Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Relay Chat in the Aftermath of the Zurich 37.45

Michael Rodgers of the U.S. celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the men's 4x100m relay event at the IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich August 19, 2010.      REUTERS/Ruben Sprich (SWITZERLAND - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS)

Ahh the discussion about relays. Doesn’t matter who is in the race, relays always elicit a lot of conversation. Which is why they should be on meet schedules far more often than they are! Take the recent Weltklasse meet in Zurich. The US team in the race came away with a 37.45 – the 5th fastest time ever and #2 time for an American squad.

Since then message board speculators have gone nuts – because, according to general message board logic, the assumption is that if that squad could run 37.45 then Jamaica has to be able to run much faster! So with each passing race and PR by an athlete the predictions keep getting faster and faster. And of course, according to message board logic, the team with the fastest set of 100 meter PR’s is the automatic winner with a blazing new WR – last I saw somewhere around 36.50 – in the offing.

Of course if it were that easy the US should have won in Beijing given that we sported a 9.7, two 9.8’s and a 9.9. And they should have been chasing a WR around 36.80 set by the US foursome from Athens that sported the same 9.7, two 9.8’s and a 9.9! Alas it isn’t quite that easy, and so the team in Beijing never made it to the starting line in the final because the baton never made it across the finish line in the semi. And while the Athens team did cross the finish line, they did so in 38.08, missing gold by .01 and slower than the first team to run 38.0x – a US WR squad in 1977 with PR’s of 10.23, 10.05, 10.26 & 10.07! None of those numbers make sense!

Well they don’t based on general message board logic, but they do in the real world of 4x1 relay running. That’s why a French team was able to run a WR 37.79 way back in 1990 – without a single sub 10 second sprinter – Nigeria clocked 37.98 in ‘92, Britain 37.77 in ‘93 and Canada ran 37.69 in ‘96. Because, you see, when discussing the 4x1 it’s really NOT about 100 meter PR’s at all. But then again, the only thing that the 100 meters and the 4x1 really have in common is the number one hundred.

Let me explain. You see, the 100 meters is a sprint that starts in the blocks and goes 100 meters down the straightaway. On the other hand the 4x1 has: one block start, two turns, three exchanges, and four sprinters. Oh yeah, the one block start is not run down a straight but is run around one of those turns – so in essence not one single leg in the relay translates directly the 100 meter dash! So simply adding up 100 meter PR’s can be risky business – just as simply running the first four men that cross the finish line in a championships 100 as your team can be risky business.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the hordes of track aficionados that will tell you that the US and not Canada would have won that Atlanta 4x1 if Carl Lewis had been allowed to run on the team – in spite of the fact that he did not finish in the top four at the Trials. Or those that will tell you that the death nell for that 2004 Athens team was the placement of Coby Miller on that squad even though he did finish in the top four at the Trials. That’s because the 4x1 is less about “times” and more about “skill sets” and blending these skill sets into a cohesive unit/team.

Of these skill sets, the ability to move the baton is the most crucial – I know because I’ve watched the US fail to do so far too often. Lead leg must be able to pass the baton, the anchor leg much be able to receive it. The two interior legs must be able to both pass and receive – they should be the most skilled members of the squad. The ability to start well out of the blocks is important only for the lead off runner, as the others will be running from a standing start. For all closing speed is critical, because unlike the 100 meters where you just have to make it to the finish line, in the relay you may find yourself having to chase your partner as he (or she) is just getting going – the fast starter who fades late race in the 100 may fail you here. Your lead and third legs must be excellent on the bend, and your second and anchor legs need great top end speed in the stretch.

Of course you need speed – that goes without saying – but long jumpers, hurdlers, and 200 and 400 meter sprinters make great relay runners, not just the 100 meter men/women. And what one might think would be the “obvious” leg for someone may not be their best spot at all. For example, one might have thought that the best leg for WR holder Calvin Smith would have been the anchor leg – because message board logic says fastest man anchors. But strong closer Carl Lewis was the anchor man long before he got close to the WR. Smith was also an excellent turn runner though. So great speed and turn puts him on lead off right? Wrong. Because Smith was a horrible starter. No, Calvin’s best leg was third where he gave other countries nightmares for years! Similar situation for Dennis Mitchell. Mitchell was an outstanding starter, and a great turn runner, yet he too was better running that third leg!

