Space on the Track

“Hey hey hey, get out my way.”
– Fat Albert

Finding sufficient space on the track to do a workout or even to do drills can be a major issue for hurdlers and hurdle coaches. Depending on the number of hurdlers on a team, the number of other teammates who will be using the track, and, in some cases, the number of “mall walkers” and general exercisers taking up lanes, the task of finding enough room to do a workout the way it was planned, without interruptions or distractions, can be more arduous than the workout itself. More so than any other athletes on the track, hurdlers need space. Unfortunately, space is often the hardest thing to come by. Regardless of the time of day, or the day of the week, when it comes to practicing over the hurdles, space is bound to be an issue. In this article, I will discuss some of the “obstacles” that appear, and offer solutions as to how to overcome them.

During regular week-day practice hours, non-track athletes aren’t allowed to be on the track, at least at most schools, and such is the case for ours. Still, the track is a crowded place just with track team members alone. Last year, our school put down a new eight-lane rubberized track, and I wrongfully assumed that the new facility would provide us with a whole lot more space than we had had before. Suddenly, the distance runners were training on the track more often, the jv kids were using the track on a daily basis, and varsity athletes from other sports were randomly using the track for their warm-up laps or punishment laps. The year before, our track had been a six-lane slab of concrete, so the distance runners always ran in the woods, the jv’ers always ran wherever, and my sprinters and hurdlers usually practiced on the grass of the football field. We reserved most of our hurdling for weekends, when we could go to a nearby school that had a rubber track. Feeling so glad to have a usable facility, little did I anticipate all the problems it would cause.

Compromise and Strategize
Early on in the outdoor season last year, I spoke with the other coaches on our team and made “lane arrangements” that we pretty much maintained regularly. Since the distance runners didn’t use the track that often, and because running in individual lanes was impractical for them, we all agreed that they would run in the first two lanes whenever they ran on the track. The jv’ers would then use lanes three and four, and my sprinters and hurdlers would use the outside four lanes. Sounds like plenty of room, doesn’t it? Well, it was, in the sense that I knew how much room I had to work with, so I could plan my workouts accordingly. On most days, when the distance runners went off to the woods or the roads, my crew had six lanes available to us. So, when I needed to work on the intermediates with some hurdlers and the 110s/100s with other hurdlers, I would make sure to do that on days when I knew the distance runners wouldn’t be around. Another thing I would do was have the hurdlers do workouts with the sprinters so that having four lanes still worked smoothly. For instance, I’d have the sprinters and hurdlers do 6×200, with intermediate hurdles set up in lanes seven and eight. With the help of the athletes, I would adjust the height of the hurdles, throughout the workout, as needed for boys and girls. That way, a boy hurdler could run with boy sprinters, and a girl hurdler could run with girl sprinters, and, with good managers helping me, I was able to keep things moving along efficiently. Another thing I would do was to have the sprinters occupying one half of the track, and have the hurdlers occupying the other half, with both groups running distances that would ensure they wouldn’t run into each other. It gets to be a hassle trying to organize practice with such limited space, but I have found that if the coaches of the various events are willing to cooperate with each other, it can be done with minimal frustration, and without needing to compromise the quality of the workouts.

