The Perfect Race
The essence of racing is its humanity.
Regardless of the stakes or the speed, whether at the Olympics or in a backyard bet, when we see people sprint off in pursuit of victory we’re hard wired to see who wins.
The sport of Track & Field is structured around this agonizing simplicity: max exertion over a set distance.
But it’s never that simple.
If races were just about time we could look away.
Races are a mess because people are messy, bodies are mysterious and minds weave webs of perception; an adrenaline cocktail of colliding hopes and fears.
At the recent World Championships in London, England one race was poised to contain all the necessary ingredients to deliver this human spectacle,
The Women’s 1500 meters.
The field is filled with champions, any of five or more women have a shot at gold.
The World Record Holder — Ginzebe Dibaba is the fastest of all-time, but her form has appeared off recently. Will she shine again?
The Olympic Champion — Faith Kipegon, Last summer’s surprise champion from Kenya, can she repeat and re-shock the world?
The World Leader — Siffan Hassan, having won all her races this year, why would she lose now?
The 800 Meter Olympic champion — Caster Semenya, The embodiment of speed, strength and controversy. Inexperienced at distances longer than 800 meters, she is famous for her kick, infamous for her genetics. The world of sport may disagree on what to make of her unusually high testosterone levels, what they can agree on is that her kick is among the strongest ever seen by a woman. Does she have the experience over 1500 meters necessary to win?
The rest of the players — The remaining women, whether past world champion Jenny Simpson from the USA,
or European champion Laura Muir from England, could be forgiven for feeling overlooked or ignored. A race so competitive leaves little fanfare to spare.
The perfect race demands the perfect distance, which the 1500 presents.
4 minutes of racing captures the audience’s mind just long enough to form an arc of drama from beginning to end.
Just 109 meters less than a mile, Americans especially understand this distance. These women will race the interval by which we live our lives.
Out quick, Muir makes it respectable, for her country, and for her best chances of winning.
Simpson falls in behind, not to lead, but to find best position. She’s always in a smart position.
Fast enough, but slowing. No one is going to make this race a record, there’s too much to lose. The world record holder and season leader are in the back. Everyone will bide their time.
400 to 800 meters
Nothing happens here, these are dead meters, too late to find position, too early to matter.
These meters are meaningless except that they eliminate the sprinters and make the kickers suffer. Without these meters the race is 1100, short enough for many athletes to compete. 3 minute races only require a stretched out sprint, over 3 minutes demands true “Speed endurance.”
Racing three rounds over 1500 meters demands a special body and mind. And training. Real long runs, true endurance training to build the cardiovascular engine necessary to float at pace.
Muir continues to lead, with Kipyegon now up attached on her outside.
Semenya lurks in the middle of a pack that stretches no more than 15 meters from front to back.
After the race Kipyegon would admit to having led early terrified of Semenya’s kick. Being kicked down is the staple of a distance runner’s nightmare. The haunting helplessness of being dragged backwards as the champion rolls by effortlessly.
As the women round the curve, crossing 800 meters at a slowing pace the announcers begin to reminisce on past championships. The last two championships have been a jog early ending with a sprint. The announcers wonder if this will unfold the same, which seems to distract them from the fuse that’s already been lit.
Hassan, who visually pops from the field in the orange triangle checked jersey of the Netherlands, is flying down the backstretch in lane 3. But no one sees her coming because she started from the back, building her attack for home from 650 meters out.
By 600 she’s passed Kipyegon, and in what seems like an instant, the race has begun.
Hassan wins the break to the rail.
Around the curve Kipyegon, the surprise Olympic champion is determined to cover every move. She pops to the outside of lane 1, tripping up American Jenny Simpson in the process. Jenny stumbles back into Muir, who holds up her arm to awkwardly protect space on the rail. Muir maintains patience, but you can tell this pot is about to boil over.
1000 meters, 500 to finish
Jenny instinctively moves up not to let the world leader or Olympic champion get out of reach.
This creates space that Dibaba fills, streaking past Muir who appears resolute to remain calm.
450 to go
The pack comes crashing up behind Muir like a tidal wave, nipping her heel, tripping her slightly and needling her to draw out from the rail.
Like a showdown in a classic western where one cowboy drawing his gun snaps every weapon from it’s holster into a circle of mutually assured destruction, Muir’s kick is drawn. She moves forcefully from 5th to 3rd, forcing her pale English fists into punches in the air. She’s moving for the lead.
450 meter is an impossibly far way to kick. But Muir is not one to be constrained by the possible. The stadium pitch raises to match her intensity, as if to offer support and reminder her of the obvious: a nation’s hopes sit on her shoulders.
But she fails to capture the lead.
400 to go — The Bell Lap
What follows is 100 meters of excitement mixed with impending doom.
All of the leaders are running too fast. Each of them is mustering as much speed as possible while trying to reserve one final kick.
