Relaying it on the line

Posted: April 24, 2013

A PERFECT 4 x 100 meter relay explodes with the gun, maintains speed around the curves, accelerates on the straightaways and ends in the infectious euphoria of raised arms, plastered smiles and bear hugs.

It's also a fantasy.

"There is no such thing," said LSU track coach Dennis Shaver about the flawless relay.

St. Augustine believed there is perfection in anyone who even unreservedly chases the ideal. He was also known as St. Augustine of Hippo so there is a good chance he was not a sprinter. But his philosophy of perfection would describe any coach.

Hundreds of them will be chasing relays without blemishes this week as the Penn Relays get into full swing Thursday at Franklin Field. Since no one has been able to clone Usain Bolt, the mad scientists of track have to work with what lesser humans bring with them into their lab.

"First thing you do is analyze the pool of athletes you have," explained Shaver. "The fastest ones, the ones with kicks. Some run turns better. Some run straight better. The group has to perform under significant pressure.

"How successful you are has a lot to do with where you place them."

Shaver, who will be bringing a strong team to the Relays as usual, has been practicing his craft for years with considerable success so he knows how to move his chess pieces around the board.

"For the leadoff leg I usually use my best hurdler," said Shaver, whose women's teams have won seven SEC outdoor titles. "Someone who is explosive and frequency oriented. The turnover is more important there. You need a great starter.

"The second leg I use my best 200-meter runner. The athlete's 100 is great but 200 is out of sight. With 20 meters lead in and 20 meters on the other end, the athlete runs more than 100 meters. If it's done right it's 116 meters and the athlete has to be strong over the total distance.

"The third leg has to be good at taking and giving, a good turn runner with frequency of steps. No long strides.

"The anchor has to be cool, calm and collected. Can't go early. Often the second best 100-meter runner, the anchor has to have great sprint mechanics. Can't tie up.

"If they can run down an opponent when they are behind that's a big plus."

A program with the good bones of LSU attracts a high-quality talent pool. It might recruit four high school stars who all ran the last leg. Getting the anchors to swim and not sink while singing kumbaya takes a psychological coach who knows both tracks and couches.

Egos are much harder to train than arms and legs.

Shaver's 4 x 100 anchor last year was Kim Duncan, who handed off that responsibility this season. Outsiders believe anchors are the stars and the other legs are also-rans. That's why they are outsiders.

"Kim was our anchor and we won the NCAA," said Shaver. "Now she runs the second leg. She has no problem with that. If you teach the athletes and get feedback, talk to them, fully communicate what might be in the best interests of the team they'll respond.

"You get them to believe in the kind of things that will give your team the best chance to be successful. Once they buy into that, ego is not that big a deal."

Let's say for argument's sake the egos are checked as they enter the stadium and picked up later on the podium. That takes care of four members of the relay team. What about No. 5?

The baton has no ego, no brain, just sits there and contributes nothing. A necessary evil. It might be great at conducting symphonies in the hand of a guy wearing a tuxedo but it can create all sorts of discord when it slips out of the hand of a guy wearing a singlet.

It can ruin a perfectly decent run when it bounces on the track as the relay team members writhe in agony.

"It's not the No. 5 member of the relay team; it's the No. 1," Shaver said.

If only competitors could just tag each other in the exchange lanes. It would cut down on red faces and heads in hands.

"No, then it would lose the drama," said Penn track coach Steve Dolan. "I like the baton. You have to get it around. It creates excitement."

Check back with him after one of his team's exchanges comes up empty-handed. It happens to the best of teams, as Olympic quartets, full of men and women of ungodly speed, have learned.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics both USA 4 x 100 teams dropped batons in the last exchange in the finals.

"Maybe someone has a voodoo doll of me, " said anchor Lauryn Williams, who also was involved in a botched handoff in the Athens Olympics 4 years earlier.

No voodoo doll was ever found but emotional scars were everywhere. Passing a baton seems oh so simple in theory. If you are standing still with nothing at stake maybe.

"It's better if there is a synchronized movement of the baton through the zone," said Dolan. "The challenge is there is a short window to get the baton through the zone without decelerating.

"The one coming in has fatigue. The one going out is accelerating. You want to maintain the speed through the zone."

The exchange zones can be chaotic with multiple teams arriving at the same time, with elbows flailing and feet kicking and hands outstretched trying to make a connection amid the deafening background music of primal screams from the stands.

"Focus," said Dolan. "You can't lose your focus. You can't let the loud crowd noise or converging teams force you to leave early or late and throw everything off."

There is a grade-school team in Northeast Philadelphia, which once used a dented baton it nicknamed "Sunny." It had other, less cheery monikers when it fell to the ground. No one wanted to hang with "Sunny" on those occasions.

"The last thing we always say before the relay team runs is, 'Remember to get the stick around the track,' " said Dolan.

In a perfect world, those words are heard.

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