Love for the DMR

Centrowitz-Berry-Sowinski-Casey-WR-Armory15

On Saturday, at the Armory Track Invite in the Bronx, four American professional runners representing Team USA set a new world indoor record for the distance medley relay (DMR), running 9:19.93, just over six seconds faster than the previous mark. Maybe that wasn’t the most important sporting event that you watched over the weekend. Maybe you were distracted by other things that seemed more important, or maybe you don’t even know what the DMR is or why it matters. That’s OK, I’m not here to judge.

But at least I’d like a chance to explain why the DMR is one of the weirdest and most exciting events in Track and Field. I know this statement will be hard to believe for anyone who hasn’t had the experience of running on a high school or college track team. But trust me, the DMR is a carnival-type event that works extremely well on a small stage, even though that wasn’t especially obvious from Saturday’s exhibition. I mean no disrespect to Mark Centrowitz, Mike Berry, Eric Sowinsky, and Pat Casey, who accomplished their collective mission with admirable focus and efficiency. It was certainly exciting to watch them run so fast, and I’m glad that Nike thought it worthwhile to have them to take a shot at the record.

But the roots of the DMR are not in professional exhibitions, but in team-oriented events like relay carnivals, state relay meets, and maybe every so often a conference meet. The DMR is rarely run in “normal” meets because it’s just too strange.

To begin with, the lead-off leg is 1200m long. Notably, there’s no such thing as an open 1200m. It’s never run at any level, nor has it ever been an official event. As a consequence, no one really knows how to run it. In fact, only the most obsessive of track fans can tell the difference between a pretty good time and a great time, and even they have to think about for a few minutes. But this lack of familiarity is somehow part of the appeal of the first leg. Since no one knows how to pace it properly, the unfortunate milers and 800m specialists who are thrown together for the first leg of a DMR run the whole six laps (indoors) or three laps (outdoors) on instinct. It’s racing without the crutch of intelligible splits.

At the first exchange, the fading 1200m men pass off to their 400m teammates, immediately injecting what the Brits call a ‘turn of pace’ into the proceedings. Watching this exchange is like watching a wounded deer pass off to a fresh greyhound. The greyhound takes off around the first bend, deeply offended by the slow pace up to this point, and then, in the manner of 400 runners everywhere, ties up.

With luck, the tying up will not get too ugly, and the 400m runners will execute a reasonable pass to the 800m runners. At this point, all the teams are mixed up, but you still have no idea what’s going to happen because even though half of the legs have been run, there’s still 60% of the distance left to be covered. Woe to the team that has a weak 800m runner, because that runner will become caught up in the emotion of the race and will always go out way too fast, fading badly at the end.

Finally, after the teams swapped places some more, the third runners hands off to the anchors. And then a strange thing happens. If the race is close, it’s as though someone pushed the reset button and you start a whole new race. The first three legs suddenly seem kind of irrelevant, and it’s up to the milers to settle it among themselves.

If you’re a spectator watching the DMR, what you hope for is that the team with the best miler is buried somewhere back in 5th or 6th place, because then there’s a good chance you’ll see a desperate and heroic come-from-behind charge. In high school races, this can be quite dramatic, since the difference between a strong anchor leg and a weak one can be 20 seconds. Seeing someone come back from being 20 seconds down is one of the great sights of track, and how often do you ever see it happen in a track race?

And now, I have a confession to make. The real reason I love the DMR is because of a race I ran forty years ago when I was in high school, a race that I still count as one of my proudest moments as a runner.

The meet was the Steele Relays, which is still held in Western Massachusetts. Our distance medley team included me and my three of my close friends, John Bonsignore (1200), John Gibson (400), and Peter Chametzky (800). Our main rivals were a team from Mohawk Regional High School that included two brothers, who happened to be among the best distance runners in the state. The previous fall, they had finished 1-2 against us in cross country, ending our long dual meet unbeaten streak.

On that day, John Bonsignore ran a brilliant 1200m leg, staying even with the first brother. Our next guy, John Gibson got the lead for us, and Peter extended it so that when I got the baton, we were leading Mohawk by about 4-5 seconds. I believe that at the time my mile PR was about around 4:35, and the second brother had a PR of around 4:28. All I really know is that I was not expecting or expected to win.

As I rounded the first turn, the Mohawk runner was sprinting all out and as we turned into the first backstretch, he had made up the entire gap. So there we were, together at the front of the race, with 1500m left to run.

I no longer remember all the details of the next few minutes, but I do recall that early on, he took the lead, and then I retook it at some point, and then at the beginning of the last lap, he took the lead again. Down the backstretch we ran, far ahead of all the other teams, with everyone from both schools going crazy. Into the final turn, and I was still hanging on, a little surprised that my rival hadn’t been able to get away. With about 150m to go, I pulled into the second lane and went by him. Almost immediately I realized that he wasn’t capable of responding.

It was in that moment that I knew I was going to win, and suddenly there was no more pain, no more struggle, no perception of effort at all. I flew down the homestretch with wings on my feet and nothing but joy in my heart. My split for the 1600 was 4:32, and our ended up winning by more than five seconds, more than the cushion I had been given at the start of my leg.

So that is one reason that I love the DMR.

