Searching for the fast lane

BY TORK MASON | MARCH 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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It's not uncommon to hear track coaches and athletes say a track is fast; a fast track is something they search for as they chase after top times.


That pursuit can influence where some athletes compete. Iowa recently sent Jeff Thode and Erik Sowinski to Washington and Justin Austin to Arkansas while the majority of the team was competing at Iowa State — all on the same weekend.

"We'd rather have the team together at the same site, but occasionally during the year — for the benefit of the individual athlete — we try to get them to a site that is more conducive to [good] performances for them," said Iowa head coach Larry Wieczorek.

But what makes one track different from another?

Two major factors make up the answer to that question: the surface on the track and the dimensions of the circuit.

One of the most popular surfaces in the track world is produced by Mondo, an Italian company that has been the official supplier of track surfaces for the past seven Olympic Games.

The surface's pure rubber construction gives it a firmer bounce-back, Drake assistant coach Brian Brown told The Daily Iowan. Brown also serves as the director of the Drake Relays. The harder the surface is, the faster a runner can go. Its carpet-like design — it's produced in sheets and then laid down and glued — also makes it popular.

"With a sheet-good product like Mondo, they have a way of checking that material — before it ever leaves the factory — as to the quality of the material, if it's where they want it," Nebraska head coach Gary Pepin told the DI. The Cornhuskers use Mondo tracks for both their indoor and outdoor seasons.

Other products are polyurethane-based and poured, and they have to set and harden before they can be used. Iowa's outdoor Cretzmeyer Track uses such a surface, produced by Benyon.

Brown said the poured tracks don't always react as well to natural elements as a Mondo track.

"Even when it rains and then dries, [a Mondo track] tightens and contracts; that allows for athletes to run a lot faster," Brown said.

But the surface isn't the only factor that affects a track's speed.

Nebraska, for example, boasts a 200-meter, hydraulic-banked track — one of four such tracks in the nation and just one of eight worldwide. Pepin said the banked surface is highly beneficial for athletes who run at least 200 meters.

"It's faster to run a race that has to go around the oval at least once on a banked track than it is on a flat track," he said. "That's why you see the banks in the big stock car races and in bicycle races."

Other schools — such as Washington — have what are called oversized tracks, which are classified as indoor tracks longer than 200 meters. These tracks cater more to middle-distance and long-distance runners because they require fewer turns — and the turns themselves are more gradual, which makes them less strenuous on a runner's legs than tight turns.

But indoor tracks aren't indexed by size, so there isn't a handicap placed upon times recorded on an oversized track. Pepin said he feels that negatively affects indoor track as a sport, because of the effect oversized tracks have on schools with smaller surfaces.

"A great number of schools wouldn't be interested in running at Iowa or any school that has a 200-meter flat track," he said. "The odds are, they'll get a faster time if they go to a big track or a 200-meter banked track … And so you have schools that kind of get eliminated in terms of the home competition they want to have because other schools are off chasing times."

Follow DI men's track reporter Tork Mason on Twitter.

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