Saturday, July 11, 2009
How to Win the 4x1 in Berlin
The one thing that World Championships and Olympic Games have that is missing from most other meets is the relays - the 4x1 and the 4x4. These events are quite possibly the most exciting on any track docket when they are contested, as they are fast, involve several athletes, and have a lot of action and movement among the teams.
With only a few weeks left until the start of the World Championships in Berlin, most countries will be looking to solidify their squads for Worlds. Putting together teams for the 4x4 is pretty straight forward - put your four best quarter milers on the track and let them have at it. But the 4x1 is more of a chess match. The handoffs are done blindly and require a great sense of timing to execute properly. And while three legs of the 4x4 are identical (leadoff requiring blocks and utilizing a stagger) each of the four legs of the 4x1 are pretty unique. Which means that placement of personnel becomes a little trickier.
We head to Berlin in the aftermath of relay disaster in Beijing. A botched baton handoff put us out of the competition before we could get down the finish straight. To add insult to injury, we lost the world record in the process as Jamaica set a new standard - the first time since 1991 that we have not held the global record!
As such, Berlin presents 3 goals for the US men's squad this year.
1. Get the stick from the starting blocks to the finish line.
2. Defeat rival Jamaica and bring home the gold.
3. Set a new world record in the process.
So in anticipation of the excitement of the 4x1 in Berlin, I'm going to look at the needs of the relay and the squad that I think should take to the track for Team USA. So here is my "Theory on Relay Construction".
I'll start by saying that there are two things that I DON'T feel you have to have A) Stars, B) pure 100 meter sprinters. Don't get me wrong, if you have a star or two that you can put on the team it certainly enhances your chances. But if you don't, getting athletes that can work together towards a common goal is every bit as important - even stars only work within the construct of the system. As for pure 100 meter sprinters, I much prefer sprinters with 200 meter skills than "pure" sprinters. The relay involves running a bit further than 100 meters and having sprinters that can continue to run through the zones without fading is critical to keeping the stick moving at full speed around the track - not to mention completing the passes. So while our general tendency has been to "put the first 4 across the line in the 100 meters" on the 4x1, I also look at 200 meter sprinters for potential relay talent because they have the speed and the strength to move the baton through the zone, and they often possess needed turn running skills.
Having said that what I look for is:
1st leg – The leadoff leg requires someone explosive. If it is out of the blocks great, but more than that someone with great "pick up", and a good solid turn. You'd be surprised how many 200 meter sprinters fit this leg to a "T"! Larry Black and Mike Marsh were classic lead offs, but one name epitomizes the lead off leg - Jon Drummond!
2nd leg - Someone with great hands, as this person must receive AND pass the stick! This sprinter should also be a great "stretch runner". There is no "drive" phase to work through, so he must be able to "lift" and create speed. This person should also have great speed endurance, since they must be able to push that 3rd man all the way through the zone if necessary. When I visualize the second leg I think Leroy Burrell, Steve Riddick and Bernard Williams!
3rd leg - This leg also requires great hands, as this person also has to take AND pass the stick! But this sprinter also needs to be a great turn runner. He (or she) must be able to accelerate well around a turn and drive into the straight (usually a very good 200 runner)! Classic 3rds were Calvin Smith, John Regis, Chandra Cheeseborough and Dennis Mitchell - and collegiately Mike Conley and Michael Johnson were horses here. No coincidence that all were great 200 meter sprinters!
Anchor - This leg requires great closing speed. It is the 3rd legs job to make sure that the stick gets to the anchor. Now you want someone that can close it out! You must be able to hold on if you're ahead, and run someone down if you're behind - and speed endurance a must! When I visualize the anchor position I think Steve Williams, Carl Lewis, Evelyn Ashford, JJ Johnson, Christine Arron! Again sprinters with solid 200 meter credentials!
Heading into US Nationals, it looked like the difficulty in putting together a 4x1 would be trying to decide who would be left off the squad. But after Walter Dix and Rodney Martin went down to injury the relay pool got a bit smaller very quickly. Still, I think there is enough to put together a winning squad, which brings me to my suggestions for Berlin.
1st leg - Shawn Crawford - Crawford is a wily vet and one of the world's best turn runners. He will be in medal contention in Berlin in the 200 solely because of his skills on the turn. Shawn also has experience running the 4x1 in international settings, is adept at handling pressure, and has a proven history of rising to the occasion in big meets. Anyone that doubts that should go back and take a look at his 19.73w win at Nationals.
2nd leg - Wallace Spearmon - This is where the loss of Dix will be felt as he would have been the choice for me here as he looked ready to have a career season this spring. Without Dix I'm torn between Rae Edwards and Wallace Spearmon - Edwards more of a pure sprinter but a strong finisher vs Spearmon more of a long sprinter but with great pick up. I go with Spearmon primarily on the strength of his experience. He's teamed with Tyson Gay as a 2/3 combination in winning the '06 World Cup in 37.59 and the '07 World Championship in 37.78 - defeating a Jamaican squad featuring Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell. He's been running on relays with Tyson Gay (see 3rd leg) for several years and they have a synergy that money can't buy. He's fast (9.96, 19.65), experienced and doesn't rattle. So he gets the edge over Edwards. It's close enough, however, that should Spearmon's speed seem in question approaching Worlds I would not hesitate to substitute Edwards here.
3rd leg - Tyson Gay – Gay and Bolt are the hottest sprinters on the planet heading into this meet. His season has already been well documented. But as if the times weren't enough to put him on this squad, over the years he has been redefining how the turn is run! His 200 meter races find him running past the opposition on the turn as if they are in another zip code. And his 3rd legs in previous competitions have found him doing the same. If there is a point in this race that is almost guaranteed to blow things open, it would be here with Tyson Gay.
Anchor - Darvis (Doc) Patton - Patton is a solid, veteran sprinter. He runs a solid race, and finishing is his forte - and closing speed will be critical here. Patton is strong enough to hold off the finishing rush of all but Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt - and I don't expect that he will be racing either one here. Similarly he has the potential to make up ground on all but Gay or Bolt. So, for me, he fits what you want from your anchor. The key being to WIN the event before you get to this leg!
Well, that's my theory and my squad, and I'm sticking to it. We'll see how things turn out in Berlin, and how not only the US but the other contenders construct their teams. This is one race that you won't want to miss. It could be the rubber match in a three event series between Gay and Bolt if they end up with a split in the individual events.