Who WAS a great lead off runner? Well, the best I’ve ever seen were Larry Black on the WR setting 1972 Olympic squad, Michael Marsh from the WR setting 1992 Olympic squad, and Jon Drummond who led off the 1993 WR unit. Coincidently, or perhaps not so, all three were also outstanding 200 meter men! You need pure speed down the backstretch, and since there are no blocks it doesn’t matter if you’re a great 100 sprinter or not – just that you can close well over the distance. That’s why some of the best have been men like Steve Riddick, Ron Brown, Leroy Burrell, and Bernard Williams. And of course you want a closer at the end – either someone that can bail you out if you’re behind, or a guy that can hold off that closing rush if you’re ahead – Bob Hayes, Steve Williams and Carl Lewis come to mind.

So, with all that said, can the current WR be broken? Absolutely – I’ve felt the record was soft for quite some time. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen by adding PR’s. As a matter of fact, if the team is assembled properly PR’s will be irrelevant because the fastest team on paper WON’T win. Yep, that’s my story and I’m stickin to it! I believe the US has the personnel to both win gold in Daegu and set a WR in the process. But it will take some work – there must be practice in order to get the timing of passing the baton right. And we don’t need to wait until the Trials to pick a team – I already have one in mind. I will divulge my squad later this week.


  1. I enjoy your relay discussions. Firstly, let me agree that the US can win the men's 4 x 100 and also break the WR. Let me also agree that relay team's are not necessarily the 4 fastest 100 meter runners for all the reasons you ascribed, especially that related to running from the blocks. However, you may agree that the best runners should come from your pool of best 100 and 200 meter runners ( e,g, Felix for the women).
    An issue of importance which I think is bogging down the US chances is in not properly assessing the pairings, (i.e. who hands the baton to whom) and which hand one is comfortable in receiving the baton in. A secondary point that I have made here before is the 'vibes between' the runners paired together. Allow me to expand on each point.
    In determining the pairings, the height of the receiving runner versus that the delivering runner. In the Jamaican second exchange, a short Frater delivered to a tall Bolt. A risky idea. A review of the race showed the dangers as well as understanding on both their part (Frater is an experienced runner). That pairing with a runner who was not a 'thinking runner' would have been disastrous.
    Many runners are uncomfortable to receive the baton in a particular hand. Switching hands is risky but not as risky as running and not being comfortable which leads to the possibility of dropping the baton as well as not running as fast as you can.
    The issue of 'vibes' or understanding between the runners is very real. After all the markoffs are done, if the runner carrying the baton is obviously fading, the runner receiving the baton must adjust or that baton will never be passed. If there is an understanding between the runners, the 'receiver' is better able to recognise the dangers and adjust. How often do you see runners speeding away without consideration for the person with the baton?
    So while I support your points, I submit these for your consideration.
    Remember Berlin and the women 4 x 100. The 200m champion and one of the best 100m runners, Veronica Campbell-Brown, chose not to run when offered a leg different from her normal final leg as she 'was accustomed to that leg, never practised for it and did not want to jeopardize the chances of winning'. Jamaica won, without a WR. If VCB had run, the chances of Jamaica successfully passing the baton would have been very low. Why? Not only the lack of practise but the 'negatives vibes' from running a leg which you do not like to run.

  2. I agree with you completely ... A perfect example being the disastrous pairing of Marion Jones and Lauryn Williams in Athens - tall passing to short .. Even if Marion hadn't had trouble at the end of her leg getting that baton to Lauryn was always going to be a gamble, even though it had worked two weeks prior ...

    Smartest moves ever (aside from replacing Robinson with Black in '72) may have been anchoring Ashford in '88 and leading her off in '92 ... Both times she was in the perfect place given the makeup of the teams ...