Monday, April 3, 2017

V 7 N.24 (4) Jon Hendershott's Favorite Men's Relays


by Jon Hendershott

Part IV—Men’s Relays.

Relays are some of my absolutely favorite events in our sport. Baton races provide heightened levels of competitiveness through their very team-centered nature.

We all have enjoyed a meet victory being decided by a concluding 4 x 400 (or, as in my early days, the 4 x 440—the fabled “mile relay”.) And we have seen NCAA team titles settled by a concluding 4x4, as well as Worlds and Olympic victories being decided in the relays.

I will start with the two Olympic baton events, the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400, then add comments on a few other notable relays I have witnessed—though I fully admit to never having been to the temples of U.S. relay racing in Penn or Drake (double blush).

4 x 100:
Making this selection actually was easy—well, “easy”—for me. True, I have been fortunate enough to see World Record 4x1s at the World Championships (37.86 ’83, 37.50 ’91 and 37.40 ’93) and Olympics (37.83 ’84 and 37.40 ’92), all by USA squads anchored by Carl Lewis.

But my most memorable one-lap relay was the race that broke another Olympic WR I saw: Jamaica’s 37.10 from Beijing ’08—when Usain Bolt didn’t anchor (he ran third leg) and didn’t run the fastest leg (UB split 8.98, while Asafa Powell closed in 8.73).

The record-breaker came at the Games following China’s, London ’12. There, the JAM foursome of Nesta Carter (10.1), Michael Frater (8.9), Yohan Blake (9.0) and Bolt (8.8) chewed up the field en route to a stunning 36.84 clocking.

True, four-plus years later, a positive doping test for Carter negated the ’08 record—and dropped Bolt’s Olympic gold tally to 8 from his “triple-triple” count of 9. But Carter was eligible in London and history’s only sub-37.0 time survived.

It turned out that the 37.04 American Record by London’s runner-up USA foursome was the one to fall to a belated doping DQ, this one from third leg Tyson Gay. So that AR was negated and the record reverted to the 37.38 run in the ’12 heats by Jeff Demps, Doc Patton, Trell Kimmons and Justin Gatlin. That AR was tied at the ’15 World Relays by the unit of Mike Rodgers, Gatlin, Gay and Ryan Bailey— besting none other than a Bolt-anchored Jamaica (37.68).

Again, I was lucky enough to be in Nassau to see that victory, also high up on my list of most memorable 4x1s. But Jamaica’s London Olympic final is the topper—and it came the day after the USA women had authored their own chapter of 4x1 history. (More on that later in this series.)

London Olympics Men's 4x100  Click here to see the race.

4 x 400:

I have always believed that the 4 x 400 is the classic track event. As noted above, it crowns the traditional dual meet (remember those?) as well as championship meets. And often, the 4x4 decides team winners at the high school and college levels, plus deciding the victors at any level of championship racing.

As usual, I have to name two 4x4s that are most vivid in my memory. Both did occur in championship settings, and both in Germany. One came at my first Olympics, Munich ’72; the other at the ’93 Worlds in Stuttgart.

In the first, I have always felt that the absence of the USA squad from the race actually made it far more competitive. After the disciplinary removal from the team of 400 1-2 placers Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, and injuries to other potential relayists like 440-yard WR holder John Smith, the USA team didn’t have enough eligible runners so had to scratch from the Munich racing. That certainly opened up the event to several squads.

But ’68 runner-up Kenya proved to be as tough an obstacle for other teams as the USA might have been. Charles Asati opened the final with a 45.3, easily the fastest lead-off carry. But the host West Germans rolled to the front as No. 2 runner Horst-Rüdiger Schlöske clocked 44.5, Kenya dropping back to 3rd. Germany held a margin of some 5-meters as anchorman Karl Honz, then the European Record holder at 400, took the stick for the climactic lap.

The West German crowd was at a full-throated, jet engine-like roar as Honz blistered the first 200 in 20.1, with smooth-striding Julius Sang (the 400 bronze medalist) splitting 20.2 for Kenya and ’71 Euro one-lap champ David Jenkins clocking 20.4 for Britain.

Then came the truly memorable part of the race. As the leaders straightened out off the final curve, Honz suddenly felt the proverbial piano drop on his back as he noticably tied up. He was first passed by Sang, then Jenkins and finally France’s Jacques Carette. In just a few steps, Honz went from the lead to 4th—and the crowd noise dropped to nothing, like turning off your stereo with a mere flick of the wrist. The stadium seemed to go dead silent.

Sang capped Kenya’s 2:59.83 victory with his 43.6, then the fastest low-altitude leg ever. Jenkins’s 44.1 finished Britain’s 3:00.46 to tie the then-European Record, while Carette’s 44.8 closed France’s 3:00.65 for 3rd. Poor Honz held on for a 45.0 anchor, but a 3:00.88 left the West Germans short of the medals.

As memorable for me as Sang’s beautifully fluid final stretch was that crowd noise suddenly dropping to seemingly nothing in just moments. It was my first experience to witness a rabidly vociferous European sports crowd—one that reached dizzying heights one moment and then stunning silence an instant later.

Munich Men's 4x400   (This piece of amateur footage is all that we could find on Youtube at the moment.  Unfortunately Jon's description of the crowd noise cannot be felt in the video. ed.)

My other unforgettable 4x4 came at the close of the ’93 World Championships. The USA had been beaten by Britain at the ’91 global meet in Tokyo, but in Stuttgart the Americans fielded a squad with history’s three fastest 400-meter sprinters at the time.

