Increase the Spacing?

It seems to me that at the elite level, the men’s 110m high hurdles has become an event in crisis. While the sprint events have been providing much thrills and chills with the dominance of Usain Bolt, the return of Tyson Gay from injury, the sporadic brilliance of Asafa Powell, and the overall rivalry between the best of Jamaica and the best of the US, the hurdles have become a relatively humdrum event.

With Liu Xiang out with injury for basically the past two years, Cuba’s Dayron Robles has reigned supreme without a serious rival. And since he lacks the flair and showmanship of a Bolt, his dominance hasn’t attracted nearly as much attention as that of the Jamaican sprinter. Meanwhile, the US hurdlers remain near the top, as they have throughout the history of the event. But while the likes of David Oliver, Terrence Trammell, David Payne, Dexter Faulk and others have come close to defeating Robles, none have put a genuine scare in him. This year especially, with Oliver hurt, Robles has basically yawned through races, starting slowly, accelerating in the middle, then tap-dancing through the finish line, running just fast enough to win.

One problem with the hurdles these days, from a fan’s perspective, is that it simply isn’t exciting to watch. Even Robles’ mastery can only be appreciated by a true hurdle aficionado. Compared to the galloping strides of a Bolt or the torrid turnover of a Gay, the three-step shuffle simply doesn’t look fast. It looks too easy, too artistic, perhaps, and lacks the rawness of a sprinter powering down the track.

To say it plainly, the 110 hurdles excites no interest in the average track fan for the simple fact that there isn’t enough room between the hurdles to sprint. Since the days of Renaldo Nehemiah, who would intentionally zig-zag in the lane in an attempt to create more sprinting space, hurdlers have been seeking ways to run faster. Most modern hurdlers shuffle. Robles’ shuffle, like I mentioned earlier, is like a tap-dancer’s, he’s so light on his feet. Others, like David Oliver, lift their knees higher, but instead of extending the foreleg before cycling it under, attack the ground directly. The end result is basically the same – a shortened stride that is shortened intentionally to avoid getting too crowded at the hurdle.

So the problem with the 110 hurdles from the athletes’ perspective is that they can’t use their sprinting speed. To call the 110’s “the sprint hurdles” is misleading at best, wrong at worst, because 110 hurdlers don’t have room to sprint. Think about it this way: is there any event in track other than the men’s 110s at the elite level in which getting faster doesn’t help you run faster times? In all running events – sprints, middle-distance, distance, whatever, the faster you are, the faster your times will be. Even in the 400m hurdles, you can be pretty sure that improving your flat 400 time will directly lead to an improvement in your 400h time. And even in the women’s 100m hurdles, if your speed improves, your hurdle times will improve with it. If your 100 time improves from 11.5 to 11.2, for example, you’re going to run faster in the 100h. But in the 110s, flat sprinting speed is comparatively irrelevant. This is so mainly because hurdlers’ sprinting mechanics differ so drastically from that of a true sprinter’s. Sprinters get their hands high, get their knees high, drive the knees through the hips. Sprinters aren’t quick; they’re powerful. I don’t think there’s any way for an elite-level 110 hurdler to truly know what his time in the 100 would be, even if he runs the 100 on occasion. Why? Because hurdlers are so used to using that hurdler’s shuffle that they run the same way when there aren’t any hurdles in the way.

So what to do? Good question. I think it’s time to begin serious consideration of the idea of increasing the spacing between the hurdles. Doing so would give 110 hurdlers the room they need to sprint. It would open up new possibilities to how low the world record can go. It would make the race a sprint race again, like the women’s race, and thereby make it more exciting for the average track fan. An argument against increasing the spacing would be that doing so would lessen the value of technique, which is arguably one of the problems of the women’s race – it’s too easy to compensate for technical flaws with speed. The beauty of the men’s 110 race is that it requires such a wide range of skills; it’s not just a speed and power event. You don’t want inferior hurdlers able to win on speed alone. But I don’t think that increasing the spacing would lessen the value of technique. The reason that technique is compromised in the women’s race is because the hurdles are so low. In the men’s race, with the hurdles being 42 inches high, you have to be a good technician no matter how much room you have to sprint between them. I think that opening up the spacing by a half-meter would serve the purpose of bringing the sprint factor back into the race without compromising the technique factor.

Now the question becomes, at what level should the spacing be increased? This might be the hardest question to answer. In USATF youth track, spacing is a key component in distinguishing one level from the next. The thing about the 110s, though, is that, at the non-elite levels, the problem of not having room to sprint doesn’t really apply. Not until you get down to that 13.5 range is it true that improving your flat speed causes more problems than it solves. So my first reaction is to say that the spacing should be increased at the national championships, international competitions, and professional track meets. But a lot of collegiate athletes would be left out if it were done that way, so maybe make the switch at the collegiate level. I never broke 15 in college, yet I clearly remember that I was never able to fully open up my strides between the hurdles. So I don’t think that opening up the spacing would hurt even the average collegiate athlete. Although, yes, it would be another thing to adjust to.

The bottom line is, the 110 hurdles needs to become a sprint race again, and increasing the spacing between the barriers may be the only way to make that happen.

© 2009 Steve McGill

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