By Robert Johnson
July 31, 2019
One of the reasons why I love middle distance races is tactics matter.
I often say that one of the problems track and field faces in its quest for more popularity is that there isn’t enough variability in it. In football — either the worldwide version (soccer) or the American version (the NFL) — the best team doesn’t always win because fluke things happen, whether it’s a fumble, interception, lucky catch, or fluke goal, and that makes the sport more interesting. Plus strategy in a sport like American football, with playcall after playcall, makes a huge difference as well.
But in track and field, the results are much more predictable. The best athlete normally wins the race, whether they are short sprints or long distance races as tactics don’t play too much of a role. In the sprints, everyone runs in lanes, so it’s basically just each athlete against the clock. In long distance races, there is usually more than enough time to make up for a tactical mistake.
However, tactics in the 800 or 1500 can make a huge difference, and that’s why those are two of my favorite events in track and field.
After last weekend’s 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships, I got a text from a buddy asking me how a 3:49 miler could finish third to last at USAs. He was referring to Johnny Gregorek, who ran 3:49 in the mile this year indoors and finished 10th in the 1500. I decided to go back and look at the tape.
The tape was clear. Gregorek finished 10th because he ran a tactically horrible race. Gregorek finished 1.94 seconds, or roughly 14.3 meters, behind Ben Blankenship, who nabbed the final World Championship team spot. That may seem like a lot, but my analysis reveals that Gregorek ran at least 17.9 meters more than Blankenship in the race — a distance that would require at least 2.4 seconds for Gregorek to cover — due to poor tactics.
As a result, tactics may have cost Gregorek a spot at Worlds.
In the video below, I go turn by turn and explain to you the tactical mistakes Gregorek made compared to Blankenship. Below the video, I provide a chart that shows you the math involved in my extra distance calculations.
|Johnny G Position||Ben B Position||Extra Lane Run||Extra Distance Run (Meter)|
|1st Turn||Inside lane 2||Inside lane 1||Full lane difference||3.835|
|2nd Turn||Middle lane 2||Inside lane 1||1 full lane difference (probably more)||3.835|
|3rd Turn||Outside lane 2||Inside lane 1||1 1/3 lane difference||5.113|
|4th Turn||Middle to outside lane 2||Middle lane 1||At least full lane difference||3.835|
|5th Turn||Outside lane 1||Middle lane 1||1/3 lane difference||1.278|
|6th Turn||Outside lane 1||Inside lane 1||1/3 lane difference||1.278|
|Final Turn||Inside lane 1||Outside lane 1||Negative 1/3 lane difference||-1.278|
|Total Extra Distance Run By JG||17.896 meters|
|Distance behind at Finish||14.3 meters|
But Would It Actually Have Mattered?
Now, the data above is presented in a way that shows you had Gregorek run better tactically, he would have beaten Blankenship. That’s not necessarily the case. Just because Gregorek ran more extra distance than he finished behind Blankenship doesn’t mean he would have beaten Blankenship if they’d run the same amount of distance. The reality is they were basically side by side entering the bell and Gregorek closed in 54.32 to Blankenship’s 52.42. Had Gregorek not run so much extra ground, would he have have been able to close faster than Blankenship?
We’ll never know.
I reached out to LetsRun.com coaching/stat guru John Kellogg and asked him how much faster would Gregorek have closed had he not run so much extra ground. In the actual race, Gregorek hit the bell in 2:53.22, but if he’d run the same amount of distance as Blankenship, I estimate he’d have hit have hit the bell in 2:50.42. So the question I asked Kellogg was, if runner hit 1100 2:50.42 and closed the race in 54.22 (which is kind of the equivalent of what Gregorek did), how much faster would he close if he hit bell in 2:53.22? Kellogg thought the difference would probably only be half a second. Considering that Blankenship lost by 1.94 seconds, that’s not enough.
But that’s ignoring the fact that Gregorek also wasted a ton of energy putting in spurts to move up and back mid-race. As I said in the video above, you have only at most two moves in a 1500 and he used both of them before the bell. Thus he had nothing left for the final lap.
“The extra distance wouldn’t hurt him nearly as much as all of the extra effort he spent – the yo-yoing up and back,” said Kellogg.
Contrast that 2017 when Gregorek made the world championship team. In that race, which you can watch here, Gregorek’s trip was far from perfect like Blankenships this year as Gregorek basically ran the entire race on the outside of lane 1 – but what was perfect was that Gregorek made zero mid-race moves. He did basically nothing until the final 300 when he closed like crazy. Next to last with 300 to go, he ended up third at the line as he just conserved energy and then exploded with one big move.
In the end, one can argue that in 2019 Blankenship may very well have beaten Gregorek even if they’d run the same distance, but I know one thing, given the tactics Gregorek employed, there was no way Gregorek was going to make it to Worlds in 2019.
Be a fan and talk about this article on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: How to run the 1500 / mile- and how not to. Video analysis of men’s 1500 final at 2019 USAs.