Hassan won’t relent. Her slightly awkward jutting elbows continue to shift as her eyes cast downward, biding her time.
300 to go
Already running below 65 second pace per lap Hassan and Kipyegon roll hard into the final 300 meters. Crossing the white line that marked the start just 3 minutes early, it now signals the final call: All bluffs and raises have passed, it’s now all in.
Hassan and Kipyegon instantly separate themselves from the field. They’re off the front and will clearly decide the winner. They share two things: world class speed endurance, and deep seeded terror of the Olympic 800 champion Semenya who lurks back out of sight.
Behind them Simpson and Muir are flying, but losing ground.
Simpson, a former World Champion, a 3-time global medalist, resorts to her impeccable form. The more the duress the more ramrod straight and proper her form becomes.
Muir however is unable to maintain such discipline. She bolts for the leaders, clearly determined to beat Simpson to the rail, and more importantly, to not close the door on the possibility of winning a global championship in front of her home crowd. This magnificently fast British woman appears to run with every ounce of proper resolve and determination that defines her nation.
200 meters to go
“This is CRAZY running down the back stretch” yells Craig Masback, interpreting for the novice American audience.
Hassan leads, with Kipyegon shadowing, both fully maxing in their own ways. Where Kipyegon demonstrates picturesque smooth heal strikes, Hassan bounds powerfully stride over stride. Over the past months word of her impeccable speed workouts had circulated around Portland, Oregon where she trains. “Had she REALLY run that many quarters at THAT pace?” people marveled.
Muir, in 3rd, is finally making up ground.
Her nose snarled, eyes tightening into a squint. She will run until blackout if necessary, she just hopes it’s past the finish line.
Simpson would say later that she just insisted that she not let the medal positions get too far away. She knew they were running too fast, and had been for too long. A demonstration of supreme focus and perspective, like a fighter pilot calmly pulling out of a death spiral, she maintains professional poise as all the medals, history and fame are pulling away.
For those 50 meters she did everything she was capable of to keep herself in contention to race the final 100 meters.
100 meters to go — the final straight
Hassan and Kipyegon are dead even, sharing a shoulder. Somehow Kipyegon has managed to match Hassan’s pace on the outside of Lane 1. They match strides, but Kipyegon was running further each meter around the curve.
Followed by Muir — who is in a protected bubble of space in third, followed by Simpson.
And here comes Caster Semenya.
When the Olympic 800 meter champion entered herself in the 1500 meters many people doubted she would subject herself to three rounds, nearly three miles of racing, to get to this point. But here she is, the fastest woman in the field, entering the final 50 meters to the finish, closing tremendously from just..a…little…too far back.
40 meters to the line
Kipyegon is off the front.
Hassan snaps. Her form falters. Grimacing, she begins to lean outward, revealing the rail she’s defended the past 560 meters.
Muir’s bronze bubble has burst. Her stride is refined, it would make royalty proud, but to the terror of the Commonwealth, she’s starting to slow.
Simpson sees the light.
Hassan’s faltering has opened a gap only available to a championship racer who has both remained relentlessly within herself as well as refused to succumb to the demons of doubt or self-pitying for the past 250 meters during which the medals were almost certainly lost.
Simpson pulls even with Hassan and Muir simultaneously.
Most great runners hesitate when victory is seemingly lost. Simpson specializes in preserving perspective under duress. She is now perched on the edge of victory with just a few feet remaining.
The improbable has already occurred, is Kipyegon faltering? Will the impossible appear today?
10 meters to go
Kipyegon can feel the warmth of victory. She leans back, arms wide in embrace. She’s done it. She’s out lasted the fastest middle distance women on earth.
Muir isn’t as fortunate. Supporting the hopes of the stadium, her form falters as Simpson passes her on the inside and Semenya glides by outside.
She came 8 meters from a medal.
Simpson does not faulter. The smiling assassin executes each and every stride. With a slight lean she wins the silver medal.
Semenya leans so far she begins to fall. The bronze medal Muir would have died for is clearly a disappointment to the South African. She started her kick from too far out. A novice in this event, she might still have won in a field less impeccable.
Kipyegon throws herself to the ground, slamming her fists against the tarmac in celebration.
Simpson hugs her competitors, before realizing she’s a silver medalist, which propels her to sprint around deliriously.
In search of an American flag, of her friends and family and for belief of what just happened.
The perfect race complete, these women used every meter.
It was impossible to look away.
Faith Kipyegon held on in the women's 1500m final at the 2017 IAAF Worlds while American Jenny Simpson surged down the…www.nbcsports.com
Thank you for reading!
If you enjoyed this story, you may appreciate my other stories,
And the essay I’m most proud of, “Raised a Runner” about my family’s history with running and the 2014 Chicago Marathon.
And please be in touch, always love to hear from fellow runners Bromka@gmail.com