RACING RULES AT USATF INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

USATF_2015_Indoor_Championship_Logo.jpg.aspxIn 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.

Lauren Wallace holds the rail and takes the win in women's 1000m.

Lauren Wallace holds the rail and takes the win in women’s 1000m

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.

Loxsom romps to first national title and second American record in 600m (1:15:33)

New England native Cas Loxsom romps to first national title and second American record in 600m (1:15:33)

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.

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11 thoughts on “RACING RULES AT USATF INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

  1. Thanks for airing this topic, Toni. Can you please pass this message on to the network TV stations who kept apologizing last weekend for the lack of pacers for some reason and it’s “slow” – with commentators who lack the wit and wisdom to call a real race and cannot operate in the moment. How many times were the ‘predicted winners’ focussed on and other athletes ignored or misidentified – in the two-mile for example, “Leading is Liz Costello” mysteriously morphing half a lap later into “and now Sydney Fitzpatrick in the lead” without a change of individual – amazing! How many of the commentators pointed out that in this tactical race they went through the first mile in 5:11 but ran 4:33 for the second mile – compares ‘very well’ to the mile winning time of 4:34 but that was a tactical race as well – Shannon running (2:27/2:07).

    Running is about racing and that’s why the Olympics perhaps are so popular with the masses. If we sold the IAAF World Championships on the promise of competition where new stars are born we might have more followers than when we present solely on the cult of the media selected ‘star’. Meet directors are to blame as well. Some paced races are interesting but the lifeblood of our sport is all about COMPETITION.

    • Peter,

      It is the give and take of competition that compels attention, not the endless (and mostly fruitless) quest for records. Records are great, but they should be the cherry atop the cake, not the purpose of the bake-off! TR

  2. Toni: Don’t know whether this will get to you or not. Not sure if I have your email or not. If I don’t hear back from you I will try harder. The below is for your FYI… http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/the-current/the-stream/How-Accurate-Is-McFarland-USA.html Did you see McFarland USA yet? I would recommend it…..for you and Toya to go take in. Certainly no waste of time or money and might make for a good blog topic. Your reaction to it? Craig Craig Virgin csvirgin@aol.com craig@craigvirgin.com (618)-792-1845 mobile

    • Craig,

      I read your comments on the movie from your twitter of FB page link. Toya and I haven’t seen it yet, but plan to. I agree that fudging the eight year journey into a single calendar year is pretty dishonest, and completely mischaracterizes the job the coach did over the long haul. We can’t mythologize our sport by short-changing the delayed gratification that makes the pay off so worthwhile. I’ll let you know more after we’ve seen it. Best, as always. Toni

      • I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but McFarland, USA isn’t really a “running” movie (even less so than Chariots of Fire, Running Brave, etc.). It’s a movie about a place and culture that most Americans never see or think about, where running just happens to be the vehicle that helps a bunch of kids change their lives. Focusing too much on the running will ruin the picture for you.

  3. Amen. I’ve been saying this for years and it is wonderful to finally hear someone else that actually understands what a track “race” is supposed to be – a “race” among competitors, not a time trial for the “elite”.

  4. This is track and fields version of American Idol, where we have a handful of people with talent wittled down by popularity to one grand winner who we all should make rich by buying their product. Politics, same story. Give me Leo Manzano in an important race anytime, whoever his shoe deal is with. Racer vs. pacer , I’ll take racer every time. Track is great because it is athlete against athlete in a pure form and the outside corner of the baseball plate doesn’t change with batter or pitcher in races without rabbits!

  5. Great article Toni and totally agree – pure racing at it’s best without pacers. Now the racers have to use their brains and figure out their best strategy and adapt to race situations without the help of a pacer.

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