Controlling the Fade

Cross-posted from

“Don’t go out too fast!”

It’s some of the most common running advice around. But is it ever alright to ignore it? Maybe. What if you’ve got perfect weather and a pie-in-the-sky goal? What if you’ve got a friend or a pace group at the ready that might be just a little too quick for you? What if you need a certain time by a certain date (ahem, last chance to BQ or OTQ….)? Most of the time, negative- or even-splitting a race is going to be the way to go. But every now and then, I think it’s okay to go for broke.

I think, sometimes, it’s not just okay, it’s good to take a calculated risk by starting at a pace you are fairly sure you won’t be able to hang on to by the end. Molly Huddle used this approach when she set the American record for the half marathon in Houston in 2018. If it’s good enough for her, maybe it’s good enough for you. If it’s one of those days, I argue that you can still run a decent race if you can manage to “control the fade.” That is, you need to be able to slow down when you run out of steam at the end of the race instead of dying completely.

But how do you do that? I’ve experimented with this strategy to racing over the past year, and here’s what I’ve learned about starting too fast and controlling the fade so that I still finish strong.

  1. If you have to slow a tiny bit at the end of a race, try to latch on to someone in front of you. Work on staying with that person as long as possible. Don’t worry about pace – just stay with them.
  2. Have a back-up goal. If your first goal slips away, it will help you to not throw the towel in completely if you can still go after something. A back-up goal makes it worth it to keep fighting even when you’re losing ground.
  3. A positive attitude is everything. Yes, you will feel bad about this turn of events. You must find something good in the situation anyway. Keep your head positive. This is huge.
  4. Know. Your. Why. Your “Why” – the reason you are out on the race course to begin with – is not going to be linked to a certain time. It must be something deeper, more meaningful and compelling. In that case, your why is with you even if you slow down a little.
  5. Experience helps. Experience teaches you the difference between a pace that is just-a-little-too-quick and one that is way-too-hot. Experience teaches you that going out too fast might make you feel like you want to die, but is not actually fatal. Experience teaches you that the pain of a controlled fade feels overwhelming, but vanishes at the finish line, while the regret about a total blow-up lasts a very long time. There’s a fine line between brave and stupid. Maybe the only way to find it is to step over it every now and then.
  6. Embrace the suck. It’s going to be hard. And then, it’ll get harder. You can physically do it, but your brain will tell you that it is too much. Prepare for that. Tell yourself that it will be hard, and anticipate what your brain will tell you (e.g., “you can’t do this,” “you’ve never run this fast this long before,” “AACK! Stop”). Anticipate it, look forward to it. It is supposed to hurt. If it were easy, you’d have done it already.

Have you ever gone out “too fast” on purpose? Did you regret it or did it pay off?


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