Final 400 meters post.

August 24, 2004

We all have things we get obsessive about. Sheila O'Malley gets obsessed with actors and directors. I get obsessed with physical activities, particularly things that can be broken down into discrete components and then perfected. I am actually afraid of the game of golf for I know that if I get hooked I will literally spend hours breaking down and rebuilding my swing.

One of the things I have obsessed on in the past is sprinting. Watching the sprinters this year I finally figured out why I have huge traps, the muscles that rise from the shoulders to the neck, despite not being all that strong. I was a high school sprinter, and the sprinting motion builds traps, and we wear the body we build for ourselves as adolescents. Genetics plus activity equals body shape.

I stayed up to watch the 400 last night. I read for class with the gymnastics turned down low, then put my work down and turned up the volume when the interesting stuff came on the TV. It was a good race, a classic battle between the two 400 strategies.

Otis Harris ran the way I described below. He went out very hard with a great quick start. He then drove hard on the first turn and was ahead at the start of the back straight. He worked fast down that straight, increasing his lead, then powered through the third and fourth turns and tried to hold on at the end. This is the recipe for a fast time, and he ran a personal best. Alas, he also started to lock up in the last 30 meters or so - you could see is motion contracting, his face bugging out in pain.

Jeremy Wariner, by contrast, ran a more tactical race. He did not press at the start, relaxed through the back straight despite moving quickly, and then drove hard through the turn and raced to the finish. This is an approach that usually helps a runner win the race, but does not always lead to the fastest time -- it is psychologically much easier to run someone down than to hold someone off. In his case, however, he has a wonderful built in clock, and hit the 200 split right where he wanted to and with enough energy for the finish. He also ran a personal best, and won in the last 30 meters edging Harris at the end.

It was a great race.

I was wondering why track and field is not more popular in the U.S.. On the one hand, the sprint events are easy to grasp - almost everyone has run around a track once. The athletes are visible, wearing a little less clothing than modern basketball players, and their personalities come through clearly. There are lots of breaks for snack foods between heats and between events; a day at the races can be a good time, with the same relaxation between exertion that you get between pitches in baseball, plays in football. And yet, it is not popular.

I suspect that this is because almost every event has a new cast of runners. You can not, for example, put your binoculars on the split end and watch his duel with the corner back play after play after play. You can not see a pitcher work his way out of a jam, or a jump-shooter regain his touch, or a rebounder get mad. Instead each race is largely self-contained. This leads to a lack of narrative, and so a track meet instead of being a single, coherent, athletic event, is a montage of moments, each compelling, but not all connected.

Dual and triple meets, like what you find all spring at your local high school, do have a narrative. People run in multiple events, there is a focus on points, and even the person who gets beat badly can still pick up a point for the team by coming back to third.

Come spring, check the local high-school and college schedules, and consider taking a box of chicken and some soda down to the track. Watching a race, a contested race or especially a person struggling in a race, is oddly compelling. For that matter, every town has a marathon, half-marathon, or high-profile road race these days. Toddle down and spend a weekend morning shouting encouragement at the runners. It is a good spectator sport because they can hear your cheers, your cheers mean something to the runner, and the crowd and the athlete combine to create a moment of shared performance.

I took a nap this morning after my jog. As I lay there, I dreamed about sprinting.

Posted by Red Ted at August 24, 2004 01:02 PM | TrackBack