The author finishing well behind everyone.

My Best Race Ever

What it took to achieve second place

Tony Stubblebine
Runner's Life
Published in
11 min readDec 28, 2023

--

The 1996 San Francisco All-City Championships was my last chance for greatness.

I spent most of high school as a mediocre two-sport athlete. For the winter season, I was an under-sized and under-skilled basketball player. For the fall and spring seasons, I was a pretty slow long distance runner.

Before my senior year, I decided my only chance at greatness was to focus on one sport. I chose running.

An important factor to this story is that I was running in the public school district of San Francisco.

The rest of the country is dotted with great coaches and districts. For example, I have a friend who ran for legendary high school coach Joe Newton. Coach Newton recruits kids out of freshman PE class with the promise that their first day of cross country practice will consist of merely 90 seconds of running.

Then over the course of four years, Newton’s runners build on that first day of practice, which for most people would cover 1/4 of a mile, to the point where most varsity runners are logging more than 100 miles per week. His team, the York Dukes arrives at the Illinois State Meet each year in limos, followed by the school marching band, in order to absolutely destroy the competition.

In comparison, the coaching philosophy in the San Francisco public school district was a bit more lax.

Not a single coach of any of the dozen high schools encouraged significant running in between the cross country and track seasons. As a result, the vast majority of participants lost all their fitness between seasons and never built a base that would allow them to run more than 30 miles in a week.

Consistent training was the key to success in the San Francisco district, but in order to get it you had to become your own coach.

For the summer before my senior year, I put myself to a strict regimen of 40-mile weeks with a long run of 10 miles and a single hard workout of hill repeats.

Many of my teammates, and possibly my coach, thought I was crazy and going to hurt myself.

Serious training in the off-season was definitely against the team culture.

Come cross country season, I could see the benefits of my first off-season training. I knocked two minutes from my 5k time and qualified, along with the rest of my team, for the state cross country meet.

By California standards, the San Francisco public schools are one of the two weakest districts in the state, matched in futility only by the Oakland public schools.

In California, each district sends at least one team to the State Cross Country Championships. So San Francisco was guaranteed to send a team, no matter the quality. That’s how I made it to State.

At the State Meet, I beat three of my teammates and two kids from Oakland, while losing to 182 other kids. (The following year, the team from the Oakland district managed to complete a reverse perfect score, with all seven of their runners finishing behind the entire field.)

I mention the strengths of various districts as a way of explaining that my quest to make a name for myself off of just a single season of training would have been unreasonable folly in most districts, but was in fact a very reasonable goal in San Francisco.

To my benefit, I kept my off-season training up in between the cross country season and track.

Our track season had two components. On weekends we’d travel to invitationals around the Bay Area where we’d compete against really good runners. On Thursdays, we’d compete against other high schools in our district, mostly full of not-very-good runners. These district competitions culminated in our final race of the year, the All-City Championships.

During the invitationals, I dropped my personal best times in the 1600m from 5:13 to 4:46 and in the 3200m from 12:03 to 10:29.

A year of training had done a lot for me.

At the All-City Championships, my coach entered me in the 3200m. In California, we often refer to this as a two-mile race, but to be specific it’s 18 meters shorter than two miles.

At this point, after making what high-school-me considered the grand decision to dedicate myself to running, I was still looking for the final payoff.

Improved times and a near-last-place finish at the State Cross Country meet hadn’t quite justified my investment. I needed to stand on a podium.

Before the meet everyone sees the rankings for the entrants. Here’s how it looked for my event.

Bolota Asmerom from our rival school McAteer was ranked first. He’d run a nation-leading time of 9:03. I was ranked second at 10:29, more than a lap slower than Bolota. Then two of my teammates, Ed and Sanders, and one more kid from Balboa High School were ranked 3-5 with near identical 11:05 seed times.

There’s a win-at-all-costs mindset in some parts of America. But in general, distance runners approach racing as about optimizing the allocation of their energy. Even pacing is best. Running the first part of a race too fast and then struggling to the finish line is a disaster.

I had personally seen Bolota sprint the last lap of a 2-mile race faster than I could run a single lap rested. Bolota was a massive outlier for the city.

In the race that I’m about to describe, I saw Bolota at the starting line and then not a single time afterward. He went on to win this race, to run for Cal Berkeley, to get a shoe contract from Nike, and to twice come within inches of making the US Olympic team.

I wasn’t under any illusion that I was going to hang with him and then surprise him with a gutsy kick at the end. My goal was second place.

Based on the rankings and my knowledge of the other runners, I seemed to have 2nd place locked up. I hadn’t lost to either of my teammates all season and the 36-second gap in our qualifying times was quite large.

I’d seen enough of San Francisco racing to predict the early part of the race. Bolota would go out at a pace that was easy for him but too fast for any of us. Then, for some unknowable reason, every runner from the other schools would try to stick with him, and then blow up during the second half of the race.

In response, my strategy was to run as evenly as possible with the dual expectation that: 1) Bolota would win and 2) everyone else would go out fast and fade.

Sure enough, at the end of the first lap, Bolota was in first place and every runner from the other high schools was trying to keep pace with him. My two teammates and I were in last place. I was executing my plan to perfection.

I hadn’t discussed strategy with my teammates, Ed and Sanders, because the strategy seemed so obvious. We would run even splits and they would stay behind me conserving energy against the wind. I would finish second and then they would fight it out for third.

On lap two, I wished that Ed and I had confirmed that plan. For some reason, he wanted to be in front of me. I firmly, and in my mind generously, moved back ahead of him. How was he going to finish third if he wasted energy trying to run faster than me?

