I was in Manchester yesterday and happened upon an athletics event held in the city centre. Christophe Lemaitre ran 150m in under 15 seconds, beating Dwain Chambers and Kim Collins:
The race was pretty spectacular. The track is about 3ft high, so they’re slightly above you on the street. The track is just a couple of yards from the pavement, where I was stood. As you can see, the race was pretty exciting when you’re up close.
But what I liked best was watching the sprinters warming up and strolling around. When they run around warming up, you experience them in isolation. Their grace and speed are much more apparent then. When they race together, it’s so easy to just be caught up and overwhelmed by all the noise and excitement. But when they sprint on their own, warming up, you can see and experience their sprinting action much more clearly. It’s kind of strange. They are really fluid when they run. It doesn’t look brutal or forceful. It just looks sweetly fast, like someone pulled inexorably forwards by an invisible elastic band.
All the sprinters impressed me. Dwain Chambers is quite something. I’ve always been impressed by his raw speed. He’s taken lots of knocks in his career, so I’m just really pleased to see him running, and running fast. Dwain was strolling around in a black tracksuit, walking up and down the track. He seemed really laid back, smiling, laughing at jokes. And then he practiced a start, powering out of the blocks and sprinting 20 or 30 yards, fast. Fast, fast, fast!
The sprinter who most impressed me, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Christophe Lemaitre. He is tall (6ft 2″) and light (70kg). All the other sprinters were very powerful guys. Mark Lewis Francis and Harry Aikines Areety exemplify power. These are guys who can do chin ups! Guys who get cheers and gasps from the crowd when they take their shirts off (they did!):
If it wasn’t for Lemaitre, you could easily believe that you have to be very strong to be a sprinter, with large biceps, chest, and huge thighs. But Lemaitre is slender, more slender even than Carl Lewis.
So Lemaitre kind of doesn’t look like a sprinter. He is delicately made. So seeing him run extremely fast is strange. I stood just a few yards from him when he practiced, like Dwain, sprinting out of the blocks. And just like Dwain, in a matter of seconds he was gone, receding into the distance, as if he had been pulled along by a magic elastic band. Very smooth, very fluid, very graceful. Effortless even.
If I learned something by seeing them sprint on their own, it’s that sprinting is beautiful. And it’s that they are each kind of running their own race. Or that’s how it seems to me. They are each kind of hooking up their own sprint, at least for the first 20 yards or so. And how they look, their physique, isn’t as important as I once assumed it to be. They can be stocky or thin.
The missing link here, of course, is Usain Bolt. He can run much faster than the competition, and much faster than anyone in the whole history of sprinting. He is 6ft 5″, and once he gets up to speed, he can just keep accelerating past any other sprinter. I just assume it is not possible for the shorter guys to run that fast. Bolt has longer legs! So while it’s amazing to watch the top sprinters, it’s as if the gold standard is missing. Because while Lemaitre seems to rewrite the formula for how a sprinter looks, Bolt is the compelling new standard. Not so long ago, people just didn’t imagine that a 6ft 5″ guy could run that fast. It was assumed, more importantly, that being tall was an impediment to getting out of the blocks fast. Ergo, a tall guy would struggle in the 100m, because his acceleration would be too slow.
If you get the chance, go and watch some sprinting. I’ll go to Manchester again next year. I’ll take some different lenses.
And…. There must always be an argument over whether city centre events like this are worth the cost and effort. The track has to be laboriously erected and then taken down again, no doubt to be moved on to somewhere else. It must cost a fortune. But, for me, to come across this event on a day out, it was a perfect experience. It is something I’ll never forget. I have loved athletics since I was a little kid, but I have never been up close to the action before. This event in the centre of Manchester has made sprinting palpable for me. Priceless!