Invisible Man
The above advice may work during the brief window of the spring track season, but what about the off-season months? And, for age-group track as well as for elite athletes, what about the summer months? I know that the elite athletes who train in Raleigh generally will practice at odd hours, like ten o’clock in the morning, when they know the track will not be crowded. Before our school got its new facility, I would often take my kids to North Carolina State University to train during weekends of the off-season. What a crapshoot that was. If elite athletes were there training, they pretty much had the run of the place. And because the track at NC State is so soft and athlete-friendly, it would always be packed with students and locals out there getting exercise. I have dozens of stories I could tell about times when I had my kids out there trying to hurdle while people were weaving in and out of our lanes. Adult distance runners, joggers, and mall-walkers are usually the worst culprits. They’re rude, they’re ignorant, and they have no sense of track etiquette. I’ll usually have my hurdlers use the outside lanes in order to avoid getting in people’s way, but I can’t count the number of times some old-head has decided that he or she is going to run or walk all day long in lane nine. So we’re out there all day trying to avoid each other. I mean, if I really wanted to be rude, I would set up the hurdles in the inside lanes, where everybody else would have to go around us. But I try to be respectful of other people on the track by using the outside lanes, so why do these joggers and mall-walkers feel the need to go out of their way to get in my way? Hurdlers and hurdle coaches of the world out there, are you feeling what I’m saying? I remember one time, while our club team was practicing at NC State, we had two lanes of hurdles set up – one in lane nine and one in lane seven, leaving lane eight open for lead-leg and trail-leg drills. Well, of course there was one jogger out there who decided he was going to run all of his five miles in lane eight, between our two lanes of hurdles! How rude can you get? But because the track was not our track, and we had no more of a right to the space than anyone else, there was really nothing we could do about it except put up with it. Even at our school, a swim club trains there every day, so sometimes we get swimmer-moms and swimmer-dads on the track doing a little walk or jog while they’re waiting for their son or daughter to finish practice. Of course, there will always be the occasional one who wants to get a little extra exercise, so he or she will try to run or walk in the outside lanes. I usually respond with stunned silence, unable to believe anyone could be that rude. I mean, am I invisible here? Haven’t you seen me clearing these hurdles the whole time you’ve been out here? But a lot of them don’t even realize that they’re being rude. Once I explain to them that we’re on the track team and we’re in the middle of a training session, so please stay out of the lanes where you see hurdles set up, they’re very apologetic and stay out of the way. Amazing.

This problem is even worse for intermediate hurdlers. Because the hurdles are farther apart, non-hurdlers, sometimes even teammates, will walk in the lanes where the hurdles are set up, blissfully unaware that they are intruding on your space. Some people will accidentally (or even intentionally) kick a hurdle or move it off the track altogether, either not realizing or not caring that the hurdles are being used. In the summer months, when tracks are usually heavily crowded on weekday evenings, finding space to practice the intermediates can be a very difficult task. For the hurdlers on our club, for instance, we avoid NC State at all costs during the summer, since there are always so many people there – not just on the track, but on the infield, where there are also football camps and soccer camps going on all the time that provide further distractions and chaos. We’ll usually go to a nearby high school that is much less crowded, so we can spread out and use multiple lanes. When it comes to practicing the intermediates, finding a track that isn’t crowded, or practicing a little earlier or a little later than the rest of the team, are the best options available in order to have the necessary amount of space so that the athletes can concentrate on hurdling.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow
The winter months, with winter weather, provide a challenge of a different kind. When the track is covered with snow and ice, what is a hurdler to do? When I was a high school hurdler in Pennsylvania, we would go into one of the school buildings and practice hurdling in the hallways. This was a far from ideal scenario, as we could only do drills at half-speed, and we couldn’t do anything at full speed, but it did enable us to keep our technique sharp. We also did a lot of stair-climbing, and, even though it wasn’t good for our shins, we would do our interval workouts in the parking lot, since there wasn’t enough space to run inside, and gym space was taken up by all the basketball teams. Those who live in warm weather states definitely have an advantage when it comes to training in the winter. Here in North Carolina, it gets cold, but not unbearably so, and it doesn’t snow very much at all, so the winter has proven to be a very good time of year to get a lot of hurdle reps in. I’ve done my best teaching of technique during the winter. Tracks usually are pretty much empty during this time of year, as most people prefer the warmth of the indoors. Most colleges in cold weather states have an indoor track, which means hurdlers have somewhere to go without needing to deal with the elements. For most high schoolers, though, the hallways or the gym are the best options. The other option, which is not entirely out of the question, is to grab some shovels and clear out some of that snow. Nothing is a greater motivator, come championship season, than looking back and remembering how you shoveled snow in the winter so you could hurdle in the cold. You’re not going to want to let anybody beat you if you know you’ve been through such trial and tribulation. Plus, I always say, in any walk of life, that if being the best you can be matters enough to you, then appearing to be “weird” or “obsessed” in the eyes of others doesn’t matter to you. If it’s gonna snow, let it snow, but you’re still gonna find a way to hurdle.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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