It’s hard to guess how we’ll think of 2020 when we look back on it in a few years. Of course, a lot of that will depend on whatever new crises we are facing by then, but I suspect one common theme will be the consciousness of all that we missed while we were struggling to live through the pandemic. From the small, personal plans put on hold, to the great public events postponed, I think we’ll tend to focus on what didn’t happen.
The 2020 Olympics didn’t happen. High School and College seasons were wiped out. Thousands of road races, track meets, and other opportunities for regular runners and elites went away, were reduced in scope, or went virtual. Runners have continued to run, and there have certainly been opportunities to participate at a distance by submitting GPS results from runs done alone, but it’s impossible not to feel the absence of in-person events.
In the world of professional Track and Field, meet organizers and athletes have tried to fill the void with high performance meets with limited events and without crowds. Without being able to recreate the drama of an Olympic final, many of these meets have instead focused on high-profile record attempts, for example, the recent assaults on the Women’s and Men’s 5000m and 10,000m world records. In a season with limited possibilities, one would think fans would be grateful for these opportunities to watch the world’s best athletes take on the sport’s toughest challenges.
Substituting time trials for competitions won’t satisfy everyone, of course; it’s a bit like substituting a veggie burger for a hamburger — and I say this as a lifelong vegetarian! But in addition to that, there have been loud complaints about two technological advances that have propped up this season’s record-setting events: the shoes and the lights.
The shoe issue became a big story in 2019 as marathon records were set and race times among elite and non-elite runners dropped around the world. The carbon plates and novel stack heights in Nike’s road racing shoes (followed by similar innovations in other company’s shoes) seemed to give runners a performance boost of 1% or more, although the advantage seemed to vary from runner to runner. In recent weeks, with new world records on the track, the issue has returned as fans debate the advantage provided by Nike’s DragonFly spike.
The light issue is newer and more interesting to me. I’m referring to the “wavelight” technology that has been installed on a number of tracks to provide athletes and spectators with a powerful visual indication of a given pace, for example, world record pace. It has been impossible to watch the recent record attempts by Joshua Cheptegei, , and Sifan Hassan, and others, without becoming obsessed with the battle of human runner vs. electronic light, a modern-day reenactment of John Henry wielding his hammer vs. the mechanical steam drill.
A lot of people hate the lights. They claim, with no personal experience, that the lights provide an immense psychological advantage to the runner, allowing him or her to maintain a perfectly even pace with no additional mental strain. They assert further that had Keninisa Bekele had pacing like that, he’d have run much faster than his 26:17 10,000m record. I think that’s a wild speculation, but of course there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. In any case, to the critics, the main objection is that the lights remove, or at least greatly diminish, one of the main challenges of distance running, and one of the reasons we watch runners in the first place, the difficulty of proper pacing.
After watching these races over the past few weeks, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I find the lights make the record attempts much more interesting and accessible. To explain why, I want to first try to describe a lifetime of experience with lap times, 1K and 1M splits, and other intermediate times I’ve taken or heard in the course of countless races.
It might strike the reader as obvious, but a split is a summary of what has happened over a slice of time, and is — at the moment of its taking — a snapshot of what is already clearly in the past. Crucially, a split time is NOT an indication of the speed of the runner at that moment. This distinction is very important for proper pacing, as any middle-distance runner knows. For example, let’s say a female 800 runner splits 59s for the first 400 of a race. It makes a BIG difference if the first 200 was 27 or 29 seconds. If it was 27, then the next 200 was run in 32 (2:04 pace), and that is a completely different situation than if the first 200 was 29, the second 200 was 30, and the runner is cruising along at 2:00 pace.
But isn’t this exactly the objection raised by those who dislike the wavelights? I would agree that the wavelights virtually eliminate the situation where an athlete chasing a record makes a huge miscalculation and ruins the attempt before it is well underway. But it gets more interesting. Before the race even begins, the would-be record setter must decide what they will do with the instantaneous pacing information available to them.
In Cheptegei’s attempt on the 10,000m record, he chose to maintain (or, to be more exact, he asked his pacers to maintain) a metronomic 63 seconds per lap, and freakishly maintained this even tempo for almost 5K after his pacers had dropped back or dropped out. The announcers (and I) grew increasingly more excited watching this battle of man vs. electronics. Instant by instant, we could see that Cheptegei was ahead of the lights. We could also see that he was tiring, that the effort was costing him dearly, and the question became more and more urgent of whether he could stay ahead of that relentless blue and green pursuer.
In Letesenbet Gidey’s attempt on the 5000m record, she chose a different strategy, instructing the pacers to begin with 69-second laps, speed up to 68-second laps, and then try to accelerate to 67-second laps in the final 1600 of the run. It was tremendously exciting to see her pulling away from the lights, without needing to wait for a lap split to confirm that it was happening.
But for me, the most illuminating example of the way the wavelights changed the viewing experience was watching Sifan Hassan’s attempt on the women’s 10,000m record in the rain at Hengelo. In the early stages of the attempt, the U.K. ‘s Laura Wightman stayed spot on the pace set by the lights, and managed to maintain it for a little more than 5K. When Wightman dropped out, Hassan sped up, as though she were trying to open a gap on the lights the way she would open a gap on a human rival. It was incredibly impressive, but would she be able to maintain that pace with the rain falling ever more heavily? As she sped on with the wavelights in hot pursuit, the individual flashes of light looked like blue and green splashes left by her feet striking puddles on the wet track. It was beautiful. And it didn’t stop being beautiful — only more poignant — as the lights overtook the runner, and it was she chasing them and not the other way around.
Had Hassan fallen off record pace with no wavelights, we would still have known it from the split times, and maybe from her increasingly labored carriage, but the mood would have been one of waiting for bad news. But with the lights, we could see it happening in real time, inch by inch, stride by stride, and knowing that she was hanging on for dear life (and for the European record), the run became, if anything, more compelling as the lights pulled away.
I still don’t have any idea what it’s like for the runners, themselves, to have this technology available to them. I’ll never get to experience it for myself, so I have no opinion about how much it helps. But I do think that, once the novelty wears off, the technology makes for a compelling viewing experience. It’s not human vs. human, but human vs. the implacable speed of light is awfully fun to watch, too.