One way to win is strategy. Alternating tempos during the race, pushing and testing your opponent, wearing him out and getting under his skin until you make your last decisive move and he isn't ready for it or just doesn't have enough emotional capital left to match you.
Another way to win is through luck, which can play out in a number of ways. The heavy favorite could get tripped up and fall early in the race giving you a comparative advantage. Or the race tempo could just happen to play exactly to your particular strengths, giving you a slight edge over the other racers.
Yet another way to win is just to want it more. Whether its racing in front of the home crowd or coming off of a bad season with something to prove or one of a hundred other personal reasons, you can sometimes eke out a win by digging deeper than the rest of the field.
But the last way to win a race is the most obvious: be stronger than everyone else.
Strangely enough you see this situation less frequently than the others in world-class events because, at that level, everyone is as tough as everyone else. But sometimes there are true outliers.
Next weekend is the Prefontaine Classic, the most prestigious and competitive distance event held on American soil, and it reminded me of last year where Galen Rupp won the 10000 m. It went off at a hot tempo, with each lap in 64 or 65 seconds, and eventually they had whittled it down to just four men.
I had seen this situation before, a group of Africans and one white guy struggling to hang on. But looking at their expressions I could see that the situation was reversed: the Africans were the ones hurting, and Rupp looked easy and relaxed.
With three laps to go Sambu made a move to try to shake the rest of the field but Galen moved right with him. And when Rupp countered with his move (a 59 second penultimate lap!) no one could follow. He was just too strong. Rupp ended up setting a personal best, the American record, and the world lead (the fastest time run that year by any athlete in the world.)
As exciting as this race was I'm hoping this year's Prefontaine Classic brings something just as memorable. Galen Rupp will be there (this time in the 5000 m) along with almost every one of the world's very best. You can watch the event live Friday night on http://live.usatf.tv/livefripre.html and on Saturday on NBC.