01 June, 2018

On hurdle relays

I have already written posts on relays, in particular the mixed ones which I find very attractive. Curiously enough I have never addressed the question of hurdle relays. This I intend to remedy in the present post.

There is one hurdle relay I am aware of, which is run almost exclusively in the US, the shuttle relay. It is a 4x110 m for men and 4x100 m for women where the successive runners alternate direction (hence the shuttle moniker). There is no baton exchange: the next relay runner starts once the previous one crosses the line. Obviously, 8 lanes can accommodate only up to 4 relay teams. This is the situation in the photo below. 

I do not find this arrangement optimal. To my eyes it is definitely better to sacrifice one team and have two free separation lanes. Thus the risk of a runner going in the opposite direction taking down a hurdle and pushing it in the next lane is zero. It also gives the judges less work to set back upright any hurdle that has been knocked off, preparing it thus for the next runner. Another remark concerning the men's relay (you can watch the movie here) is that in some cases the hurdles are perfectly aligned. However the rules stipulate that distance from the the start line to the first hurdle is 13.72 m and the distance from the last hurdle to the finish line is 14.02 m. So, unless the start line and the finish line are shifted by 30 cm  (which I could not tell just by watching the video) there is something fishy there. On the other hand the photo that follows shows clearly a correct placement of the hurdles.

In the case of women's shuttle relay the two distances are 13 m and 10.5 m respectively hence the arrangement of the hurdles cannot go unnoticed.


I could not find an official list of shuttle relay world records. The official US records are 52.94 for men (4x110 m) and 50.50 for women (4x100 m). They are certainly the world's best marks to date.

Writing about the shuttle relays got me thinking (in a pure Juiland spirit) about other possibilities. How about a 4x400 m hurdles? A difficulty appears right away. The staggering between the first and the last lane in a 400 m is 53 m. In the case of 4x400 m where the second runner runs the first bend in his lane the staggering is of 80 m. Having all four runners run in lanes in the 4x400 m hurdles is absurd, since it would require a more than 200 m initial staggering (between first and eighth lane). Even having the second relay runner run an extra bend in a lane would be an unwieldy arrangement. So, what I would favour is a setup like the old 4x400 m one where only the first runner must run in his lane. (A small correction in order to compensate for the fact that the runners in the the outer lanes must converge to the inner lane must also be applied, but this is a minimal one and can be calculated just as in the case of the curved starting line for the 10000 m race). Once the first runner has completed his leg the hurdles are reorganised like in the steeplechase race. Namely there will be hurdles over the three inmost lanes (at the positions of the hurdles for the first lane) making it possible for a runner to overtake the one in front over a hurdle jump. Two remarks are in order here. The first is that hurdlers do not like the inmost lane. Having them run the relay in this lane adds an unwarranted difficulty. A possible solution to this could be to have the hurdles for the last three runners situated in lanes 3,4 and 5, set at the position of the hurdles for lane 4. (In which case the most advantageous position for the relay pass would be lane 4).  The second problem is what happens if the front runner knocks over a hurdle and there is no time for the judge (it goes without saying that there should be one at every hurdle) to put it back upright. Well, there is nothing one can do in this case. The following runners get an advantage of not having to jump over the hurdle and that's it. 

This has nothing to do with the article but it is rare to see 
a photo of the great J. Owens hurdling. Still, we should not 
forget that he did break the 200 m hurdles WR during what
came to be known as the greatest 45 min in athletics

But can we get even crazier and talk about a 4x100 m hurdles relay? The important thing is that a 30 m baton-exchange zone must be preserved at all costs. Given that we must have a  10-15 m  distance between the start and the first hurdle and a comparable distance between the last hurdle and the finish line we arrive at a distance of 280 m to be covered by hurdles. Split into 4 this leaves 70 m between the first and the last hurdle for each runner, which can accommodate a maximum of 8 hurdles. Fine-tuning of the distances should allow for the runners having to negotiate hurdles in the bends and in any case all extra distances can be absorbed in the baton-exchange stretches as well as the finish one. One important question is whether the hurdle height should be the same as for the individual event. I think that given the difficulty of the relay (bends, baton-exchange) we should opt for lower hurdles, for instance 0.91 m for men and 0.76 m for women, i.e. the 400 m hurdle height. (And if one thinks that women get a smaller height reduction than men, when one compares to the 1.07 m and 0.84 m heights for the 110 m and 100 m respectively, the answer is that it's 0.84 m that is too low: women's 100 m hurdles should have been higher). And a question of logistics. A race like the one just described would necessitate 256 hurdles. Compared to the 80 necessary for the ordinary, individual, races, that would represent a quite substantial investment.

What is the probability that such hurdle relays see the light one day? Absolutely zero. But, if one were thinking about ways to make athletics more spectacular and attractive, one should forget about flame/smoke bursts and showroom-style presentations and look for new and exciting events. Hurdle relays would be one way to go.

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