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Distance Runner’s Guide to Track: The 4×100 Relay

March 18, 2011

Today we move ahead to the intricate choreography of track and field, the 4 x 100 meter relay.  Four people, one lap around the track, with a baton that has to be exchanged inside a 20-meter long zone.  You would think this race is all about having the fastest people, since no one is going to get tired in their 100-meter leg, and that is somewhat true.  But 15% of the race is inside the exchange zone, and while you can’t totally make up for being slow by having good exchanges, you can certainly ruin being fast with bad exchanges.

A sprinter can go more than half-a-second faster from 20m to 120m than they can from 0 to 100 meters, and this is the focus of everything in the 4×100.  There is a 10-meter acceleration zone before the start of the exchange zone.  (On a track, the exchange zone is usually marked by two yellow triangles whose tips point toward the middle of the zone.  The acceleration zone is marked by a smaller triangle that points toward the exchange zone.)  The runner who will be receiving the baton can start running as early as the beginning of the acceleration zone, as long they don’t actually receive the baton before entering the exchange zone.  That means a runner could have as much as 20 meters to accelerate before getting the baton if they take it in the middle of the exchange zone, or almost 30 meters’ acceleration if they take the baton at the very end of the zone.

The goal in the 4×1 is to have the exchange take place without the baton slowing down.  This is usually not quite possible, since a fast sprinter will not be up to full speed even after 30 meters, but you can come very close if the outgoing runner times their start precisely.  To do that, teams do a lot of practice to figure out exactly how much of a head-start they need to give the outgoing runner so the incoming runner just barely catches up inside the exchange zone.  If you watch teams lining up for the 4×1, you will see runners for every leg other than the leadoff counting off steps and putting down marks on the track to help them get the timing right.

If a team has determined its marks correctly, a bad exchange (with the possible exception of a dropped baton) is almost always the fault of the outgoing runner.  Very often people get anxious and start too soon, especially if another team is passing them before their own runner arrives.  This means getting disqualified (“DQ’d”) for running out of the zone before exchanging the baton, or slowing way down to allow the incoming runner to catch up.  Starting too late is not quite as bad – usually the incoming runner can slow down a little to adjust – as long as the outgoing runner knows not to put their hand back for the baton before they get into the exchange zone.  A very common type of bad exchange occurs when the timing was actually pretty good, but the outgoing runner panics and slows down to get the baton.

The legs in a 4×1 are quite different.  The leadoff runner needs to be good at starting from blocks and running the turn.  Teams usually put their fastest runner last – to finish strong – or second, because by adjusting the exchanges you can have a second or third runner go up to 15 meters extra.  Running the turn is an extra skill that people look for in a third runner – not as big a factor on the first, where the runners are not up to full speed for half the leg, and where being a good starter is a higher priority.

The race is run in lanes all the way around the track, so the team in Lane 8 cannot see any of the other runners early in the race.  You can tell who is leading usually by watching who hands off first, since the exchange zones are at the same relative position in every lane.  Like all sprint races, the top teams are usually placed in the center lanes (4 & 5 on an 8 lane track.)  Sometimes teams may put their best people on the first legs to see if they can cause the competition to panic, and either break down in their sprinting form or actually have a bad exchange.

As you might expect while trying to do something very precise at a very high speed, mistakes are fairly common in the 4×100.  At big meets you will always see DQ’s or teams that drop the baton and don’t finish.  You would think this is result of high school inexperience, but unfortunately the results of the United States at the Olympics and World Championships show this is not the case.  Since there is no steeplechase in high school, the 4×100 is your best bet if you are watching to see something go wrong.

For a high school boys team, under 42 seconds is really good, and under 44 is respectable.  For girls anything under 50 has a chance to make it to state, and under 52 is not too bad.


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