Sonia O’Sullivan: Are we losing the art of racing in chasing times at all costs?

It would be nice to see a bit of the spirit of Alf Tupper in how runners prepare over winter

Sometimes I wonder is it getting harder to tell the difference between the fast runner and the real racer. We’ve seen a stream of fast indoor times across the US and Europe in recent weeks, in some cases difficult to get your head around.

In many ways to me the times are almost irrelevant now. Coming as they often do off the back of perfect preparations and training methods and pristine training conditions, it can leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed.

It becomes a bit one-dimensional to be so focused on time when it comes to running. Most athletes aren’t left with much of a choice as the sport goes deeper and deeper into the black hole of racing against the clock, with little regard for the true element of competitive races.

It also seems a bit contradictory when you smash yourself chasing fast times, then line up to race a championship wondering what’s actually required to deliver on the world stage.

The super shoes are the easy target; the evolution of technology, the carbon plates, the comfy foam and the stack height, running terms that have only come to light in the most recent Olympics. That’s not going to change.

A much as I would love to have been racing in the era of super shoes, I’m not sure I’d like so much predictability of races. We all need a bit of uncertainty in life to awaken the emotions and passions in sport.

Lost in all this are more of the personalities too. Alf Tupper was the original comic-book hero for running nerds, the Tough of the Track, with the competitive spirit to never give up, the ultimate underdog with the last-gasp finish to take the win when you thought it was all over.

I think next month’s World Indoor Championships in Belgrade will be exciting, even if many of the fast runners will be just making up the numbers against the real racers.

In saying that we've seen some excellent examples of both, Sarah Healy running fast and racing smart in Birmingham last weekend, coming through a highly competitive field to run 4:06.94, a week after her 21st birthday, now the second fastest Irish woman indoors.

The other draw towards running indoors is that one escapes some of the winter elements. Runners down through the years were renowned for heading out to run in all conditions: nothing would keep them down, a day off was simply not in their vocabulary.

Noel Carroll, the great Irish 800m runner in the 60s and 70s, said there's no such thing as bad weather, only weak runners. It builds character and strength to face the elements and chase away the demons in your head that would rather stay inside to watch TV or read a book. There is no better feeling than to come back after a challenging run in the wind and rain, braving the cold air, coming back with red cheeks, the only part of the body exposed.

Creatures of habit, athletes train at regular times on regular days, traditionally, the long run on a Sunday morning, the more intense harder intervals on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, particularly in the winter months when the racing calendar is a bit more spread out. Like most things now the traditional calendar is becoming a bit distorted, with so many options for athletes to train in warmer climates, race indoors at levels previously saved for the outdoor summer season.

The winter ground work was where many athletes went to build strength and endurance, taking on the elements no matter what they faced on any given day. Soggy ground, hills, wind and rain, cross-country weather not really for the faint hearted.

I fondly recall the winter nights training through Richmond Park in the dark, serenaded by the bellowing roars of a lonely stag, so loud there was every chance you would cross paths as you padded along the traffic free roads with all the gates shut after dark.

The weather forecast was not something we carried around in our pocket, or checked by the hour wondering when the wind might drop or the rain might stop. Starting time was 7pm, no matter what, and with safety in numbers you would be sure to be carried along.

There was no exact measure of the distance, it was maybe 1,200m and if you covered it in four minutes that was average; everything else was a sliding scale of faster or slower depending how you felt. You based the effort on those around you, who you could keep up with, how you were breathing and listening to the breathing all around you. It certainly wasn’t effortless; it was hard work.

As the sport of athletics is changing rapidly, athletes running faster and pushing the boundaries, the training is still hard. Other things are at play here too. Since 2002 the fastest track in the world is the indoor facility at Boston University. The key is the 18-degree banked angle of the track and the flexible plywood structure with a cushioned top. Together with the extra layer of foam now embedded in most racing spikes, it means athletes are wearing an extra layer of surface on their feet. All that combined improves the efficiency and speed that an athlete can race around the track.

The plywood structure is not a new development, something that was engineered back in the 60s and 70s by Floyd Highfill in the US, who used his knowledge in physics and mechanics alongside his understanding of the mechanics of running as a former college athlete.

The appetite for speed to test the human body has always existed, focused in the early days on faster tracks being designed and built. The spring given off by the plywood boards and the specific angle of the track is one of the reasons Eamonn Coghlan is still in the all-time top five best indoor mile times dating back to February 1983, on a 160-yard track, or 11 laps to the mile .

What’s interesting to me is that the Boston track has been around for 20 years now, refurbished in 2002, and has produced some phenomenal times recently, world records, national records, athletes go there specifically to achieve qualifying standards for Olympics or World Championships.

The art of racing is lost in chasing times. What’s interesting is that no one has built a proper track meet at Boston to bring together the best athletes in the world to race each other, or to even replicate the track in a more central location that would attract athletes from all around the world, to give everyone a fair chance.

There are so many fast times posted but not so many memorable races, no live and die moments, moments where the tough of the track get a chance to shine. It can all be a bit too predictable, when the unpredictable brings out the emotions and passion that deliver memorable races – maybe even deliver fast times in the process.