Metric Milers Stretch Glory Streak At UQ (Public Health Warns of Photosensitive Seizures Linked to Track Meets)

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1500m Classic, University of Queensland Athletics Centre, 7/11/2013

“The remains of failed front-runners are buried beneath tracks the world over; those few champions that have succeeded time and again ‘from the front’ are venerated icons of the sport.”

Report by Scott Gittoes.

Floodlight is superseding daylight at the University of Queensland Athletics Centre, a nightclub-neon sky the parting gift of a flawless spring day.  A gentle nor’easter lifts and carries the scent of polyurethane from the synthetic track, a familiar aroma for track athletes and one that, for many, intensifies a nervousness born of both personal expectation and ominous flashes of painful racing memories.  For each and every competitor in this evening’s annual ‘1500m Classic’ meet, there’s no avoiding some level of distress.

The fifteen hundred metres is widely regarded as track running’s ultimate test of speed, stamina and tactical prowess, an exquisite balance of aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.  It’s the metric cousin and Olympic equivalent to the mile, a distance etched in the history of human endeavour following the first sub ‘four minute mile’ almost sixty years ago, after decades of near-efforts.  To do it right requires the transcension of psychological barriers and utmost physical exertion.  Anything less will still hurt, physically, but it’s the failure to achieve what is a very personal goal, either a specific time and/or result, that is, for most, perhaps more difficult to bear and quite often a critical motivator.

Tonight, hundreds of runners  – primary schoolers, whippet teens, masters veterans and the region’s middle-distance running elite – will seek that tantalising equilibrium, completing three and three-quarter laps of the four hundred metre circuit, seeded by age and personal-best times into one of nineteen races.  There’s a couple of grand on the table for the elite male and female winners, and the defending champs are both here.

Set as it is amidst the cloistered sandstone and manicured greenery of Queensland’s oldest university, the UQ athletics track must be one of the more picturesque in all of Australia.  A modern, five-hundred-odd-seat grandstand kisses the edge of the home straight.  It’s perhaps three-quarters full tonight, mostly with competitors’ family and friends.  Athletes come and go but few are seated, those that are sit contemplatively, twitching their legs in sharp repetitive rises from the toes.  The rest are out there somewhere, stretching or otherwise moving around.  Some individuals, but mostly packs of three or four, disappear beyond the floodlit perimeter, warming up.  Kit bags, invariably a keepsake from one representative team or another, rest on or under seats.  A runner occasionally returns from a warm-up to discard excess layers, rummaging for spiked racing shoes or else fumbling anxiously with safety pins on race numbers.

We’re perched six rows back in the stand.  It’s ideal viewing.  An engrossing tactical contest and one of the purest examples of the physical disparity common among young pubescents is unfolding in the top-seeded boys’ primary school race.  Two athletes have opened an unassailable gap on the field.  Despite conceding at least one and a half feet in height to his equivalent aged competitor, the leader has set the pace from the gun.  It’s universally understood among distance runners that leading, particularly from the start, is a low-percentage play, albeit bold and courageous.  For reasons part physical, part psychological, but mostly inexplicable, it is simply easier to ‘sit-in’ behind a pace-maker and then ‘kick’ past for victory at the death.  The remains of failed front-runners are buried beneath tracks the world over; those few champions that have succeeded time and again ‘from the front’ are venerated icons of the sport.  Rounding the opening bend of the bell lap, the larger of the two primary school protagonists surges to the leader’s outside shoulder.  Instead of wilting, as many in this position often do, the diminutive pace-maker responds, unleashing a savage and sustained acceleration with three hundred metres to go.  He slingshots off the final curve like a pinball, never to be headed.  It’s a master-class of audacious front-running and those who know it appreciate the feat.  Even on the top step of the podium, the boy is still looking upwards to acknowledge his second-placed rival.  I mark his name; surely I’ll hear it again, in a few years, when the cards of adolescence have been fully and finally dealt.

We take a stroll around the track, in the outside lane.  The springy synthetic surface is willing me to break into stride.  It just makes one feel fast.  A tent stands merely metres from the finish line, displaying a range of running shoes and attire for sale that perhaps should carry an epilepsy warning.  The fashion code of the distance runner, particularly the elite male, is garish if not precise.  Technicolour footwear contrasts against black socks that rise a few inches above the ankle.  Legs are usually tanned and always shaved, covered by wispy running shorts, split on either side to allow a certain freedom of movement.  Long, foppish hair is messed in that purposeful outdoorsy way.  Light, typically fluoro, spray jackets are the norm for the warm-up.  The entire ensemble is peppered with ticks and stripes of familiar brands.  A young man hobbles by in a leg-cast, almost certainly an injury resulting from excessive mileage and perhaps a stress fracture, a common ailment for distance runners.  His free leg is tanned, shaved and bookended by a black sock and biliously-coloured shoe.

Over near the start line, a few athletes complete a run-through warm-up sprint, all sinewy muscle, seemingly weightless on their feet.  It’s here, on the back straight, where the veteran coaches can be found; stopwatches habitually in hand, jotting down splits, shouting measured words to passing chargers or else conducting quiet, post-race debriefs.  Each has a particular vantage point of choice but most are tucked-in somewhere near the start line, which doubles as the three hundred-to-go mark on the final lap.  In the fifteen hundred, this is the place where the real business of the race is done, where it is won, or lost.

For tonight’s meet a makeshift square enclosure, perhaps five-by-five metres, has been established on the infield in front of the grandstand.  Seats line its inside.  This is the pre-race marshalling area.  A grey-bearded official adorned in a full tracksuit has been shepherding runners into this pen all night (the ratio of such-coloured-beards among athletics officials is simply out of all proportion).  The greying sheepdog ushers in the final competitor for the elite women’s race, the penultimate event of the evening.  The distilled tension in this small square space is so palpable that it could surely be bottled.  Most stand, flicking out their legs and feet in what is an almost universal tic for distance runners.  The race announcer, as he has done all night, introduces the starters and their palmarès.  On cue, one by one, they free themselves from the corral and jog the curve to the start line.  The favourite is chasing a Commonwealth Games qualifier this season.  She trots to the start line like a dressage horse; only her toes touch the ground, and ever-so-lightly.  The title-holder is never troubled and wins comfortably, smoothly breaking away from the field on the bell lap for back-to-back crowns.

The final race on the program, the men’s elite, promises much on paper, replete as it is with former, current (and no doubt future) Australian representatives.  It’s an appetising match-up between youth and experience; the top sixteen-year old in the country, the defending champ chasing his fourth consecutive title, and a veteran mercenary who has already collected over twenty grand in prizemoney this year, hoping to take home the loot.  The race starts humbly, the title contenders sizing each other up, as they tend to do in the first half.  The fireworks really start at three hundred to go, again, as they tend to do.  The wily veteran throws everything at the three-time winner but he’s too strong and kicks off the final turn for home with enough room to celebrate.  Given the fields this race throws up every year, four in a row is one hell of a feat.

MDB Score: N/A (opted for a ‘Killer Python’ in lieu)

MDB Service Atmosphere: N/A

MDB Price: Killer Python, $1.00


Elite Women: 1st Brittany McGowan, 4:25.45; 2nd Olivia Burdon, 4:29.04; 3rd Isabel Lund; 4:33.35

Elite Men: 1st Nicholas Toohey, 3:50.05; 2nd Jackson Elliott, 3:50.68; 3rd Jack Curran 3:51.07

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