Matthew Centrowitz learns the strategy behind speed

April 12, 2012

Father and son laugh about it now. The father, in fact, seems to delight in recalling his son’s monumental misjudgment and subsequent collapse in his first mile as a freshman at Broadneck High. The young Matthew Centrowitz boldly took the lead from the start of the indoor race, secure in his talent and genes. He had been a boyhood star. His father was a two-time Olympian in the middle distances. ¶  The band of juniors and seniors following close behind Matthew posed no concern until they blew past him, quite suddenly, over the final lap. Centrowitz ended up fourth or fifth, stunned and demoralized. ¶  That performance inspired a lecture from his high school coach and a huge nudge in the ribs from his father, Matt Sr., a four-time national champion. His son had clearly inherited his running gifts. But race tactics? A sense of strategy? ¶  Those were two realms in which Matthew, now the reigning world bronze medalist and U.S. champion in the 1,500 meters, showed no precociousness or comprehension. As a youngster, he had no idea that thoughtful, in-the-moment race analysis was crucial in getting to the finish line first in his specialty event, also called the metric mile.

But a handful of early strategic setbacks, underdog performances and a father who used defeats as teaching moments have convinced Centrowitz that there is no greater influence on competitive speed than sound tactics and level-headed execution.

As Centrowitz strives to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500 this summer as his father did 36 years ago, he knows his legs will carry him to the finish line in good time only if his brain cooperates. It took a good long time to learn that lesson. Then, once he learned it, he had to master the art of execution. He figures he’ll be refining that part — and discussing it with his father — until he retires.

“The thing about being a miler is it’s 50 percent speed and 50 percent strength, and you have enough time out there . . . to self-destruct,” said Matt Sr., who coaches men’s and women’s track at American University. “You have to learn how not to give the race away.”

Decisions on the fly

Flawed strategy has doomed many a superstar on a big stage, particularly in the 1,500, an event that can be described as a cross between a footrace, a chess match and roller derby. The race is just long enough to provide opportunities for nudging, clustering and tripping, and short enough to allow for furious late sprints. And it allows plenty of time for monumental mental breakdowns. Some of the world’s fastest milers have struggled to win Olympic or world championship races simply because they panicked or were outmaneuvered.

Certain basic precepts govern the discipline; however, the best approach in any particular race is always a fluid concept, subject to change. A few of the fundamentals:

●Running in the lead, which requires making decisions about pace and surrendering the ability to watch your race rivals, keeps a runner out of traffic but can be mentally and physically taxing.

●Hanging in the pack, while offering the benefit of drafting, subjects runners to dangerous contact and possible falls or trips.

●Running on the outside of the pack removes the threat of collisions, but it lengthens the race.

●A fast pace spreads out the field but can hurt a runner’s ability to generate a hard sprint to the finish or ward off late challengers.

●A slow pace causes runners to bunch up, enhancing the chance of collisions, favoring the fastest sprinters and opening the door to underdogs.

Those truths will help shape the split-second analysis and evaluation of ever-changing race conditions; Centrowitz said he has done nearly all of his learning through trial and error. Perfect execution demands some combination of experience, preparation, relaxation, aggressiveness, flexibility and good sense.

“With me, you don’t want to give me a strategy because there’s a million different things that can happen,” Matthew Centrowitz said. “So going into a race with a set strategy can only set you up for failure.”

A lot to learn

The younger Centrowitz, 22, looks smaller and slighter in person than he does on the track. He’s listed by USA Track and Field at 5 feet 9 and 133 pounds, but the temptation is to demand a remeasurement. His short-cropped hair, bright, dark eyes, dimples and thin shoulders ensure he will be carded for years to come, and belie his increasingly calculated approach to his sport.

The elder Centrowitz, a larger, gruffer and more profane version of his son, competed in the 1,500 in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that did not travel to Moscow because of the U.S. boycott. He won four consecutive national titles in the 5,000, an event he took up seriously after failing to advance to the 1,500 final at the Montreal Games.

Yet he didn’t push track on his son or daughter Lauren, who ran at Stanford. In fact, he rarely mentioned his achievements and even tried to discourage his son’s participation.

“He did a little reverse psychology on me,” Matthew recalled. “He told me track was too tough for me. [He said,] ‘Don’t do it.’ That kind of fired me up a little bit. Looking back, that strategy worked very well.”

At 10, Matthew entered a three-mile race on a lark. His father was impressed with his instincts; he showed an amazing innate ability to pace himself, completing each mile in times that varied by no more than five seconds. He was a natural. And from the start, he always yearned to run the mile or longer.

“I was just dead-set on those four laps,” Matthew said.

His middle school soccer coaches would start him on endurance drills a half of a field behind his teammates; he could outrun them despite the staggered start. But high school middle-distancing running — with bigger and stronger athletes and deeper fields — offered unexpected challenges.

