June 2005
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE MILE RELAY. After all, it’s the event du jour in this issue, in this, the year of the quartermiler. Or, if you prefer to use a more modern parlance, call it the 4x4. At the risk of painting myself as irrevocably stuck in the past I just can’t wrap my tongue around “1600-meter relay.” For me it’ll always be the event that quartermilers run.

Or, more to the point wannabe quartermilers. Sure, the big-time university teams tend to stock their 4x4s with a full roster of long sprinters these days (and that’s somewhat a shame, in these tight times where there are only a dozen scholarships to burn).

But remember back when you were coming through the ranks as a high schooler? Just about everybody but the throwers ended up filling in on a mile-relay squad at some time or other, right? And if you did, you learned one of the elemental laws of the sport: there’s no other event that at the same time is so much fun to contest yet so painful.

The strategy was elementally simple and elegant for all the neophytes. Go out as hard as you could for the first 200, then do it again! Didn’t matter whether you were in the lead (gotta hold off the guy behind you at all costs) or trailing (gotta catch the guy in front of you at all costs).

Even if you were a triple jumper or a pole vaulter, it was amazing how far that relay-induced adrenaline rush could carry you when running at full runway speed for 4–5 extra runways. You blasted the turn, floated down the backstretch at high speed, cruised around that second curve, thinking you looked just like Michael Johnson in his prime.

Then, inevitably, you headed into that final stretch. Which brought the first inkling that all was not well with the world. What used to be a quick dash of a mere 100 meters now looked for all the world—assuming your eyes could still focus that far ahead—like an old 220 straightaway. Are those ants at the finish line?

And then you discovered you had company. And I don’t mean the guys you were running against. I mean “the bear”—that 500lb monster that jumped on your back when you weren’t looking. Mr. Rig. Instead of Michael Johnson you realized you looked more like Michael Jackson. You thought you were moving forward but that moonwalk your stride had morphed into was convincing you that you must be moving backwards. The finish line just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. And what was that horrid sound? Oh, just your lungs crying out for more air.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. It became time to cheat! You thought of your girlfriend in the stands and how she’d smother you with affection if you could just hold on. You imagined college recruiters banging down your door, gushing over your speed and bravery.

Eventually—but never soon enough—you crossed the line. But you weren’t a quartermiler, so there was a real racer to follow, and you couldn’t get rid of the baton fast enough. It only served to remind you that you’ll never do that again. Or if you did, you certainly wouldn’t eat three bags of peanuts in the half hour before the race. And what about the feeling when you discovered that you hadn’t even broken 50?

But the next week, there you were again. This time you had it figured out. You’d conserve some energy in the first 200, then come kicking home. But as soon as you got that magic adrenaline-laden stick…