The IAAF World Relay Championships, held over the weekend in Nassau, The Bahamas, has become a legitimately interesting and entertaining meet. After a successful inauguration in 2014, this year’s edition turned out to be hugely entertaining, especially if you were rooting for the United States.
For whatever reason, U.S. athletes and officials decided to take this early season meet seriously, and the result was a squad that had a legitimate shot to win every one of the ten relays. In the end, bad baton passes in the 4x200s and the quality of Jamaica’s women’s 4×100 team denied the U.S. a clean sweep, but the Americans did manage to win seven of the events, beating inexperienced Kenyan teams in the DMRs and 4x800s and Jamaica’s men in the 4×100, not to mention the defending Olympic Champion Bahamas 4×400 team that was running in front of its insanely loud home crowd.
It was pretty clear that the U.S. athletes were having a wonderful time. After anchoring the U.S. women’s DMR team to a victory and world record on Saturday night, Shannon Rowbury couldn’t stop grinning. After the golden baton presentation on Sunday night, the entire team began dancing. In the jaded world of professional track and field, it was unexpectedly great to see all the athletes having such a good time, reveling in each other’s company.
With 2016 being an Olympic year, the World Relays Championship won’t return until 2017. I’m predicting it now: it will be a great meet.
Meanwhile, here are a couple of takeaways about this year’s races.
No Tactical Distance Medleys
For distance running fans who were choking on their power gels watching Edward Cheserek jog the first three laps of his 1600m anchor leg at the Penn Relays, the distance medley races here were something else entirely. On Saturday, the U.S. women won with a new world record. On Sunday, the U.S. men won with a new world record.
The women were very clearly the favorites going in. It would have been hard to find anyone better than the team of Trenier Moser (1200), Sanya Richards-Ross (400), Ajee Wilson (800), and Shannon Rowbury (1600), and the Kenyan team that showed up was relatively weak. The opening leg was fairly tame, with Moser (3:18.4) handing off in second, just 0.2 behind France, and ahead of Kenya. Then, in a dramatic demonstration of why the 400m leg matters on a distance medley, Richards-Ross sped into the lead and crushed the field with a 50.1 split, giving Ajee Wilson more than two seconds of cushion. Wilson ran a solo 2:00.1 to lengthen the lead to six seconds, and Rowbury ran a hard and steady pace from the gun to make sure no one got close. Her split of 4:28.0 brought the U.S. across the line in 10:36.50, twelve seconds under the old standard.
On the men’s side, what Kyle Merber called “maybe a ‘D’ team” for the U.S. won a hugely exciting and entertaining battle with a very good Kenyan team of runners you’ve never heard of. Merber survived a sit-and-kick opening 1200 leg for the Americans, handing over the baton in second, just behind Australia’s Ryan Gregson and ahead of Kenya’s Abednego Chesebe. The immortal Brycen Spratling (indoor 500 WR holder) maintained his position, passing off to Brandon Johnson.
The last two legs were fascinating mostly because both of the Kenyan runners decided to go out suicidally fast. Ferguson Rotich went crazy on his first lap, splitting the first 400 in 47.84. That’s significantly faster than David Rudisha split in his 2012 world record, and might be the fastest 400 split ever run for an 800m race. Rotich died, but honestly not as much as he might have. However as he faded, Johnson caught and passed him, and the U.S., Kenya, and Australia were within 0.4 of each other to begin the final four laps.
Time for a tactical mile? Kenya’s Timothy Cheriyout had other plans, as he murdered the first 400 in 51.9 seconds to open a massive lead on the U.S.’s Ben Blankenship. To his credit, Blankenship kept his cool, running a fast but reasonable 55.08 for his first lap. IOn the second lap, Cheriyout kept pouring it on, and the lead was up to four seconds at one point. But on the third lap, the fast early pace began to take its toll, and Blankenship started gaining ground on the Kenyan. Entering the final lap, the U.S. was only a second behind.
When Blankenship finally took the lead with a little over half a lap left, Cheriyout tried to go with him, but in the end Blankenship was too strong and pulled away for the victory. The U.S. time from its “D” team was 9:15.50, another world record, just 0.06 under the old mark.
For those who like suicidal, rather than tactical races, this was a doozie.
The rarely run 4x200m relay provided one of the more bizarre moments of the meet. At that point, the U.S. was undefeated with wins in the Men’s 4×800 and Women’s DMR, and Bahamian commentators were admitting that the U.S. could conceivably win all ten relays. In the Women’s 4×200, the U.S. opened a huge lead on the rest of the field through three legs. With third runner Janeba Tarmoh passing the baton to the incomparable Allyson Felix running anchor, victory seemed assured. But then, somehow, Tarmoh couldn’t get the baton into Felix’s hand, or Felix couldn’t manage to hang on to the baton, and as they desperately tried to sort it out, the two runners collided and both ended up falling to the track.
There is nothing quite so ugly as a botched relay exchange, and the “ne plus ultra” of ugly is botching the exchange when you have a 25-meter lead.
But there was a strange and intriguing footnote to the disaster. It was these same two women, these one-time training partners — Tarmoh and Felix — who were involved in one of the strangest and incidents in recent U.S. Track history. In the 2012 Olympic Trials, the two TIED for third place in the finals of the 100m. Not only is a true tie (to the thousandth of a second) extremely rare in track, it’s crazy to have that tie affect the Olympic selection. But what was really weird was that it turned out that the USATF competition rulebook didn’t have a clear-cut procedure for breaking such a tie, leading to a very uncomfortable and embarrassing next couple of days as USATF tried to sort it all out.
My first thought was that Felix might begin to think that Tarmoh is a bad-luck omen. My second thought, after watching the replay a few times, is that the bad pass is not Tarmoh’s fault. It looks to me as though Felix a) starts too soon, b) panics when the initial pass isn’t made and turns around to get the baton, rather than slowing but continuing to run forward.
So Much More
There’s so much more I could write about, for instance the raucous Bahamanian crowd that went nuts every time one of its teams was in a race, and was very nearly rewarded by a come-from-behind victory in the final event of the night, the men’s 4×400. Or the victory of the U.S. men (with three members who have served PED-related suspensions) defeating the Jamaican team with Usain Bolt on anchor. It was so strange to see Bolt cross a finish line in second place, that I kept waiting to hear that it was only a heat. Or the third-place team in that race, the team from Belgium that now features three Borlée brothers. It was strange enough when twins Kevin and Jonathan were making Olympic finals, but now with younger brother Dylan on the team, the Borlées are three-fourths of the way to having a World Relays medal within a single family.
But I’ll leave it at that for now. But mark my words, this meet is going to become big when it returns in 2017.