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,