Running the 4×400 Relay

One thing I know about high school track and field is that no matter how small your team, no matter how weak and infirm it might appear compared to the Brocktons and Newton Norths of the world, you can always scrape together a 4×400 team. And when you do assemble a team from your spare parts (sprinters who consider one lap to be a distance race, distance runners who consider 400m to be the “start,” and miscellaneous jumpers and throwers), there’s a little magic that happens.

There’s just something about getting that baton that makes an otherwise mild-mannered kid run like an agitated wildebeest, galloping around the first turn at a ferocious clip all heedless of the lactic quicksand to come. It’s a beautiful sight, really, and what’s even more cool is when the kid pulls it off, reveals a hidden toughness, and runs some ridiculous split that’s way faster than what anyone was expecting.

The 4×400 comes at the end of the meet, and because all the other events are over, all the kids from all the teams ring the track and scream their heads off, urging their friends on, imploring them to fight for every inch. In the middle of all that chaos, the kids who are running suddenly discover something in their legs and lungs and hearts that they didn’t know they had. When they finish, they’re completely spent from the intense physical and mental effort, but insanely happy to find that they are still alive.

On Wednesday, CA’s track team competed against Phillips Academy in Andover, with Cushing Academy, and Pingree School. Phillips is a strong D1 program and we had no chance against them. But we were scrappy, and we were trying to compete anywhere we could. As the meet wound down, CA’s boys and girls had only one first-place finish for the entire day, Finn’s victory in the 1500.

We managed to field a team for the girls 4×400, and they competed well but still managed only third. The highlight was a strong leg from Jessie, who had never run longer than 200m in her life, but ran the second leg of the 4×4 like a pro, making up ground on both teams in front of her.

That left the boys 4×400 as the last event. Now, I’m sure Phillips didn’t run their best team and probably used the race to give their second-tier 400/800 guys a chance. But if they were going to run their “B” team, that made us all the more keen to beat them. Our “A” team drew from all four classes, with Sam, a freshman 800m runner, Sean, a sophomore sprinter, Finn a junior and our fastest mid-d guy, and Bryan, a senior 800 guy.

We decided to put the pressure on early, with Finn running the leadoff leg. He took it out hard and had made up the stagger and more as he entered the backstretch. He continued to pull away, and handed off to Sean with a healthy lead, splitting 51.8. Sean, who had run exactly one previous 400 leg, took two seconds off his previous time, splitting 57.9 and maintaining CA’s big lead as he passed off to Sam.

Sam, who was running only because we couldn’t use Alexis who had run the open 400, had the unenviable task of holding a lead against someone who was closing with every step. He managed to keep the lead, barely, running a PR split of 60.0 before handing off to Bryan.

In any 4×400, the most important legs are the first and last. The first guy has to be fast, but the last guy has got to have that do-or-die anchor mentality. So Bryan is not nearly as fast as Finn, but Bryan really, really hates to lose and will destroy himself to get to the line first.

Around the first turn, the Phillips Academy anchor closed the gap on Bryan and pulled into the second lane to pass. Bryan held him off for a while, but mid-way down the back-stretch the PA guy accelerated and went by. Everyone was screaming by then, and with 200 to go it looked like the host school would pull out the win. But Bryan was not done. Rolling like a freight train into the home straight, he pumped his arms and drew even. For a moment, it looked like maybe the two anchors would side by side to a photo finish, but with 30m to go, the PA anchor faltered, and Bryan stormed past. He won going away, setting off a raucous celebration from the Concord side including parents and coaches. Watching Bryan get mobbed by the entire team, I had the feeling he had been waiting for this moment his entire life.

Man, if you don’t love a good high school 4×400 relay, you’re just not a fan of high school track.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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