The Worst Mistakes of the Best

Hard Learned Lessons from Our Sport’s Best

Of mistake and regret the late Charles Bukowski once said “without both in spades perhaps it was a life played too cautiously” and “it isn’t difficult to find those who had regrets just a pisser to find those willing to admit them.”

I’ve sought out some of the swiftest of foot to examine just that: the errors made by those at the pinnacle of our great sport. Through these mistakes we as fellow long distance runners can all learn lessons. Below you’ll find, “Worst Mistakes of the Best.”

Ray Flynn  – Irish Olympian and National Mile Record Holder 3:49.77

Planning & Partying

Ray Flynn’s career was prolific. He was a 2 time Irish Olympian and ran 89 sub 4:00 miles (not including 1,500m conversions) during his career including his 3:49.77 in 1982 which is still the Irish National Record. Now a running based sports agent, Flynn looks back fondly on his career, although he openly admits there’re a couple of elements of his best years he would have handled differently.

“I definitely could have done a better job by not overracing,” said Flynn. We raced so frequently in those years (astonishingly Flynn has multiple years in which he raced more than 50 times!) to earn a living. Being more patient and racing a bit less would have certainly allowed me to peak more effectively.” Flynn admits with good humor one other “mistake” from his high level career. “I definitely could have partied a bit less,” laughed Flynn. “The circuit was quite the social scene at that time and my wife jokes that I would have run a bit better had I backed off that aspect.”

Amy Hastings Cragg – 2 Time US Olympian and 2x Olympic Trials Champion, Bronze Medal 2017 World Marathon, 2:21 PR

Fight for Every Step

Amy Cragg is one of the top runners in U.S. history making multiple Olympic teams at multiple distances (10,000m & marathon). Amy lit up the tracks and roads of the world for the better part of a decade and was happy share her biggest “mistake” from which others can learn. 

“It was the 2014 Chicago Marathon and I was fit. My goal was a P.R. which was 2:27.03 at the time from 3 years earlier and a top 3 ,” said Cragg. “The weather was perfect, I had a metronome for a pacer and my training had gone great. At 17 my legs were hurting but I gutted out 8.75 miles and found myself in 5th. I backed off over the hill with 400m to go as I hadn’t seen 4th for miles. As I came into the finish I saw the clock and realized I could indeed PR if I kicked and the 4th place woman was walking home in front of me. She beat me by 1 second and I tied my PR. Who the hell ties their PR in a marathon?! A few weeks later the woman who won tested positive and was DQ’d. I could have been 3rd had I not backed off! Chicago was a good lesson for me. Every race after that I was determined to fight every second for every step.” 

Keith Brantly – US Olympic Marathoner, National Champion

The Dangers of Impetuousness 

Keith Brantly knows all too well the downside to emotion left unchecked. “I was 4th at the Olympic Trials twice (5,000m in 1988 & Marathon in 1992) and my biggest achilles heel in those races was 100% my emotions. I commonly let them get the best of me and it cost me many times, most of all ’94 in Boston.”

Brantly had trained impeccably for the ‘94 race including a 48:00 10 mile on the track to finish a long run 3 weeks before heading to Hopkinton. According to Brantly seemingly nothing could go wrong. “That day I was physically fit but not mentally fit,” said Brantly laughing. “5:00 pace early on just felt way too slow, so I did what I shouldn’t have and kept picking it up and picking it up so much so that I was well out in front at 14.” The rest of Brantly’s ’94 Boston story was one of struggle. “I was 2:13 that day falling apart, and had I just run it conservatively I would have competed so much better. The marathon simply does not reward riskiness.”

Like all great athletes, Brantly learned from his previous mistakes. In 1995 he at last waited until the late stages of a marathon to lead winning the US Championships in Charlotte. A year later on the same course he finally made an Olympic Team finishing 3rd at the US Trials. He would go on to win another US Marathon title in 1998 in Pittsburgh, once again patiently biding his time to close well late, a lesson Brantly learned the hard way. 

Amy Rudolph – 2x US Olympian, American Record Holder 5,000m

Sage Advice Ignored: The Golden Rule & Altitude Blues

Amy Rudolph had a phenomenal career by any analysis. National Championships, World & Olympic Teams and victories on the roads too numerous to count were all part of the Providence College graduate’s time in the spotlight. Amy’s career like so many pros was one of ups and downs and the latter she admits is where she learned her greatest lessons. 

After the 2000 Olympics Rudolph traveled to Mammoth, CA to train with Deena Kastor, Jen Rhines & legendary coach Joe Vigil. Rudolph was warned to keep her runs over the first couple weeks easy as her body adapted to the 7,000 ft rarified air of the Sierra Nevada Range. “I was warned to jog easily and that I would have to adjust my paces while there,” said Rudolph. “I was excited to try altitude training for the first time. Against the advice I was given, I started to push more in workouts and got carried away with what everyone else was doing instead of my Golden Rule — listen to your body!”

Rudolph said the final weeks of her CA camp were “pretty rough” and she returned to Providence “beat up.” For the long time New Englander the message and lesson was a simple one. Listen to the advice of those with your best interests at heart and equally important, listen to your body. There is no doubt Rudolph is imparting many of her hard learned lessons to her athletes at Iowa State University where she is now the Head XC Coach.