The weird and wonderful of the athletics world
If your usual exposure to athletics comes through either a) the 1992 Sega Master System classic ‘Olympic Gold’ or b) the televised major championships, then you’re severely limiting yourself.
The current Olympic programme has 24 events for the men, 23 for the women (they don’t do the 50km walk). The World Championships cover the exact same events and adds the three legged race for men and the egg and spoon race for women.
Beyond these classics however lies a rich world of alternative events that even a battle hardened athletic fan may not be aware of. Here’s a run down of some of the most joyous athletic jostling you may hitherto have missed…
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You’re familiar with the Decathlon and the Heptathlon of course, the events that collect the embarrassingly talented together and then punish them for being so darn good. But they’re not the only multi-faceted events on offer for the truly committed athlete/masochist.
For those who are sturdy enough the Throws Pentathlon challenges them to the discus, the shot put, the hammer and the javelin combined with the less well travelled ‘weight throw’. It’s not an event acknowledged by the IAAF sadly, but it IS a core component of the World Masters Athletics Championships for athletes over 35 and pre-death.
For those who find the Decathlon a bit lightweight, let me introduce the Tetradecathlon and the Icosathlon. The former is, sadly, nothing to do with milk packaging but a 14 event slog. The latter is a frankly barbaric 20 events undertaken over just two days. Except when it’s undertaken over just one day (seriously) because, presumably, you can’t locate a local dominatrix.
It might not have escaped your notice that a 14 and 20 event competition are double versions of the Heptathlon and Decathlon. This is no error because that’s exactly what they’re meant to be. They are competed for by women and men respectively as part of the International Association for Ultra Multievents and they’re scored in a similar method to the multievents you’re more used to. You can pore over the whole sweat-inducing outline of each event through the links above.
I love a relay. Always have done. There’s something about the team spirit and the propensity for slap-stick comedy that can’t be matched by any other sporting endeavour. While the most common baton slips are reserved for the 4x100m and 4x400m varieties the increasing popularity of the World Relays held since 2014 in Nassau, Bahamas has thrust various other tasty team treats (I love alliteration nearly as much as I love relays) into the limelight.
Among these are the fairly pedestrian (for the purposes of this article at least) 4x200m and 4x800m along with a 4x1500m race the World Relays latterly replaced with the wonderful Distance Medley Relay. This event invites runners to canter round the track in legs of 1200m, 400m, 800m and 1600m in turn providing a giddy spectacle of speed and endurance usually reserved for a Sonic the Hedgehog marathon. It was rather sadly immediately replaced for the third edition of the World Relays by a mixed-gender 4x400m event — itself none too shabby — but since the IAAF determined the Distance Medley Relay to now be worthy of official world record status hopefully we’ll see a few more run in the future.
Similar to the DMR but rather more spritely is the so-called Swedish Relay (so called because you must use flat-pack batons). This race elongates as it goes offering legs of 100m, 200m, 300m and then 400m and is normally run in youth events including the World Youth Championships (PS. See also Sprint Medley Relays).
For those that prefer tarmac to track, the beautifully named Ekiden may be of interest. Named for a one-time Japanese post-horse service that delivered mail in stages, the Ekiden is a long-distance relay race with a lovely history. The first ‘ekiden’ was run in 1917 to celebrate the moving of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to its anagrammatic cousin Tokyo. The run covered 508km and lasted three days. These days national championships challenge Japanese school teams to cover a half-marathon (for teams of 5 girls) or the full marathon distance (for teams of 7 boys), but broadly there is no official format for what constitutes the race.
Yawn and you’ll miss it
If you follow the indoor athletics season as closely as the outdoor (no wind, blue tracks, minimal throwing) then you’ll no doubt enjoy a short sprint. 60m is the general distance, sometimes just 50m if the schedule is running late. But these races are positively drawn out when compared to the 30m world best held by Churandy Martina at a stunning 3.81 seconds. He did it against the clock. While being chased by dominos. As per.
Another swift-but-interesting race is the 150m. Often it is laid down as a duel between two athletes coming from 100m and 200m specialisms and seeks to lay to rest some argument about who’s faster or who has the nicest shoes. It hit the headlines in 1997 when the 1996 Olympic champions and recently crowned World Record holders Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson did battle for a $1m prize. Unusually for MJ however, this was something of a let down as he pulled up halfway through the race. More recently the 150m (run on a specially built straight rather on a traditional 400m track) has been a fixture of the Manchester City Games and it was here that some bloke called Usain Bolt laid down the world best time of 14.35 which, if you do some funky calculator tricks (AKA maths) actually works out as faster than either his 100m or 200m times on an average-time-to-cover-each-meter basis (0.0958s for the 100m, 0.959 for the 200m yet only 0.956 for the 150m). Fancy that.
One more quicky comes not in running but in fact, in not running at all. The Standing Long Jump is well known to Olympic nerds as it was won on three of it’s four outings at the Games by Ray Ewry, the legendary American athlete who has as many Olympic Gold medals as Usain Bolt (that’s 8, after Bolt lost one thanks to Nesta Carter’s wayward ways). Ewry’s other medals were in the Standing Triple Jump and, of course, the Standing High Jump.
The Standing Long Jump has more modern interest however as it is still used as part of the NFL Combine, a series of physical and mental tests undertaken by those wanting to be a Dolphin, Seahawk or Packer (etc). The current world record was set during this event and stands at 3.73m.
Good value races
If you prefer your races long and a bit random, then this final section is just for you. First up I offer you the One Hour Run. A run that lasts for exactly one hour. Or an entire episode of Morse. The record for this race has been held over time by Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek (who snuck it over 20km) and currently, by Haile Gerbrselassie. So it’s got some esteem. It’s also worth noting that the current women’s One Hour Record is held by Ethipian Dire Tune, world class marathon runner and owner of one of the most wonderful names in sport whose English translation is ‘Mull of Kintyre’.
If one hour isn’t enough for you, then you might want to turn your sights to the world of ultramarathons (that’s any race longer than a marathon but shorter than the known history of man). There are 100km races, 48 hour races, races across continents, races through deserts and even, among all of that, races that sound quite fun.
To wrap this up, and if you’re not tired out already just reading this stuff, here’s an inspired look at the world of ultramarathons and the power of the human body. It’s a documentary (i.e. fact) about running (i.e. not walking, crawling or using a skidoo) the 222km La Ultra that’s held high in the Himalayas (i.e. where people sometimes die).