Don’t blink; you’ll miss the race – THE 100- AND 200-METER SPRINTS

”Runners take your marks … set … !” File image

As a 20-year track official, I’ve had the privilege of watching the world’s fastest humans from the best seat in the house at Hayward Field in Eugene. While far from a runner myself, these are my thoughts, experiences, reflections and descriptions of two of the most compelling events in sports.
American 100- and 200-meter sprinters have a long history of excellence. Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis, Marion Jones, Michael Johnson, Allyson Felix, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Justin Gatlin, Gael Devers, Michael Marsh, Wyomia Tyus, Joe DeLoach and Gwen Torrance are etched into the record books of Olympic glory – many of whom have run at Hayward Field.
With more than five months before the Olympic Trials, much will happen before the runners take their marks at the new Hayward Field to earn places on the United States Olympic Team. There is a lot of training and a minefield of hazards for the best American sprinters, with each one striving to be in top form when they come to Eugene. Getting and staying in shape, avoiding injury and peaking at the right time is challenging.
Sprinters are laser-focused and compelling. In the minutes before the races, underneath the stadium and away from the public eye, athletes prepare for the biggest moment of their lives. Each has a unique routine to settle their nerves. Some wear headphones and listen to music, others stretch or fidget while others stare into space or recite gentle meditations.
In the clerking area, where athletes get their numbers before entering the track, few words are spoken though they know each other well. The focus turns inward as each athlete prepares to channel months of training into explosive execution. If you’re working nearby it’s understood that you don’t disturb them.
Once they enter the track, the sprinters walk to the starting line area for their final preparations. They peel off warm-up suits, and adjust and secure the starting blocks from which they will erupt at the start of the race. There may be a few final stretches or practice starts before officials alert them, ”it’s time.”
Now the crowd hushes and the stadium is silent. The track announcer will introduce them in lanes one through eight. All other events are at a standstill as the starter instructs the runners to come to their marks. The runners crouch with their muscled bodies simultaneously ready and relaxed as they find their place in the blocks.
When the starter tells them to ”set,” all motion at the line ceases and many runners close their eyes and listen for the gun. A poor start can be ruinous and quick reaction time is essential. They cannot anticipate and ”jump the gun” as was once permitted. In today’s technological landscape, reaction times are measured electronically and jumping the gun brings disqualification.
Finally, the gun sounds and in fragments of time barely perceptible by humans the explosion out of the blocks propels the runners down the track, fulfilling lives and creating legacies.

Force = Mass x Acceleration
The keys to running fast are quick acceleration and then maintaining maximum speed. A sprinter’s speed is achieved by applying force into the ground (“punching with their legs”) and how quickly they can do that. Once up to speed, elite sprinters are moving at an incredible 12 meters per second. Speed can be expressed by a fundamental equation from physics: Force = Mass x Acceleration. Simply put: whoever pushes harder and faster goes faster and wins the race.
The Olympic Trials replicate the Olympic race structure, with four rounds of competition: heats, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals to narrow down who is the fastest. Each race features eight runners and athletes are seeded by past performance to ensure an even balance of quality across the heats.
The structure of the races is designed to allow the best runners to progress to the later stages. Usually in the first two rounds the top three runners progress to the next stage. A small number of other athletes also progress as the fastest non-qualifiers. At the Trials, the top three finalists make the team.
The 100 meters is raced early in the competition schedule to allow athletes the chance to also compete in the 200 meters and/or the 4×100-meter relay.

THE 100
The 100-meter race to determine who is “the world’s fastest human” is the shortest and most anticipated in track and field. It will be the most-viewed single event at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. In less than 10 seconds for the men, and a few tenths over 10 seconds for the women, two individuals will achieve glory. With the retirement of the incomparable Jamaican, Usain Bolt, there is a good chance that an American will claim the title in the men’s race. For the American women, there is an impressive field capable of breaking the tape first.

THE 200
The 200-meter sprint, like the 100, is a test of speed and power. Unlike the 100, the 200-meter race is not run in a straight line; it has one curve. The race starts with runners staggered to equalize the distance due to the curve, and as a spectator it is often difficult to see who is leading until the curve is completed and runners are in the straightaway.
The start is important but it may be possible to recover from a bad one. The technique and physical demands are similar to the 100, and many 200-meter athletes run both races. Running the curve is considered a critical component of the 200, as there are additional forces with which the runner must contend.