Sports Zone

SPOTLIGHT: 800M & 1500M SPRINTS – Middle distances, and memories

Hicham El Guerrouj and Alan Webb celebrate. Photo provided

”Running is a very simple sport. We like to really make it very complicated, but it’s honestly such a simple, easy sport.” – Donavan Brazier, American record-holder in the 800 meters

Track and field is a numbers-driven sport. My wife, Nancy, has discouraged me from sharing too many, so I’ll try to keep to the essential ones. Truth be told, when I work or watch a track and field meet, it isn’t the numbers that hold my attention; it’s always the stories that play out that keep me intrigued.
Numbers are numbers; some endure and others fade quickly, but over time, stories expand and grow in the retelling. Before breaking down the middle-distance races for you, I’d like to share two enduring stories from the 2001 Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.
At the 2001 ”Pre,” my daughter Ruby and I sat 10 rows up from the finish line directly behind Pre’s parents, Elfriede and Raymond Prefontaine. It was a great place to watch the races. Beside us was a track and field coach whom we befriended and who shared race insights all afternoon.
In the much-anticipated 800-meter women’s race, the two favorites were American Suzy Favor Hamilton and three-time world and Olympic champion Gabriela Szabo, from Romania. Early in the second of the two-lap race, Favor Hamilton broke away from Szabo and charged ahead (I don’t even remember the other runners). Her strategy was clear: open a big lead and withstand Szabo’s closing charge.
With about 300 meters remaining, Favor Hamilton had what seemed like an insurmountable lead of 30-40 meters. That’s when the coach told us, ”Too early.” I asked in disbelief, ”Too early?”
”Just watch,” he said as Favor Hamilton entered the final turn with Szabo suddenly closing on her. As the two came down the final straightaway, Szabo charged past, overtaking her on the last stride.
”That’s what I meant by too early,” he said.
Both runners had made tactical decisions in the race. Favor Hamilton’s was to make an early move, grab a big lead and maybe goad Szabo into using some of her closing speed to stay with her. Szabo’s wise decision was not to bite when Favor Hamilton went out and instead trust that she could run down Favor Hamilton at the end. As Matt Centrowitz says, ”It’s more mental than physical.”
The second memory from that day was the mile race that included the fastest miler in history, Hicham El Guerrouj, and a kid named Alan Webb – who set an American high school record running that day in the Pre with El Guerrouj.
El Guerrouj electrified the crowd by running the fastest mile ever run in the United States (3:49.43); Webb finished at 3:53.43 in fifth place. Usually, fifth place in anything does not bring distinction, but Webb’s time in the mile surpassed the American high school record previously held by Jim Ryun.
Webb’s achievement seemed willed for by an encouraging Hayward Field audience as he closed the race with a scorching 55-second final lap, becoming one of 12 runners under four minutes.
The race was a display of both speed and human synergy. Forces came together: El Guerrouj, Webb, the Hayward Field crowd and a field of great runners all synchronized to transcend the impossible. In a day filled with historic numbers, it wasn’t the numbers that won the day so much as the hearts and souls of all present.



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