In our time-conscious athletics world we sometimes forget that a championship — hell, any race – is first and foremost a competition amongst athletes, not simply a time trial. Thus, with pacers removed from the agenda throughout this past weekend’s USATF Indoor Championships in Boston, athletics fans got to see a myriad of tactical finals that produced some champions who might not have been considered favorites going in, or been winners if the races had been paced.
When a pacer is plugged into a race a number of things happen. 1) the brain is turned off as everyone — athletes and audience — knows exactly what is coming. The only question to be answered is, ‘can you run that pace or can’t you?’ 2) pecking order is an unspoken but powerful inhibitor, meaning the runner with the biggest appearance fee, and for whom the pace is being established, is automatically ushered into the catbird seat behind the pacer. Another competitor can break that rule if he/she chooses, but in so doing risks losing future invitations. 3) no actual racing takes place until the pacer steps off, erasing a lot of any surprise that might emerge from the proceedings.
As we saw in Boston, however, runners in non-paced races have gears and gas available to constantly reshuffle their positions, both in and out from the rail, as well as up and back in the pack. This is because they haven’t been stretched to the anaerobic edge by a predetermined pace. Instead the pack generates its own speed and constitution from amidst the roiling effort. As a consequence we got to see how the middle distance races in the USATF Indoor Championships became elastic bands of surge and resettle, then surge again as the packs reshuffled every time another racer or two hit the gas to ensure a better pack position for the final attack. This kind of racing keeps both the athletes and the audience in a state of rapt attention, precisely because they don’t know what is going to happen.
In a championship race it is every man and woman for him or herself. Would Oiselle’s Lauren Wallace have won the women’s 1000 meters if a pacer had been utilized? Probably not. And the look on her face when she crossed the line as champion is stark evidence of what she thought her chances for victory were before the gun. But she read the whitewater of the race perfectly, had the fortitude to hold the inside line when everyone else swung wide to find their opening, and won her first ever national title by holding off Treniere Moser and Stephanie Brown at the line.
Exciting, too, was the men’s 1000 with Robby Andrews returning to form with a scintillating final bend and straight to capture his first USATF indoor title. At the same time, as we witnessed with New Haven native Cas Loxsom in the 600 meters, records can fall in a championship race, too. And when it happens it is even more exciting because that individual had to make the commitment to attack early, and still have the strength to hold on at the end.
How fast, how far, how high are all extremely important elements of athletics. And if a track meet sees fit to promote one or two events that have time as their ultimate goal, pacers and all, I say, well and good. But to make every race at a track meet above the sprints a paced affair takes whimsy and caprice right out of the mix, and homogenizes the sport beyond the grasp of all but the hard core fans to appreciate.
If we learned anything this weekend at the USATF Indoor Championships, it is that racing must once again become the calling card of the sport if it ever hopes to reconnect with a wider audience.