May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1995

They are human bullets. Their world is defined by 100-meter lengths of track. Their goal? To run as fast as a body can. Then faster. By Daniel Coyle

It's a sunny January afternoon on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. After hibernating through a week of the decade's worst storms, the university's variegated citizenry has emerged. ValGals, surfers, cyberpunks, fly girls, skate rats, B-Boys, and stoners, they wander stuporous and blinking amid the faux-Moorish arches, inhaling the eucalyptus-scented air and exchanging tribal salutes. A few seek out the green expanse of the soccer field, where they flop earthward, stacks of textbooks fanning out from loosened grips, faces fixed in ecstatic grins.

Next to the soccer field, on a terra-cotta-colored track, two men stand at the top of a straightaway. Dennis Mitchell and Jon Drummond are the top-ranked and third-ranked 100-meter sprinters in the world. A few weeks from his 29th birthday, Mitchell is in the prime of his career; the 26-year-old Drummond is a relative newcomer, having established himself on the world circuit only last year. Their workplace, Ervin C. Drake Stadium, is built along the base of a steep hill, draping them in shadow.

For Mitchell and Drummond, it's just as well: Sunlight might be a distraction. It could blind them momentarily with a glint off the aluminum bleachers, or throw disorienting shadows across the lanes as they accelerate, or require them to don the weight of sunglasses. It could warm the track's rubber compound a few degrees so that it responds differently beneath the calibrated steel teeth of their shoes, so that it feels different beneath the skin of their forefingers and thumbs as they crouch in the blocks, preparing their bodies to undergo the violent physiological event that sprinters and biomechanists alike refer to as "explosion."

Today's drill--today's only drill--will be starts, timed 20-meter sprints from the blocks. Their coach, John Smith, stands trackside, casually twirling his starter's pistol. "Runners, take your marks," he says.

Smith pauses, allowing his athletes about 15 seconds to go through their private ritual, the fastidious choreography of stretches and twitches, a brief testing of every vital moving part, accomplished in unfailing sequence: Achilles, ankles, calves, quads, hams, butt, shoulders, neck. Delicately, in stages, they load their bodies into the starting blocks. Then all movement subsides, hands tense and bridge like those of billiard players, and eyes lock on to some predetermined point a few inches in front of the line. In a soft voice, Smith gives the command--set--and they rise.

Seven times the gun fires, and seven times Mitchell and Drummond vault down the track, spikes hammering in frighteningly loud staccato. As they pass the 20-meter mark, an assistant checks a stopwatch and calls out the split times. Hearing the numbers--which vary from the previous sets by a few hundredths of a second, no more--Mitchell and Drummond trundle back to the blocks, brows crinkled, arms swinging in slow-motion pantomime. They're replaying the start in their minds, parsing the explosion into its component forces and arcs.

"My angles were a little off on that one."

"Stood up too fast, most definitely."

"First step was out here." A toe is placed, then replaced, balletlike, two inches to the left. "Not here."

Though it is impossible for an unschooled observer to tell, the last start is fastest. The assistant calls the splits, and the coach smiles. Drummond, the more ebullient of the two runners, shouts with pleasure and bounds puppylike toward the infield. But Mitchell, the veteran, is dissatisfied.

"I just didn't feel it." He walks back to the blocks, his handsome face creasing into a scowl, his spikes penetrating the track with a barely audible snick. "I just didn't feel aggressive. When I passed that line, it wasn't there."

Mitchell's hands, like those of all 100-meter runners, have small calluses on the second joint of the thumb, protective coverings from the friction and heat of the start. His forefingers tap the calluses in quick alternating rhythm. His eyes drop to the track.

"I could've run faster."

They stride five times a second. Each stride spans more than seven feet. They reach 95 percent maximum velocity in less than three seconds and out-accelerate many sports cars for the first 30 feet. Their top speed is slightly less than 27 miles an hour.

There's an old saying among sports physiologists that 100-meter runners are the only athletes who require neither heart nor lungs to complete their event. During each foot-strike, the sprinter's body must produce nearly a half-ton of vertical force. In one race, a field of eight runners releases enough energy to boil a gallon jug of ice. In ten seconds.

From an actuarial standpoint, their season consists of five or six major races, or less than 60 seconds of performance. For those skilled enough to reach the top of the profession, the sum of a career may be contained in a span of ten minutes, over which medals, glory, and vast sums of money are parceled out to the cadence of a hundredth of a second.

Compressed as a diamond, the 100-meter race cannot properly be defined as a sport. You play football. You don't play sprinting (as Deion Sanders discovered on several occasions in college by observing Dennis Mitchell's rapidly receding backside). The 100 meters is abstract expressionism, athletics distilled to mind-bending purity, a violent act of creation whose roots trace back to the Greek concept of agon--the primal compulsion to seek personal supremacy. Hailed in Europe, lost in the made-for-MTV theatricals of modern American sport, 100-meter runners are human bullets, projectiles agonistes, test pilot and machine twined in a single fragile entity. Unlike the bull-necked hulks of weight lifting who battle gravity, or the spindly divas of gymnastics who conspire toward art, sprinters spar with time itself. Tawny, muscle-cloaked exotics, they are the last cartoon superheroes in sport: fly-waisted dynamos able to catapult themselves into unknown dimensions. Their genius is simply their ability to do what we all know how to do, what we are born wanting to do: They run fast. The appeal of simple foot-speed, one leg in front of the other, a lone figure racing ahead of the pack, hums in our shared psyche, vibrating in some rope of our DNA. A superlative race makes fools of us all; we cannot muster words, only a stammering mind-glow: Him! It's him! No--no--there! Him! Look! Yes! Yes! Yes! As Emily Dickinson said about poetry, you know it's great when it takes the top of your head off.

