I watched pretty much every minute of the coverage of these Olympic Trials, and throughout I kept noticing a number of trends, occurrences, and themes that warranted discussion. So here are the big Optimal Training Lessons that I took away from these Trials.
It's not about being the best; it's about being the best at the right time -- Alan Webb is one of the top two milers in the US right now, when his entire career is taken into consideration. He may already be one of the best two ever. But he was certainly not one of the best at the Trials. Same thing for Khadevis Robinson. KD has been America's best for a long time, just not last week.
The toughest thing about the Olympics isn't qualifying, it's preparing for qualifying. You only get the chance every four years. And in the US, the competition is too good to miss it (or fake it) and get in. Even in the distances. Many top US athletes aren't going to Beijing. From a "potential medals" standpoint, the team is probably weaker for them not being there. But from a process standpoint, I can't think of a race where I would argue the best three at the Trials aren't going, except maybe the 800m (but Bennett should have gone for the time, and KD...well, after his 6th in the prelim, he obviously wasn't in top form).
"Fortune favors the bold" -- Shalane Flanagan said this after her 10,000 meter victory and it was never more true than at these Trials. In both of the 10k races, the top three created separation early and ran away to victory. Same in the women's 5k. The men's 5k saw five guys go, which led to a gut-wrenching last 1000 meters that saw Solinsky and Asmerom just miss it. Which goes to show that the favors of fortune are never guaranteed, no matter how bold. But would they have had a shot if they'd let the top three get away from them?
There is a difference between bold and reckless, too. But you don't always get to know where that line is until after the race. Given the strength of the 800m field, we now know that KD's leading was reckless and Symmonds' trusting his kick was bold. We know that Jennings' leading the 1500m was reckless--albeit necessary--while Lomong and Manzano's tenacity at staying with Lagat was bold. And we know that very few runners without "A" standards were bold or reckless--Jennings notably excluded--when they had nothing to lose by being either.
The best prepared usually win, but the best 3 don't always finish there -- When you look at the winners for each race, you see a striking commonality. They were all the best in their fields. Clark and Symmonds in the 800m. Rowbury and Lagat at 1500m. Willard and Famiglietti in the steeple. Goucher and Lagat at 5000m. And Flanagan and Abdirahman at 10,000m. Across the board, we knew that these were the favorites--or at least top 2--in their events. And these athletes were obviously the most fit, most race-ready, most prepared athletes on the track when the gun went off.
But that doesn't hold when you look at 2nd and 3rd. Especially 3rd. Bennett and Smith in the 800m. Wurth and Lomong in the 1500m. Barringer and McAdams in the steeple. Flanagan and Dobson in the 5000m. And Begley and Torres in the 10,000m. When I look at these fields, I see a number of people I wouldn't bet on in head-to-head races with the people they beat. That's what makes the Trials great, though. Your resume no longer matters. I wrote more about this in this post, but glory is to be had by those runners who are prepared to "race the people on the track, and not their legend".
Momentum and "alpha" energy matter -- I loved the interview Ian Dobson gave to Flotrack (I posted about it here). In the interview he talked about how much "momentum" matters in running, and how when you lose it, it can be very hard to get back. In the same breath he talked about Matt Tegenkamp's "alpha energy": Matt is the lead wolf. He knows he's the best, so he runs like it. And other runners defer to him to some extent because they, too, feel his "alpha energy".
Neither of these are physical qualities. They are purely mental, but they make a huge difference in how a runner performs in championship meets. Success tends to breed success, and frustration tends to breed frustration. That has everything to do with the expectations a runner puts on herself, the self-efficacy they step on the line with, and what they visualize themselves achieving before they race. When you've been experiencing nothing but frustration, the natural response is to prepare yourself for more of the same. Ditto for success.
The runners who were able to overcome that frustration did it by generating confidence through their training, relying on past successes to re-orient themselves, and training with others who had momentum or "alpha energy". If you are currently struggling with "momentum" issues, the above is the best way I know to get out of them.
Training partners make a difference - As mentioned above, I noticed that a lot of the people running really well at these Trials train in groups. Amy Begley trains with Kara Goucher: both qualified in the 10k. Christian Smith trains with Nick Symmonds: both qualified in the 800m. Rowbury and Donahue (and even Flanagan) train in the same group: both qualified in the 1500m. Lagat and Abdi train together in Arizona: both qualified in their respective events. There are probably more examples as well.
This isn't to criticize anyone who trains alone. I know my friend Jon Rankin does, and he's made that decision for good reasons. But the benefits of having training partners should not be ignored. When your partner is better than you, you benefit from having them there to key off of, to learn from, to mimic. You learn to adopt their strengths when it suits you. And when your partners are not as fit as you, there are still numerous benefits to be had. On your off days, they will challenge you. They force you to be an example everyday. When they make mistakes, as young runners are especially prone to do, you learn from those vicariously.
More than anything, though, training can be a lonely, tiring, soul-grinding experience. Especially when things aren't going well. So having someone there to lighten the mood, to talk with during cool-downs, or simply to look at and say, "He did it, and I know how he did it, so there's nothing stopping me from doing it," can be a huge advantage when preparing for an event like the Trials. I think this goes a long way to explaining why Christian Smith, Amy Begley and Erin Donahue qualified. They really weren't among the top 3 in their events, but they trained with the best and were able to use that knowledge to their advantage come race day.
Champions have overcome adversity -- This stood out to me more than any others right from the beginning. And when I say "champions", I'm not only referring to the winners. When you look at every qualifier, you find a background story that includes a major injury, a life of poverty, a difficult transition period, etc. They had entire years where they either couldn't run or struggled to the point that they wondered if they'd ever get to where they wanted to be. And some, like Lomong, have life stories that are so filled with adversity you have to imagine the pressure of a track race is nothing at this point.
Persisting in the face of adversity is one of the defining characteristics of successful people. This doesn't mean they do the same thing over and over until they are successful. That's called being stubborn. Stubborn can be good, but not when what you're doing just creates more adversity for you (injuries, illness, weight gain, etc.). What successful people do is always keep the goal in sight, despite the detours on the way to achieving it.
"He who has a why can bear almost any how." Nietsche said that way back whenever Nietsche lived. And he's absolutely right. I would add to that, however, that if your "why" is strong enough, you will find your "how". When you run into those tough times in your training or life, when you suffer that injury or illness or loss of a loved one, remember that it's something that can and will be overcome. If your "why" is strong enough.