Although it lacks the classical appeal of the Olympic relays (4×100 or 4×400) and the symmetry of the less frequently run sprint and distance relays (4×200, shuttle hurdles, 4×800, 4×1600), the combination of those four different distances gives the distance medley a unique drama. The DMR is four races in one, you might say, and the last one a chance for uncommon glory,

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 the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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10 Responses to Love for the DMR

  1. I believe we set a Steele Relays DMR record that day! Still have the decomposing t-shirt in my dresser. Thanks for the memory, Jon!

  2. John Gibson says:

    Cha cha sent that one to me. Made me cry.-Gibmo

  3. Peter Chametzky says:

    But I think we ran 1320, 440, 880, 1620.

  4. Jon Waldron says:

    It’s great to hear from you guys! Thanks for reading, and thanks even more for getting me that lead forty years ago. It totally changed the dynamics of the race. Still one of my favorite track memories.

  5. Tom Porter says:

    Beautiful to see this Jon. I was directed to the blog thanks to a tip in the produce aisle at Hadley Stop & Shop yesterday, courtesy of Prof. Chametzky, Sr.

    You mention that you became serious about running in seventh grade. I wonder if you recall as I do, the earlier point at which you broke away from the pack. As fifth graders at Crocker Farm school, I remember that P.E. coach Don Johnson set us up with an exercise regimen for the month of May: each day at recess, we were urged to run a lap, or more, around the playing field. The distance was declared to be a quarter mile, but the playing green was certainly longer than 110 yards/side; maybe I will pace it off some day. Anyway, most of us ran a lap, most days, and marched back into the classroom to dutifully pencil in our accomplishment on the chart. Some of us even ran a lap in both morning and afternoon recess. But you went out there every day, every recess, and ran endlessly until the bell was rung. I believe at the end of the month we had a bell curve with concentration in the 3-6 miles total distance, and one outlier – extreme kurtosis – at north of 30 miles. We didn’t know the expression then, but you were intensely ‘in the zone,’ day after day. I recall you later left us all in the dust in the end-of-year Field Day race although I’m not sure what distance we ran – perhaps just one lap (which i estimate was close to an oddball 550-600 yard DMR-worthy leg).

    Had you been running before this, or was the Don Johnson Challenge your first ‘harrier’ experience? I know the Mexico Olympics had taken place the preceding summer and we certainly all knew and were talking about Jim Ryan, and in fine fifth grade fashion we all thought those Kenyans had funny names.

    Thanks for the great account; which I am sharing with my runner friends.

    • Jon Waldron says:

      Hi Tom! I can’t possibly describe how much I enjoyed reading this comment. It’s really great to hear from old friends and remember where it all started.

      I will fill in a few details — as I remember them — and promise I will write more about running in Amherst back in the day. I remember that May very well. As I recall, the running program was called “69 for 69” and the idea was to run 69 miles in the month on May, 1969. I do remember running at recess, and I also remember running on the weekends. I would run from my house on Northampton Road out University drive and around the UMass football stadium. One of the things that makes me laugh now is to realize how approximate all of the distances were. Three miles might as well have been ten miles, since they both seemed like impossibly long distances.

      My recollection is that I had a goal of running 100 miles in the month of May, and I thought I made it, although maybe it was 30.

      Although that May was not the first running I did (I remember realizing at some earlier age that if a race were long enough, I would sometimes be able to overcome my natural lack of speed), it was the first time I ever ran consistently. It was an awakening.

  6. Tom Porter says:

    Jon,
    “69 for 69” rings a bell. The rest of us were likely hoping that meant a class aggregate of 69 miles… As with your own youthful sense of distance, my recollection of ##’s may be similarly skewed (thank goodness I work in the investment business now, where numbers aren’t important). Maybe 30 miles was the weekly number, not unlikely with ten recesses, plus extracurricular runs by the stadium.

    What isn’t in doubt is that the difference between your mileage and the rest of ours was an order of magnitude.

    The other thing I recall about those days is how running seemed to be beginning to break out from an ‘athletic’ endeavor practiced seriously by a few, to a popular ‘fitness’ endeavor, yet was still exotic enough that “jogging” was a wild new term, likely to be joked about on Laugh-In:

    Dan: “Dick, you look all flushed! Are you OK?”
    Dick: “Oh yes, Dan, there was a lady chasing me all the way through Burbank on the way to the studio!”
    Dan: “Why? What was she after?”
    Dick: (with leer and exaggerated arm movements): ” Nothin’ – lady jogger.”
    (Laugh track)

    Keep on Truckin’….

  7. jeremy wolff says:

    Peter told this story to Bonsignore at the reunion, and I just looked it up. Impressed by your writing and running and memory. Steve Schwartz just put up a photo of me, Ric and Pete, 9th grade-looking, with a caption that says, this was taken after we all, on bikes, accompanied you on a 26-mile run. Curious if you retain anything of that memory–I don’t. Missed you at the reunion. Smitty didn’t make it, but catching up with Signore was fun. My wife Julie and I played guitar and sang with Rob Siegel, old songs….

  8. jeremy wolff says:

    and to these memories, I’d like to add the mattress high-jump pit in your back yard. A metal bar and a marginally safe amount of cushion.

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