Andrew Valmon started off with a 44.5 that gave the U.S. an immediate 10-meter lead at the first exchange. Barcelona Olympic champion Quincy Watts cruised a 43.6 second carry and then-WR holder Butch Reynolds—also runner-up in Stuttgart’s individual 400—clocked a 43.23 third leg.

The single lap’s global champ, Michael Johnson, set off for his anchor with a lead of well over 30-meters, maybe closer to 40. All Johnson did was stretch the gap with every stride. He came home with nearly a 6-second margin over Kenya as the U.S. obliterated the World Record with its 2:54.29.

Then all of us in the media tribune turned our eyes to former T&FN statistician Dave Johnson. The director of the Penn Relays scribbled furiously as he worked to calculate Johnson’s anchor time.

Finally, DJ looked up and said simply, “42.9.” We all went certifiably nuts and Dave’s figuring was confirmed later by the official IAAF splits that showed Johnson closing in an auto-timed 42.94.
It is still the fastest single lap ever run in the sport’s history. And the overall time remains the WR approaching a quarter-century later. I feel so fortunate to have seen both.
1993 Stuttgart Men's 4x400


4 x 200: One aspect of track & field I have always loved is that you never know when you are going to see a history-making performance—so you better stick around just in case.

At the 1994 Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, a special 4 x 200 pitted a crack Santa Monica Track Club quartet against a “World All-Stars” foursome. My great friend John Geer and I actually debated if we should stay to see the race, since we had to rush to the nearby Ontario airport to catch the day’s last flight to northern California. But once we saw the lineups for the feature 4x2 teams, it was an easy decision to push our luck.
Mike Marsh

Leroy Burrell

Carl Lewis

Floyd Heard
Three of the four members of the SMTC squad were merely Olympic champions: Michael Marsh leading off, Leroy Burrell running second leg and none other than Games hero Carl Lewis anchoring. Floyd Heard, a 19.88 half-lapper himself, would handle the third carry.

The members of the all-star unit were no slouches, fielding on legs 1 through 4, Americans Jon Drummond, Dennis Mitchell and Bryan Bridgewater, with Britain’s ’90 European 200 champion John Regis finishing.
Jon Drummond

Dennis Mitchell

Bryan Bridgewater (Getty Images)

John Regis
As with any 4 x 200 run in lanes all the way, it was difficult to reliably tell which team was leading, but Lewis got the stick first at the final exchange and Carl pumped his arms powerfully in his stint. The burly Regis was coming on like gangbusters, but the finish line arrived first.

Santa Monica clocked 1:18.68 to clip down the World Record from its own 1:19.11 set two years earlier, getting hand-timed splits from the foursome of 20.0 by Marsh, 19.6 by Burrell, 19.7 by Heard and 19.4 by Lewis. The all-star team also just ducked under the old WR with its 1:19.10 thanks to splits of 20.4 by Drummond, a storming 19.3 by Mitchell, 20.3 by Bridgewater and the fastest-of-race 19.1 by Regis.

I even talked John into letting me run down to the infield for quick interviews with the teams, since I had to write the meet report once I got back home. At least I knew what the lead on my Mt. SAC news story would cover. Oh, we did make our flight, too.

That SMTC record would stand as the global best for two decades, until a Bolt-less Jamaica clocked 1:18.63 at the inaugural World Relays in Nassau in ’14.

4 x 800: The second edition of the World Relays in ’15 produced two memorable relays for me on consecutive days. First in the opening session, the U.S. 4 x 800 squad handled both main challenger Kenya and the always-dangerous Poland.

London 800 4th-placer Duane Solomon led off the Americans at 1:47.60, a step ahead of Kenya. But the Africans were subsequently disqualified for passing out of the exchange zone. Even had Kenya stayed in the race, it would have been a tough chore to collar the Americans.
Duane Solomon

Eric Sowinski

Casimir Loxsom

Robby Andrews
Erik Sowinski rumbled to a 1:44.75 second carry that broke things apart and Casimir Loxsom (1:45.59) and anchor Robby Andrews (1:46.80) only had to make sure to get the stick around to sew up a 7:04.84 victory, the No. 2 U.S. clocking in history. Poland finished more than 5-seconds back at 7:09.98. The young Americans took the victory stand to accept their gold medals with exuberant glee.

Unfortunately neither of these great races from Nassau is available on youtube. ed.

Distance Medley: The next night in Nassau ’15, the U.S. DM went their 4x8 compatriots one better, clocking a World Record 9:15.50 to turn back Kenya (9:17.20). Kyle Merber, always easy to spot in a race thanks to his white headband, clocked a 2:53.56 opening 1200 leg, nearly 1.0 faster than Kenya.
Kyle Merber

Brycen Spratling

Brandon Johnson

Ben Blankenship

Brycen Spratling managed 45.95 on his 400 carry, but Kenya had made up the difference and a 1:44.49 800 leg couldn’t be matched by Brandon Johnson’s still-excellent 1:44.75. Kenya anchor Timothy Cheruiyot authored some weird pacing as he covered his first lap of the 1600 in 51.96. U.S. closer Ben Blankenship wisely let the young Kenyan go on his impetuous surge.

Blankenship patiently whittled away at Cheruiyot’s margin, catching the Kenyan on the final backstretch. But then the Kenyan gave it one more shot in the homestretch, yet Blankenship had his own final gear and split 3:51.24 to finish the 9:15.50 to just sneak under the World Record by 0.06, as Kenya timed 9:17.20.

It was better than 9 minutes of sustained thrills the likes of which I have rarely had the privilege and enjoyment to see. And the sell-out crowd was treated to an always-unbeatable reward, a World Record

(Next: men’s jumps.)

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