found that I'd beaten him by 15 seconds.
It turned out that we'd been racing for first place in our division.
After the race, my competitor told me that he would have been able to beat me if he hadn't been recovering from a marathon three weeks earlier. But, rather than detracting from my victory, his comment made me realize that I'd done a perfect, if unplanned, job of cherry-picking an age group award.
The Fund Run had two important cherry-picking elements: it was small, but had a full compliment of age group awards, and it was sandwiched on the local racing calendar between a marathon and another large race. Many top competitors had skipped it in favor of the other two events.
Since then, I've won numerous awards, some in races where I could have walked and still carried home a ribbon. With time, I've learned to plan my race calendar accordingly, peaking for races where I think I can win something and fun-running most of the others.
Your best chance of placing in the top three comes by finding small, lightly publicized races in outlying communities. Start-up events are particularly good because their planners often hope for more participants than actually show up. The result: medal-rich races with low turnouts. Sometimes everyone wins an award.
The key, of course, is finding races whose turnouts match your abilities.
Start by figuring out how small a race needs to be for you to place in the top three of your division. Do this by recalling your finish in a typical, large race. Divide the total number of runners in the entire race by your standing in your age group, then multiply by three. That's the size of race in which you have a reasonable hope of finding yourself in the hunt for an award. For example: in a race with 3,600 finishers, I recently placed 25th in my age group - far out of award contention. But when I carry out the arithmetic, I discover that there were about 150 racers, overall, for each person who beat me in my division. In a race of 450 or fewer participants, I would have had a reasonable chance of a third-place ribbon.
Even if you generally finish dead last in your division, you'll probably find that you'd place in the top three in races with 50 or fewer people. And there really are races that small. There are no guarantees in any given race, but if you play the statistics long enough, you'll eventually win an award.
To improve the odds, look for races with distance medleys and enter the shortest distance. If there's a 5K and a 10K, for example, the 10K will siphon off most of the fastest runners. Also, look for races with 5-year, not ten year, age brackets, and shun races with cash prizes or gift certificates, even if all the winners get is a free fast-food meal. The competition for even the smallest such prize is intense. I've had good success, on the other hand, by seeking out races whose directors have a reputation for inaccurately measuring their courses. Many fast runners avoid such courses because the times posted on them are meaningless- but if you win your age group, who cares if that "10K" is actually 6.4 miles?
It's also useful to go into cherry-picking mode on weekends with lots of races. The people who normally beat you can't be everywhere at once, so the competition may be spread pretty thinly. You can also time your training so that you're ready for the spring racing season. Most people relax during the winter, and are still building stamina in spring. The result: weaker competition.
In addition to seeking out the lightest competition, work to improve your own performances by honing your racing skills and doing some speed training. Because many racers aren't all that interested in building speed, most runners who choose to dedicate a few months to the effort can move into the top halves of their age groups, and possibly beyond. Join an interval group for once-a-week track workouts during the racing season, and push yourself in occasional "tempo runs." After a suitable warm up, run for about 20 minutes at a pace about 15-20 seconds per mile slower than your 10K race pace.
Racing skills mostly involve learning to pace yourself. Experience will teach you how hard you can (and can't) push during the long middle miles. You should also school yourself not to burn out with an overly fast start, not to charge hills too aggressively, and not to slack off too much on downgrades.
Despite the term's lazy image, cherry-picking often works best on tough courses, where smart racers can triumph over fast ones who let the course beat them. Winning on such a course is doubly sweet because it's a triumph not only of the body, but also of the mind.
Finally, don't give up. If you can't beat your age group competitors any other way, try to outlive them. The number of race participants drops sharply above age 50, but the number of awards per division remains the same.
Rick Lovett lives in Portland, Oregon, where he races 10 to 20 times per year. A full-time writer, he is co-author of Alberto Salazar's Guide to Running and Alberto Salazar's Guide to Racing, both from Ragged Mountain Press.