The first defeat — the freshman year debacle at Broadneck — proved one of his most painful and instructive. His father joked that he made every mistake a runner could make in that one race.

By taking the lead, Matthew Centrowitz toiled and labored while the other runners sat back, drafting off of him and waiting for the right moment to make their moves. While he kept his eye on the track clock, monitoring his pace to be sure he didn’t go out too fast, they let their minds relax, settling into easy rhythms. His impatience robbed him of energy at the most critical point: when he needed to summon a late kick.

“That was something new to me,” Centrowitz said. “I had never heard that before.”

Dana Dobbs, the head track coach at Broadneck, gave his promising freshman firm instructions before the next race a week later. He demanded that he stay away from the lead, and sit back and wait. So Centrowitz let another kid shoot to the front and slid into second place.

Over the final lap, he made a move and won with a time of 4:47.

In his third high school race, he stayed away from the lead and won again, this time clocking about 4:38.

“That,” Matthew Centrowitz said, “was when I knew this strategy thing was working a little bit.”

Happens to the best

Moroccan middle-distance legend Hicham el Guerrouj had won no fewer than six indoor and outdoor world titles in the 1,500 meters before he finally won his first Olympic gold in 2004. In the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, el Guerrouj stepped on another runner’s heel with about 400 meters to go, a misfortune he should have avoided, falling flat and finishing last. In the 2000 Summer Games, el Guerrouj took the lead after two laps to push a slow pace and seemed to be running comfortably in first heading into the final turn. Yet he underestimated the closing speed of Kenyan Noah Ngeny and lost in a sprint to the finish.

“I’m young,” el Guerrouj, then 26, said after the race. “Perhaps in four years, I will strengthen my skills.”

Reston’s Alan Webb emerged from South Lakes High as the most celebrated U.S. miler in decades, but he has won no major international titles since his graduation 11 years ago. He broke Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old national high school mile record in 2001 and Steve Scott’s 25-year-old American record in the mile in 2007, but has rarely excelled in big races.

At the 2004 Summer Games, Webb incomprehensibly allowed himself to get stuck in a crowded field in the first round — a round he should have dominated — and finished ninth, failing to advance to the semifinals.

“I was trying to stay outside,” Webb said in dismay back then. “I was trying to stay out of trouble, but I just got myself in more trouble. . . . Stupid.”

His most shocking performance came at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials: The new American record holder in the event waited too long to make a move and ran out of time and track, finishing fifth and failing to qualify for the Beijing Summer Games.

Tales of woe extend to other middle-distance races. In 1984, Mary Decker famously got bumped out of the Olympic 3,000 — a race in which she was world champion — after colliding with Zola Budd. Denmark’s Wilson Kipketer won three world titles and dominated the men’s 800 for about a decade but could never win the Olympic gold. He bemoaned getting stranded in an outside lane at the Sydney Games in 2000, where he was upset by Germany’s Nils Schumann, who hugged the inside of the track.

“I ran 813 meters,” he said then. “Nils Schumann ran 803.”

Putting it together

A crushing defeat in the 2010 NCAA 1,500 championship final taught Matthew Centrowitz that sometimes he would have to throw even the most savvy race plan out the window.

“I knew a certain runner in the race was going to go at a certain point, and I needed to be right on his shoulder,” Centrowitz said. “When the guy made the move, I was dead last . . . [so] I just went outside and passed the whole field. I seriously went from dead last to second place in 100 meters. If you’re not the world record holder, that’s something you shouldn’t be doing.”

Centrowitz climbed from about eighth to second place behind New Mexico’s Lee Emanuel, then moved into the front. He led until about 30 meters remained, but ran out of gas just steps from the finish. He finished third in 3:48.08.

“Everyone finds themselves in a bad position from time to time,” Centrowitz said. But “you don’t panic, and I panicked in that race.”

Centrowitz did not panic last summer at the U.S. championships in Eugene, Ore., where he claimed his first national title, or at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he claimed his first world medal. He simply executed.

In Eugene in June, Centrowitz stunned two-time Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat by biding his time, then outsprinting him in the last 60 meters to win. In August in Daegu, Centrowitz performed with similar smarts. He conserved energy for the first 1,200; then, coming off the final turn, he pushed past fifth place into fourth, then sprinted into third in the last 60 meters.

He broke into a huge smile when he crossed the finish line, his eyes flashing joy and disbelief.

Father and son watched the race together on an office computer at American University months later, and some of that emotion reappeared.

“The way he looks is the way I felt,” Matt Sr. said, shaking his head at the image on his computer monitor. “I was stunned. In shock. Just the way the race ends — that’s about as perfect as it comes.”

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