What makes the Ivy League’s indoor track & field conference championships (henceforth referred to as Heps, short for The Heptagonals, which is a doofy name) the best conference meet in the country isn’t just TRADITION, despite what many crusty old-timers would have you believe. It’s much more complicated than that, so I’ve spewed some quasi-coherent thoughts here into this blog post to explain it, just in time for Heps this weekend at the Armory. Before you sit there in your soiled basketball shorts and post on LetsRun “yo this meet is crap,” hear me out.
Some version of Heps has been contested since 1939, and while the conference’s makeup has changed a bit since its inception, today it’s comprised of: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The key takeaway here is that these are schools for nerds. And if you want to call a historical foundation of dorks a “tradition,” then I’ll concede some of what makes Heps great is derivative of tradition.
(A quick didactic aside: Tradition can be fun but it’s also fairly stupid. If you take anything away from this silly think piece, please, let’s drop the notion that just because something has been happening for a long time, it’s good. Any institution that’s been around since the 1600s is liable to have a pretty thorough history of doing awful stuff, so the Ivy League schools are more complicit in a lot of terrible things than most other colleges.)
Speaking generally — and from experience, as an alumnus of one of these schools — nerds tend to be bad at sports. Things have gotten better on this front, thanks to loosened admission standards for recruited athletes (hell yeah), as well as many nerds training harder, after realizing they’ve long possessed great distance runner bodies, gaunt and unencumbered by glamor muscles.
Today, Ivy Leaguers make the Olympics and go on to compete professionally. But the fact remains that for most of the Ivy League’s running history, it was a generally Bad Conference. (Yes, I know there are exceptions. Yes, I’ve heard of Frank Shorter. Please don’t @ me.)
But for many decades, the following mindset permeated the Ivy League: When your bio-chem problem sets and acapella concerts interfere with your ability to train, you don’t stop caring about your sport, you just set your sights lower. So conference was the pinnacle of the season. Like I said, things have changed somewhat, but that “we suck at running” mentality still lives on in the focus placed on Heps.
Plus, with a conference meet comes conference rivalries. I’m not saying Heps is the only meet where that’s true, just that for most of the athletes competing, it’s the only means of expressing athletic superiority they have. Unlike more sports-oriented power conferences out west and down south, in the Ivy League, almost every sport is relatively bad. It’s not like a Dartmouth pole-vaulter could gloat about the Big Green’s men’s basketball team’s dominance after failing to clear opening height. The basketball teams are largely garbage, and so are most sports besides lame country club ones. No, at Heps, you can’t steal another sport’s valor. You’ve gotta earn it yourself on the track. In a sense, the overall mediocrity of Ivy League athletics is liberating, rather than disheartening, in that you and your track teammates are the only athletes whose results you care about or respect.
And there are many, many opportunities to make your mark. Indoor Heps gives middle distance runners chances to battle with their fellow nerds a crazy amount; in the 500m, 800m, 1,000m, mile, 4x800m, and DMR. Between prelims and finals, that means two teams’ top milers could face each other, like, five times in one meet alone. Lots of chances to develop beef. Plotlines develop, and suddenly two women running 4:50 in the mile are getting just as much attention as their teammates who can maybe run 4:40, because there are points and pride on the line.
Additionally, with so many events of similar distances, there comes competitive dilution and athletes who would certainly be left home in other conferences are given the chance to score points at Heps. A 2:28 1,000m dude can have the race of his life and snag one precious point for his team. So you have even more members of your team who are fired up and able to contribute.
With these huge rosters, the rickety old field houses tend to be pretty full and rowdy. So there’s a social expectation on many teams that even if you don’t make the travel squad, you find a way to get there to contribute to the odors and din that define Heps. The drive from the Ivy League’s northernmost school (Dartmouth), to its southernmost (UPenn) takes less than six hours, so if you’re a good teammate, you pool some gas money, call your high school’s valedictorian and demand to sleep on his or her floor for a couple of nights at whichever Ivy school is hosting the meet. It’s a lot harder to pull off a last-minute road trip from Arizona to Seattle if you don’t make the cut for the MPSF.
If I haven’t already caught flack for these sizzling takes, I suspect the flack will really fly with this one. Fast times do not make for good races. Which is good, because most Heps winning times are uninspiring on a national scale. The throws and a few women’s sprints will be won in impressive marks, but for the most part, races are tactical, tracks are slow (Indoor Heps isn’t run at some 300m McMansion of a track), events are evenly matched, and times don’t matter. The guys’ 3,000m is a great example. A few years ago my friend Tait won the Heps 3,000m out of the slow heat, simply because the fast heat was too collectively dumb to realize how slow they were running. With 1,000m to go, they’d have needed a 2:20 last five laps to usurp Tait’s “slow heat” time. An 8:20 kid beat a slew of 4:00-milers that day, and became a hero.
— The Girls Team (@the_girls_team) March 1, 2014
That sort of intrigue doesn’t happen at most meets, and just keeps things interesting.
And to top it all off, the coaches have extra incentive to get their athletes mentally and physically prepared for this meet above all others. Everything in the world is dictated — for better, or more often worse —by economics. Not even the seemingly pure world of mid-level collegiate indoor track is impervious to the greedy reach of capitalism. Financial compensation for coaches whose teams perform at Heps are commonplace. To win Heps is to get a hefty little bonus. I won’t talk specifics, but these bonuses are probably bigger than you’d expect.
All this is to say, the real overarching reason, as evinced by this sprawling blog post, is that indoor Heps matter more than most conference meets, because people care more. Thank you. Go Columbia.