On lap three we were still in last place and were receiving the kind of cheering from our teammates that any slow runner will recognize. Track teammates are loyal, but not exactly inspired by the slowest runners. This comes out in the cheering, “Great job! You can finish!”

This is the problem with even pacing in the San Francisco district. To spectators, it’s hard to fathom how badly the front of the race has misallocated their effort. The cost of running efficiently is a few laps of pity claps.

But I was absolutely positive that our plan was solid and could already see the rest of the runners coming back to us.

On laps four and five, we passed every other runner except Bolota. The race was panning out exactly as planned. Bolota was in first, out of sight and hopefully not running so fast that he would lap us. I was in second. My teammates Ed and Sanders were in third and fourth.

Lap six was as breezy as these things can get. I would like to stress that distance running is hard. In the final quarter of a race you’ve depleted most of your energy and have already been in pain for quite a while. I had been pacing my teammates at basically my maximum effort and I felt appropriately terrible.

At the beginning of lap seven, Ed charged past me.

The beginning of a distance race has no room for heroics. But the end of a race actually has plenty of heroic opportunities.

Ed surged into this seventh lap much faster than I wanted to run. It was pretty obvious that the speed change was directed at me and that he intended to break my will at a moment when I was in a lot of pain. Track is both a team and an individual sport. So good for him for attacking.

Ed’s lap seven surge was bad news for me. I was at the edge of my capabilities and had to make a decision. Would I stick to my own pace and hope for the best or match Ed’s pace for some unknown length of time? I thought I was faster than him, but you never know. Maybe his surge was going to continue all the way to the finish line.

I gathered some courage (as much as I’d ever had to gather at that point in my life), matched Ed, and tucked in behind him. I doubted I could keep that pace to the finish line, but was hoping he couldn’t either.

I still remember that decision as digging into a level of pain that I hadn’t ever experienced except in the last few meters of a race.

As we approached the start of lap eight, the final lap of the race, I wondered if Ed had anything left. Most runners would start their kick, a finishing burst of speed, at the start of this lap. If Ed had energy for a kick, I would be toast.

But he didn’t and I did. Part of the hell of the seventh lap had been the surprise of it, followed by the uncertainty about how hard it would get. In comparison, the eighth lap is emotionally simple: you give as much as you can no matter what.

I started my kick at the beginning of lap eight. Passing Ed was easy. He’d put all of his energy into the gamble of breaking me in lap seven. In a few steps I was around him and I could tell that he didn’t have the energy to stick with me. Sanders? He was a casualty of Ed’s earlier surge.

Lap after lap of consistent running had placed me exactly where I wanted to be. I was in second place, sprinting toward my first podium.

Some of my teammates had stationed themselves at the back corner of the track. This is the 200m mark. Once you pass them you have a single 100m curve followed by a 100m straight away.

This is a nice place for fans because there’s less of a crowd and the passing runners can actually hear you. Here’s what my teammates were saying to me, “You have to go now! You have to go right now!”

The key part of that phrase is “have to.” Normally your teammates assume you’re giving your best and say things like “Great job” or “Keep it up.”

They only say “have to” when something bad is about to happen to you. What they really mean is, “Someone is running very fast behind you. I hope you’ve been sandbagging and secretly have enough energy to speed up.”

It’s the cheer of last resort.

Sure enough, just as I approached the final bend, the Balboa kid came sprinting past me. He had been ranked with a similar time to Ed and Sanders and had run a classic San Francisco race.

Untrained and barely tested, his season best didn’t represent how fast he could actually run a two-mile. Then, inexperienced, he’d run one of the worst-paced races of all time. His first two laps were too fast as he tried to keep up with Bolota, his middle four laps were slow and fading. We’d passed him easily. But then his final lap was suddenly full of energy.

And now he was my problem. I think that distance runners have a gear which they call all-out-effort. Once you’ve decided to use that gear there’s nothing else you can call on.

That’s the danger of the “have to go now” cheer from my teammates. It invites the runner to switch to the all-out-effort gear without actually knowing how to measure what remains.

Thankfully I had a little bit of patience. I knew the cheer was bad news, but I waited until the Balboa kid passed me to see how much faster I actually needed to go.

The answer was bad. Compared to the digging I did in lap seven the pain of matching the Balboa kid was unbearable. But I was supposed to finish second. I’d dedicated myself for this moment. And I just couldn’t stand to let someone take it away from me.

I tucked in behind the Balboa kid and let him lead me around the final bend and into the finishing straightaway. It sucked. But I was right there and he’d put everything he had into passing me.

With half of the straightaway remaining, I came around him. This was my all-out effort. According to the finishing pictures, I beat him by 10 feet.

It’s the proudest I’ve ever been about a race simply because it was the first time I’d ever really worked for something. On paper, I’d done what the rankings said I should do. But the reality is that my teammate and the Balboa kid had pushed me to my limit.

Tucking in behind the Balboa kid for the final 200m. Photo courtesy of San Francisco’s best coach, Andy Chan. (His athletes do run year-round and one even went to the Olympics)

I did get to be with the winner, Bolota, two more times. Once on the podium and once more in the next day’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

My heroics and best race ever had been succinctly summarized on the front page of the sports section as:

The only way runner-up Tony Stubblebine could have made contact with the winner would have been by satellite up-link.

Later in life I found myself latching onto a phrase, “Success is more work than you want, but less than you fear.”

I have no idea what work it took for Bolota to whip us so thoroughly. Obviously, years of dedication went into it, and then a decade more of dedication to compete at the professional level.

But for me, all my personal goal took was a year of focused effort and a few minutes of intense pain. At that point in my life it was the most work I’d ever put toward anything. But really, a year is not an impossible amount of work. It’s just that most of us (myself included) are too afraid to invest that level of effort.

--

--