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March 1, 2017

Why the indoor 1,000-meter race is weird as hell

Paul Snyder and Scott Olbering have teamed up for another look at some of the races at this weekend’s U.S. indoor championships through data.

In a world simmering with hot takes, let me present you with an extremely lukewarm one: from a spectator’s perspective, indoor track is as good, if not better, than outdoor track, and the only reason we — sports fans — tend to lend more of our collective attention to outdoor track is that it’s a sport that is contested in more parts of the world, as well as in the Olympics.

I’m making this claim based on two key factors:

Proximity

At an indoor track you’re just way closer to the action for the entirety of the race. Wanna get your pot shots in at an athlete you dislike? Have a favorite athlete tearing around the track? Let ‘er rip! Chances are he or she will hear your abuse and/or praise! And since by definition, indoor races are contested in enclosed spaces, everything gets way louder, which is a good metric of how much fun something is.

Uncertainty.

In team sports, if you have a favorite squad you want them to win every time and probably don’t care if it’s a blowout. But when watching track, without weird and deluded team allegiances, fans are better served by the intrigue that comes from closely contested events, where the winner isn’t clear until the very end. And on that front, indoor track is supreme. The main reason? A lot of the events contested are off-distance and rarely or never run outdoors. That may not seem like a good thing for fans at first, so let’s unpack that claim a little.

Imagine dropping twelve or so incredibly fit, middle-distance runners onto the starting line of a 200-meter, banked, fast, indoor track. They’re slated to race around the track five times to cover a distance of 1,000 meters. Half of them have spent the past decade of their lives training for an event 200 meters shorter than that. The other half have specialized in racing the 1,500m and are just as foreign to this in-between distance. Maybe you’d expect the 800m specialists to take it out hard or to shock the milers with a pace faster than their usual. You might also suspect the milers to seize control early on, keep things quick but steady and then use their superior strength to fend off any late charges from the half-milers.

Well, what if I told you this hypothetical scenario has played out in reality before? And what if I then told you that it’s gonna happen again this weekend in Albuquerque, NM, at the USATF Indoor Track & Field Championships? And what if I also told you that the speculation I forced on you in the last paragraph was incredibly, stupidly, inconceivably wrong and that nobody knows how an elite level 1,000 meter race will play out, because the 1,000 meter race is weird as hell?

Take a peek at Graph Master Scott’s charts below, which track the relative placing of each of the men and women in the 1,000 meter final at the 2015 USATF Indoor Championships.
[iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1z96flqKfy_GmktSrdeJ8Wm2MsLOco_A1aky7lTzTUhc/pubchart?oid=1831008467&format=interactive” width=”100%” height=”500″]

Notice a pattern or any sort of correlation between how athletes race the 1k and whether they’re more of a miler or an 800m-runner?

Probably not, because there really isn’t one!

Eventual winners Robby Andrews and Lauren Wallace both led the early stages of their races, before fading to fifth and seventh, respectively, with a lap to go. They both made up the difference with their last 200 meters. Andrews is an Olympic 1,500m qualifier. Wallace has run 2:00.48. But they both raced the 1,000 IN the same way: leading, fading hard, then closing harder.

Look at the rest of finishers, though. Not a ton to be gleamed from determining their primary event and it also seems like your placement with a lap to go doesn’t matter at all as there’s a ton of movement in the closing 200m.

Now this is speculation as a dweeb who’s watched a lot of indoor 1,000 meter races, but it seems like nobody really knows how to race that distance. When the bell rings, you either find out your goose is totally cooked already or you played it too conservatively and now have a stupid kick left.

Compare the wild fadings and flourishes in the last lap of the 1k, with what takes place in the closing loops of the 600 meter and two-mile races at the 2015 USATF Indoor Championships, below.

The 600 meter races were contested by basically exclusively speed-based 800 meter runners. In the women’s race, Ajee’ Wilson led from the start, but faded to last over the last lap. Take her out of the equation though and there’s no shuffling of the top three finishers (Montano, Wright, Malasate) over the last lap. Obviously the leader dropping into last during the last lap is a big happening, but otherwise, this race lacked chaos.

Casimir Loxsom won it leading from the gun, because he’s a rare example of an athlete whose probable best event is this off-distance one. Beyond that, we can draw a conclusion or two from the chart on how to successfully race the six-hundo. Unless you’re the American Record holder in the event, you really shouldn’t go out too aggressively. Wieczorek took second by closing hard over the last lap. Hutchison grabbed third by holding his ground, and basically not dying.

The key takeaway is that by the time these athletes hit the bell lap, except for one extreme example in each race, those jockeying for the podium had established themselves, and there weren’t as many surprises as in the 1,000 meter races. Just to drive the point home, let’s dig into the two-mile charts.

So the real point to be made here, is that in a race as long as the two-mile, for the most part, by the last 400 meters, those who stand a chance at placing are out in the lead, and aren’t going anywhere. In the women’s race, those within the top six didn’t change from 600 meters out, and only shuffled places within that grouping.

In the men’s race we see something similar, except for Taylor Gilland’s backsliding. The top five battled internally, but no newcomers were admitted in the final quarter. As with any race, there is some degree of uncertainty.

But nothing like the weirdness of the 1K.

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