Are we losing the art of running by chasing at all costs?
Sometimes I wonder if it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the fast runner and the real runner. We’ve seen a rapid stream of theatrical times across the US and Europe in recent weeks, in some cases hard to understand.
In many ways for me times are almost irrelevant now. As they often do thanks to perfect preparations and training methods and immaculate training conditions, it can leave you a bit depressed.
It gets a bit one-dimensional being so focused on time when it comes to racing. Most athletes don’t have much of a choice as the sport sinks deeper and deeper into the black hole of racing against the clock, ignoring the true element of competitive racing.
It also feels a little contradictory when you’re crashing in pursuit of fast times and then lining up to run for a championship wondering what it actually takes to perform on the world stage.
Great shoes are the easy target; the evolution of technology, carbon plates, comfortable foam and stack height, common terms that only came to light in the last Olympics. This will not change.
While I would have loved running in the era of super shoes, I’m not sure I love the predictability of running as much. We all need a bit of uncertainty in life to ignite the emotions and passions of sport.
Lost in it all, there are also more personalities. Alf Tupper was the original comic book hero for racing nerds, the Tough of the Track, with the competitive spirit to never give up, the ultimate underdog with the ultimate finish to claim victory when you thought it was all over.
I think next month’s Indoor World Championships in Belgrade will be exciting, although many fast runners will just catch up to the real runners.
Saying we saw great examples of both, Sarah Healy running fast and running smart in Birmingham last weekend, breaking through a very competitive field to run 4:06.94, a week after her 21st birthday, now the second woman Irish fastest indoors.
The other appeal of running indoors is that you escape some of the winter elements. Runners over the years were known for running in all conditions: nothing held them back, a rest day was just not part of their vocabulary.
Noel Carroll, the great Irish 800m runner in the 60s and 70s, said there was no bad weather, only weak runners. It builds character and strength to face the elements and drive out the demons in your head that prefer to stay indoors to watch TV or read a book. There’s no better feeling than coming back after a hard run in the wind and rain, braving the cold air, coming back with flushed cheeks, the only part of the body exposed.
Creatures of habit, athletes train at regular times on regular days, traditionally, the long run on Sunday mornings, the most intense intervals on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, especially during the winter months when the schedule shopping is a bit more spread out. Like most things now, the traditional calendar is getting a bit skewed, with so many options for athletes to train in warmer climates, run indoors at previously recorded levels for the summer season in full air.
Winter groundwork was where many athletes went to build strength and endurance, braving the elements no matter what they faced on any given day. Soggy ground, hills, wind and rain, cross country weather not really for the faint hearted.
I fondly remember winter nights training through Richmond Park in the dark, serenaded by the roars of a lone deer, so loud there was every chance you would pass each other as you moved forward along traffic-free roads with all doors closed after dark.
The weather forecast wasn’t something we carried around in our pocket or checked on the hour wondering when the wind might drop or the rain might stop. Check out time was 7pm no matter what and with security in numbers you would be sure to be swept away.
There was no exact measurement of the distance, it was maybe 1200m and if you covered it in four minutes it was average; everything else was a sliding scale of faster or slower depending on how you felt. You based the effort on those around you, who you could follow, how you breathed and listened to the breath all around you. It was certainly not effortless; it was a lot of work.
As the sport of track and field evolves rapidly, athletes run faster and push the limits, training is always challenging. Other things are at stake here as well. Since 2002, the fastest track in the world has been Boston University’s indoor facility. The key is the track’s 18 degree incline angle and flexible plywood frame with padded top. With the extra layer of foam now built into most running spikes, this means athletes are wearing an extra layer of surface area on their feet. All of this combined improves the efficiency and speed an athlete can run on the track.
The plywood structure is not a new development, something that was devised in the 60s and 70s by Floyd Highfill in the USA, who used his knowledge of physics and mechanics alongside his understanding of the mechanics of running as a former varsity athlete.
The appetite for speed to test the human body has always been there, initially focused on designed and built faster tracks. The spring given off by the plywood boards and the specific angle of the track is one of the reasons that Eamonn Coghlan has consistently been in the top five of indoor mile times since February 1983, on a 160-yard track, or 11 laps per mile.
What interests me is that the Boston track has been around for 20 years now, renovated in 2002, and has produced some phenomenal times recently, world records, national records, athletes go there specifically to meet the standards qualification for the Olympic Games or the World Championships.
The art of racing is lost in hunting times. What’s interesting is that no one has built a real track meet in Boston to bring together the best athletes in the world to compete against each other, or even to replicate the track in a more central location that would attract athletes from all over the world. world, to give everyone a fair chance.
There are so many fast times on display but not so many memorable races, no life and death moments, moments where the tough guys on the track have a chance to shine. It can all get a little too predictable, when the unpredictable brings out the emotions and passion that deliver memorable races – maybe even fast times in the process.