By Christopher Cudworth
The standard running track all around the world is 400 meters in length on the inside lane. But that just begins to tell the story of what a track is all about.
Those of us who grew up running on cinder tracks came to appreciate that every track surface was different. Some were hard and flat. Others were cinder, deep and uneven. When rain fell, puddles would gather on the low points, and especially around the turns. On the inside lane where everyone tried to run, water would form an imperfect groove and cinders would fly up in your face from the heels of runners in front of you.
The process of getting a track ready for competition back then was part art and part science. Think about it: the lines on a track had to be manually applied using lime. But first the track surface had to be raked and then rolled. That way every lane was considered fair and equal to those running, and in a multitude of events from distance runners that was no easy feat to get a track fit for competition.
How ironic it was that the order of track events began with the two mile in high school, and the 4 X 800 relay as well. Those two events alone would chew up the track for all the other runners that followed.
But that’s track. You deal with it.
These days the surfaces are all-weather. There’s no need for elaborate preparation and protection of the surface before a competition. You just step out and run. At times you must pay attention to the finely painted lines on the black or red or blue rubberized surface. Exchange zones. Start and finish lines.
Sometimes those colors intersect in a colorful geometry that only means something to those who run. Yet there are times we hardly pay attention to these zones and transitions. Instead we pave the way ahead with our own desires and expectations. Ignore all that geometrical gobbledy gook. Just run.
Numbers and words dictate where events start and finish. The track is both a finite and
infinite world where your reality is defined by your purpose in being there. Short sprints. Long intervals. Mile repeats. Races.
As we study a track it becomes obvious there is a language exclusive to that world. It is spoken in symbols and directions that are designed to be universal. Yet each and every track has its own dialect the world over. No surface is precisely the same and even the most accurate form of measurement cannot confine the distances you run around a track to an exact 400 meters, or 800, or a mile. By the time you race 10,000 meters you may have run 10,200 meters if you stay out in the second lane to avoid colliding with other runners.
So think about it: to set a world record on a track conditions must be ideal. But know that they will never be perfect. There is
no such thing as perfection in running. Every footplant varies slightly. Every stride wavers off center to some degree. Our very earthy bodies long to be free of the earth in fact.
Yet gravity pulls us back down. With hurdlers that relationship is profoundly defined by the height and distance between each barrier. Some runners do 13 strides between hurdles in the 400M intermediates while others do 15. Male runners jump higher barriers than do female runners. Only the need to get over the hurdle is the same. But that
denominator is held in perpendicular relation to gravity. Horizontal speed versus vertical height. In all events that is what adds dimension to the world of track and field.
When you show up at a track all these numbers and textures and heights may not be on your mind. All you care about is speed and how much you can manage to muster in a given workout or race. You calculate for wind not knowing its true effect on your net times in interval training. Then there is heat, humidity and the pliability of the track surface itself. On hot days it will be mushier than during cool temperatures. It all figures into the final result of your effort.
Slower. Or faster. You are an organic form moving around so much inorganic material.
But look closer. The track is actually a living thing as well. The grass that flew from the mower on the infield yesterday is strewn across the surface in abstract patterns. If you turned that into a painting it could hang in a gallery or a museum.
Suddenly realize everything around you and within you is alive. Your footfalls make sound. Your breathing has a rhythm and pattern similar to the songs of birds in the trees. Even your sweat seems to sing as it flies off your forehead.
Around the first curve there is water gathered from a storm the night before. You have little choice but to run around its arc and complete your laps with a few extra meters of effort. You see your own reflection as you skirt the puddle and it makes you think of all the other times you have run around this oval, or others like it. You have a relationship with the track. It may be a love/hate relationship, but you have it nonetheless.
It’s not a very forgiving place, the track. But if you respect its geometry and its circumference and all the conditions it suffers; through wind and rain and sun and even snow, the track can be your friend. It might be a painful relationship at times, but it can also be rewarding. Because when you have forged a relationship with a track it actually begins to give back what it takes from you initially. You can feel your fitness grow. Your body becomes stronger. Those raggedy weeds along the edge of the track look like so many cheering fans as you whip by on one last interval before calling it quits for another week.
It is a place where character is built and races are won. It both welcomes and challenges you. It is the geometry of distance and of soul. Every angle of your
being counts in this finite and infinite world. You are a runner. On a track. And you are trying to become better at the former while negotiating with the latter. So much like the rest of the world.