Tyler Karnes is a senior at Christian Academy in Louisville. He finished 9th at the Harry Greschel Invitational in the 5000 Meter Run with a 17:36 on April 15th. In the article below he writes about the difference running a 5K on the track and on the cross country course.
Twas the best of times, twas the worst of times… Stealing from Charles Dickens, this may either be the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities" or one's experience with the 5000 race on the track. Runners tend to agree, the twelve-and-a-half laps on the rubber either produces PR's or a monotonous nightmare. To quote Austin Pfeifer of South Oldham, "The 5k on the track seems like a longer race than in XC, but it is much easier to pace yourself on the track since you know your pace every lap. Also knowing that there are 12.5 laps in the race made it easier to psych yourself out, but it also made it nice so you could know exactly where you wanted to kick from. With decent competition I completely understand how people set PR's on the track." His teammate, Jeff Law, had his own opinion, "The worst part about running the 5k on the track is how demoralizing and boring it can be to spend 12.5 laps running around a track…The race is harder mentally, yet manages to be easier physically." Each of these athletes, two state champions in Jared Skrabacz of South Warren and Dominic Perronie, several other strong contenders, and myself competed in the Harry Greschel Invitational 5000 at Christian Academy of Louisville on April 15th. This was an amazing racing experience and with that loaded field, was able to produce several fast times.
Some striking differences between a track 5000 and a traditional XC 5000 stuck out immediately. First and foremost, a track 5000 requires about three times as much strategy as an XC 5000 (especially with the windy conditions during the Harry Greschel race). Not often do XC runners have their splits read off at both the common finish and the 200m mark. Constantly hearing your time read out can really mess with some runner's heads. Hearing one bad split read off can produce thought of "Oh man, I'm slipping and I still have a ton of laps to go." In other cases, such as Pfeifer, runners can use this wealth of information to break the race up into little 200's and set smaller goals for each lap and take the race literally one step at a time. Another strategy which may be used (and was more common during the windy conditions) is simple shoulder running. In a 5000 of only 12 people, running with someone becomes a bit more crucial than in an XC race with up to 400 people. In the track 5000, the polar opposites of separation from a pack or running with someone can make or break a race. Mentally, just being able to hang on to the person in front of you for one more lap again and again will make running exponentially easier. On the flip side, once contact is lost, a downward spiral begins for runners who cannot maintain their own pace without a competitor as motivation and often, runners become mentally disengaged. As previously mentioned, a flat track has the potential to produce strong gusts of winds and the weather seemed to become a much more important factor than almost any other cross country race I've personally been in. (Don't even remind me about 2008 XC State or 2009 LexCath…)
Focusing also becomes incredibly important for the twelve lap race. Now that I've experienced the opposite, I realize how much of a difference a simple change in scenery can make in XC. That's not going to happen on the track. In fact, you begin to memorize what the numbers in lane 1 look like after a while. So the next time you XC runners tackle that terrible hill, at least be glad it keeps you focused and can wake your legs up. The biggest advice I would give an athlete before a track 5000 would be to stay mentally engaged and to not get carried away in the first mile. Set a goal pace for each lap, and at all costs keep hitting it. Don't worry about a bad lap and just stay in the race and hang on to anyone you can.
When all was said and done, I'm extremely grateful for my opportunity to be a part of the Harry Greschel 5000. I would definitely encourage XC runners to participate in any track 5000 they can, if nothing else to gain the experience, and to go into the race with a plan to get that PR.