800m runners make the final push for home at the Tolleson Invite. Arizona Milesplit Photo.
There is often debate about whether the 800m is the most difficult event in track and field. This article will not settle that, and there will always be mid distance runners and long hurdlers that argue on behalf of different events. What this article is intended to do is explain how the race works and what you as a fan should watch out for.
At an outdoor track meet, the 800m is the shortest event not run in lanes. The speed of the race combined with the strategy necessitated to successfully navigate a pack of runners moving at like speeds adds a certain complexity to the race not seen in other distance races. It is not uncommon to see 800m runners spiked, elbowed, cut off or otherwise interfered with. While intentionally doing such activities would draw a disqualification, accidents happen and as anyone who has been around the sport knows, officials can't possibly see everything that goes on.
On a standard 400m track, the 800m begins and ends at the start/finish line. At the high school level the races complexity often causes officials to use a special starting technique called “Super Alleys." Typically athletes are divided up in two or four super alleys and required to remain in those alleys for the first turn. The racers are allowed to use any of the space within their alley but are not allowed to go outside of it until the break line. The break line is just after the first turn and is the point on the track where the stagger is made up. While there is minimal jostling in the super alleys, the real adventure begins when they merge together after the break line.
During the second 100m stretch life gets hectic, especially for those running in inner most super alley. After the break line athletes crash into lanes one and two in order to have the inside track for the next turn. Naturally everyone cannot be in front and running in lane one. This puts runners from the outside super alley in jeopardy of running several extra meters (approx 1.5-1.6 meters per lane per turn). Likewise runners on the inside are at risk of getting boxed in. Being boxed in early is only bad if you can't easily get out of it later. In a race as short as the 800m this is a real threat.
Common (legal) strategies including going out a little faster for runners in the outer alleys and running on the lane line between lanes 1 and 2 for competitors in that first super alley. This allows runners to either get in front or have a better line to hold when the elbows start to fly and positions are jockeyed for. This problem is exacerbated by outside runners cutting in sharply instead of using the full straight away to cut in. The risk of such strategies are being caught up in an early pace which is too hard to hold, running a little bit extra and being caught up in the worst of a traffic.
It is in this straight away that most runners try and settle into a preferred position. The more evenly matched the field is, the more likely contact is to happen. Contact is simply part of the race. Experienced 800 runners know that, and even expect it. At smaller meets this usually isn't a major issue, but meets like the Chandler Rotary and the State meet where multiple runners are fighting for the same space on the track the physicality increases. Heading into the turn, even if they are not in their desired position, most runners try to tuck in as close to the rail as they can. This is done to minimize extra distance traversed around the turn. The desire to pass is also curbed while running the turn because that too adds to the total distance run.
As the straight away comes up after 300m, the pack tends to bunch up again as positions are fought for. It is not uncommon at larger races to see athletes spread out into the 3rd and sometimes even 4th lanes. As the third turn comes up the pack once again tends to gravitate towards the rail in the same manor they did on the second turn. Once again, this is done in an effort not to run extra distance.
Coming off the third turn is where the race starts to get exciting again! In most races this is where strength and distance runners tend to make their move for the finish. They know they cannot keep up with the sprinters on the final home stretch and want to put a long hard burn in so they don't have to worry about it. The sit and kick types must maintain contact or risk leaving too much ground to be made up on the home stretch. Additionally this is where you start to separate the wheat from the chaff. Runners who have gone out too hard cannot keep up with the early movers and become obstacles for the competitors who got stuck too far back in the pack early on.
Entering the final turn things start to get more serious. Decisions are being made among the leaders about when they will make their moves. Often times these decision directly hinge on where rivals are in the field. If you're leading, you must decide when to turn it up to your last available notch. Turn it up too soon and your legs will be giving out before the finish line. Turn it up too late and someone might perceive you are going to slow and risk popping around you on the turn. Another factor starting to play into people's heads is that at this point in the race passing often become demoralizing to the person getting passed. Your chances of coming back on someone who passes you at this point in the race are both fat and slim.
By now the lactic acid and fatigue building in runners starts to hit a critical level. As such, many runners like to make their move coming off of the final turn and heading into the home straight. When I raced and was in front I always tried to move a little to the outside when I got onto the home stretch. I have seen others do the same, and assume it is intentional with them as well. That half step out make the effort someone needs to get around you that much greater. Lead runners need to be careful not to move out too far for fear of being embarrassed with an inside pass. Runners behind the leader should initiate their pass just before the end of the turn to limit the effectiveness, or even their ability to move out. Often times contact on the home stretch is minimal since it is most likely to be seen by an official and is thus riskiest.
The last 50 or so meters of the 800m requires masochist tendencies to master. One might argue the ability to block out pain is the best indicator of success for runners headed into this part of the race neck and neck.
In terms of pacing, in an ideal world, the first lap of an 800m usually clocks out at about two seconds faster than the second lap. If you break an 800m up into four 200s, the fastest 200 is almost always the first 200. The slowest 200 is typically the third 200, at least if you don't bonk. At elite levels, these generalizations may not be as universally true, but at the high school level, these generalizations are nearly axiomatic for the better runners. As runners get better at the 800, both first lap and second lap times tend to go down, but the bigger difference tends to be with the second lap and in bringing it closer to the time of the first lap. Very few first timers end up being nearly as close as two or three seconds time differential between the two laps.
Editor's Note: I am hoping to make this into a series. I do not have the expertise to write about most events in track and field. If anyone (coaches, athletes, parents, officials, fans….anyone) is interested in writing quality articles about other track and field events I would be happy to post them. These articles will be unpaid, but it may help you score a paid position later on. I plan on writing articles on 4x400m, 4x800m, 400m, 1600m and probably the 3200m as time permits. As such, preference will be given to other events, though if someone does a bang up job on a distance event it will be published as well.