Handing off to victory for Iowa men’s track

BY MATT CABEL | APRIL 23, 2013 5:00 AM

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As the sound of the gun echoed through the air, Jordan Mullen had pushed himself off the starting block, a golden baton clutched in his hand. Then, as Mullen neared the end of his 100-meter leg, his teammate, senior Justin Austin, began running in front of him to receive the handoff. Austin reached out his hand and sped in front of the field as the baton entered his hands. Teammate Tevin-Cee Mincy ran ahead of him, and, taking the baton in stride, gave the relay team a solid lead.

But as anchor Josh Larney went to grab the baton from Mincy to secure the relay’s final leg, something went wrong. The communication between the two misfired, and the baton fell to the ground, resulting in an instant disqualification. “The biggest thing we do is try to find the best group of guys, who might not be the four fastest but can also do well with handing off the stick,” assistant coach Joey Woody said. “A lot if it is being confident in what you’re doing with the approach — being patient while running at that velocity, knowing you have to be patient in the zone to hand it off.”

The transfer of the baton is one of the most crucial aspects of the race and one that is difficult to replicate indoors. A quick race such as the 400-meter relay requires fast running and more space. Two of the handoffs in a 4x100 relay come on curves, which, Woody said, makes the outdoor feel difficult to replicate because of tighter curves on the indoor track. “You don’t create the same rhythm,” he said. “You can try to simulate [the outdoors] the best you can, but it’s not the same. You can’t hit the same space that we do outdoors.”

Each track has a specific area — marked by small triangles on the surface — that designates where the athletes can pass the baton. Any transfer outside of those marks results in a disqualification. When a runner enters the designated area, his teammate begins running in front to receive the baton for the next leg. “They try to run just enough to catch the person to give them the stick,” Austin said. “A good handoff has the stick never slow down — you want it to keep moving. The first person wants to try to run past the person, and the second person is trying to run away from the person, so they meet in the middle.”

When an athlete is ready to receive the baton, he yells “stick” to the other runner. That runner proceeds to transfer the baton to the next, who puts his arm backwards with his hand to the side, palm up and thumb down, creating an inverted “V” shape for the runner behind him. The trailing runner then pushes the baton inside the outstretched hand, which pushes the new racer forward, creating momentum.

“The smoother your handoff, the better chance you’re going to have of winning [the race],” Mullen said. Iowa’s track and field squad has had success in the relays so far. A team consisting of Austin, junior Mincy, and seniors Ethan Holmes and Larney set the school record for the 4x100 meter relay with a time of 39.35 seconds.

“It really does come down to handoffs,” said Mullen, who was added to the relay after Ethan Holmes strained his Achilles tendon. “It’s very important in that short of a race. You’ll have one little vault forward, or a person will have to slow down, and you don’t have that much time to make up on the backstretch or the corners. You want to keep that thing moving.”

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