In the context of endurance racing, pacing can be defined as the skill of distributing one’s effort across a defined distance in such a way that the distance is covered in the least amount of time possible. Although the body does the visible work in any kind of endurance race, the skill of pacing is entirely mental. There are three distinct psychological qualities that feed into it:

Intelligence. A certain kind of intelligence is required to comprehend abstract distances and use this understanding as a factor in implicit calculations of the fastest rate of speed the athlete can sustain over the remaining distance of a race. Any animal predator can pace itself appropriately in relation to a target it can see, but only humans have the brain power to do so in relation to targets too distant to see. And human studies have shown a clear relationship between intellectual capacity and pacing ability. Like it or not, you have to be a certain kind of smart to pace well.

Sensitivity. Pacing is done by feel. Although speed and power meters can be used as supplemental pacing tools, perception of effort gets the first in final say in determining how quickly an athlete covers a given race distance. To pace well is to know how you should feelat any given point in a race. This is a big reason why pacing ability automatically improves with experience. A really good pacer has an incredibly high level of sensitivity to perception of effort. If you ask the typical elite runner to give you a 6:00 mile, you are very likely to get something between 5:59 and 6:01, because these athletes can feel the difference between 5:58 and 6:02.

Guts. As I suggested above, pacing decisions are the results of implicit calculations. The main inputs to these calculations are knowledge of the remaining distance and perceived effort. These two inputs are factored together in a way that is intended to ensure that the athlete does not hit his limit before he reaches the finish line. But what is the limit? Not anything physical. It is simply the athlete’s sense of what he can and cannot do. As such, the limit is mutable, labile. Two athletes of precisely equal ability may have different limits because one believes he can’t go any faster and the other does, and only the other is right. Those athletes who have the highest performance limits relative to their physical ability simply have more guts. They aren’t afraid to push a little harder and find outif they fall apart or can keep it together.

A notably large fraction of the runners I interact with as a coach struggle with (i.e., suck at) pacing, and it is my perception—true or not—that this fraction is larger than it used to be. If so, why? I think a number of factors are at play. One is that today’s adult runners tend to be less experienced in the sport, having taken it up asadults instead of in school. Another is that kids have become less active generally, hence less sensitive to and tolerant of perceived effort throughout their lives. A third factor is that modern running gadgetry distracts runners’ attention from their bodies, creating a dependency on external feedback that further numbs sensitivity to perceived effort and ties runners to artificial limits.

This last factor affects even some elite runners, as Flagstaff-based 2:32 marathoner Sarah Crouch will tell you. But Sarah also offers us a good example of how to overcome this dependency. Her case study centers on the 2018 USATF 25K Championships, held on May 12. A few days before the race, Sarah announced that she would run it without a watch, citing frustration with her recent performances (she’d completed three half marathons in 2018, all more than five minutes slower than her PR of 1:12:10, which was set back in 2014) and the need to shake herself out of the rut she’d gotten stuck in. “I feel that when I’m wearing a watch and I’m constantly looking at it,” she said in an interview on the eve of the event, “I’m far too much in my own head. So the goal tomorrow is to race just by instinct, guts.”

Intrigued by the experiment, I made sure to watch the USATF 25K Championships live on the internet, and I’m glad I did. Last year I did some training with Sarah in Flagstaff, but the Sarah Crouch I saw on my computer screen on May 12thseemed like a different woman. She ran with a striking combination of aggression and serenity, her chin up and her eyes seemingly miles up the road as she dragged eight-time national champion Aliphine Tuliamuk behind her. Incredibly, Sarah passed the half-marathon point of the race in 1:12:45 on the way to finishing the race in third place.

Afterward, I contacted Sarah with a few questions, her answers to which, I felt, would help complete the lesson of her wildly successful gamble. If you struggle with pacing, pay attention!

Q: What is the precise nature of the problem you sought to address by racing without a watch last weekend?

A: As months and then years began to pass without a personal best at any distance, I became more and more obsessed with my pace during races. This year I’ve run three half marathons, each slower than the last, and I started to feel like I couldn’t break myself of the habit of looking at the watch every few minutes. During these races, the moment that my pace began to slip even a little, I fell apart, devastated that I was unable, yet again, to clip through miles at the same rhythm I’d managed easily earlier in my career. I finally realized that this was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in my races and I was reaching a point where something had to change. Choosing to abandon my watch at the 25K was honestly just a reflection of me reaching the boiling point and trying something new out of desperation.

Q: It seems to me that, in order for your experiment to work, you needed to have just the right mindset going into the race. Is this true, and if so, how did your specific mindset set you up for success?

A: That is absolutely true. This is going to sound nuts, but I almost had to separate the two people I’d become. The part of me that was growing larger and more powerful was the part of me that didn’t want to race, didn’t want to suffer anymore and didn’t believe I’d ever see another PR after almost half a decade of disappointment. That voice in me had grown so loud that it had almost completely drowned out the other voice, the one that I could barely hear anymore, the one that was dying to be let loose and compete. That part of me used to race recklessly, unafraid of anyone, and was always in pursuit of gutsy races and the pure joy that followed at the finish line. That part of me would literally eat a bowl full of dirt to beat the person next to me at the end of a race and frankly, that part of me does not need a watch.

During my warm-up for the 25K, I made a very deliberate decision to bring that voice back to the forefront, to let it make the decisions during the race, almost giving it its own personality and the permission to guide me through the race. I had no intention of leading until the moment that the gun fired and then all bets were off. My gut not only said to lead but to push the pace and try to break apart the lead pack as soon as possible. I was about 99% sure I was running a suicidal pace but I couldn’t have cared less. For the first time in four years, I felt like me again. Turns out, I almost had the fitness to back it up as I couldn’t match the move made eleven miles into the race, but I wouldn’t go back and change the way I ran for anything. I wouldn’t go back and sit comfortably in fourth or fifth and try to progress with 10K to go, which, on paper, may have been the smart thing to do. Sometimes you need to do the brave thing, not the smart thing.

Q: You ran faster than you had in a while. One might assume that, to do so, you had to suffer more. But was that really the case, or did your mental approach somehow enable you to run faster without feeling “worse”?

A: No, I did not suffer more, but my willingness to suffer was greater. I do think there is something to the notion of dwelling less on the pain and more on the product of it when you feel like you’re having the race of your life. Perhaps focusing on the end rather than the means is made easier when the end is decidedly worth it. I’ve described the feeling before as the fingers of human experience outgrowing the glove of human flesh. It’s incredibly difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but pain with purpose is far easier to accept than the pain that accompanies a poor race.

When your incentive to hurt is higher, it not only permits you to drag yourself deeper down the rabbit hole of pain, it adds the remarkable sensation of life, raw life, into the experience. Humming under the strain of the pace out there, I felt very aware of my surroundings, the bright green of the trees, the sound of my competitors’ shoes slapping the pavement, the scent of rain in the air. Yes, it may have hurt like hell, but I feel bad for those who have never pushed themselves past their limit to find out what was on the other side because the other side is spectacular.

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If these words do not leave you ready to eat a bowl of dirt to beat your previous best self, check out Sarah’s powerful post race interview here.