The runners' experience is not dissimilar.

"I feel full when I cross that line, full of everything," says Mitchell. "It's like a tingling sensation from my fingertips to my toenails, like there's no more I can do. Literally, I can do no more. It's like getting the Holy Ghost or something." He laughs, showing sharp teeth. "I know it sounds strange that somebody would get that feeling from running a straightaway, but I do. I've tried other events, and I always go back to the 100 meters, because that's where I get the feeling."

"There's a feeling, a vibration that is unique," says Smith, himself a former world-record holder in the 440-yard dash. "It comes when you've never been in that space before. There's a moment when you feel superhuman--everything's moving fast, but you're in total control. That's when you are the moment."

And at this particular moment in history, sprinting is graced with a Fab Five of unprecedented talent: Mitchell, Drummond, Leroy Burrell, Carl Lewis, and Britain's Linford Christie. Nine months of the year, they train and race in preparation for a handful of high-stakes summer meets in the United States and Europe. Their first test (Christie excepted) will be this month's National Outdoor Championships, in Sacramento, California; next is August's world championships, in Sweden. Their grail, of course, is the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics.

But with barely a year before Atlanta, no dominant performer has yet emerged. The faster the five run, it seems, the more intense the rivalries become; the more intense the rivalries, the faster they run. In this violent spiral, each race has become a ritualized collision, a treacherous opera holding the possibility of depravity, such as last summer's fistfight between two contenders, and beauty, such as Leroy Burrell's unexpected 9.85-second world-record, set a few weeks earlier. The histrionics are not without justification: Olympic gold is bankable at about one million dollars, say the marketeers, more if accompanied by a world record. Will anyone recall who takes silver? Bronze?

In Homer's Iliad, Odysseus races against the speedy Aias for a prize wine bowl of inestimable value. Falling behind, he prays to the goddess Athena, who facilitates his victory by causing Aias to slip and fall in a pile of ox dung. In a John Maddenlike riff of play-by-play, Homer depicts the unlucky loser: "Aias' mouth / and nose were plastered, plugged with muck... [He] spat / the dung out of his mouth before he said: / 'Damn the luck: she did for me, that goddess / always beside [Odysseus], like a coddling mother!' / At this the crowd laughed at him..."

It's a lesson these five already know: Win or eat shit, and hope the gods are listening when you pray.

"Let me put it like this." Jon Drummond is seated on a bench in UCLA's weight room, holding forth amid the clangor and grunts. Thus far in the conversation he has been animated and talkative, his lips moving carefully around new braces. But now his manner changes. Drummond pauses and leans forward confidentially, letting a half-beat fall between each word.

"It's good for the media not to know everything that goes on between sprinters." He tilts back, contented. Asked to elaborate, he will reveal only a Cheshire-cat grin of glinting metal.

Let's see. Is he referring to the trash-talking they engage in before the race? The fact that some sprinters, if seated close to the others on a plane or in a restaurant, will move? The territorial stare-downs during warm-ups? The prerace rituals of intimidation, when each gesture, each word--good luck--is rotated on edge and flicked like a blade? The postrace jawing, the chest-thumping rematch-demanding walk back to the starting area? The much-decried financial one-upmanship, whereby exorbitant appearance fees elevate top-quality fields beyond the grasp of meet budgets? The spitballing waged in the European press, in which each sprinter feigns surprise when asked about his competitors--Carl who? Linford who? Leroy who? Sprinters aren't exactly known for hugging, that's well established. But what are they going to do, try to kill each other?

Well, sort of.

At around 2 A.M. last August 18, in the tastefully appointed lobby of the Hotel Nova-Park in Zurich, a few hours after the richest meet of the season, Dennis Mitchell and Nigerian sprinter Olapade Adeniken started fighting. The incident began with an angry exchange of words, and then, according to the best accounts (the International Amateur Athletic Federation has forbidden Mitchell and Adeniken to discuss what happened), a Van Damme movie broke out.

Mitchell allegedly went toe-to-toe with Adeniken, exchanging a dozen punches before the Nigerian went down, bleeding from cuts to his face. When American hurdler Roger Kingdom grabbed Mitchell, Mitchell's physical therapist, Terry Simes, went after Adeniken, only to be put in a choke hold by a hotel security guard. Trying to help Simes, Jon Drummond leaped onto the security guard's back, and the three collapsed in a pile. Meanwhile, Adeniken regained his feet, head-butted someone (nobody's sure whom), fired a karate kick at Mitchell, and was again knocked to the carpet, where the enraged Mitchell stomped on his neck. Adeniken headed home with a mild concussion and two stitches in his cheek, his season ended. Mitchell, relatively unscathed, continued to run.

Not surprisingly, the motivation for this ugliness might be filed under "testosterone." Mitchell said Adeniken had cursed his mother and sister to their faces a few days earlier in the Raleigh-Durham airport, whereas Adeniken gamely claimed he was just saying hello. Others pointed to the fact that neither had run particularly well that night, finishing in the pack behind Christie. More revealing perhaps was the sprinting community's blasé reaction. "I'm surprised it wasn't worse," went the standard response.

Perhaps Linford Christie summed it up when he said that hurdlers get along precisely because they have hurdles, something to distract them from one another. Sprinters, shorn of any distraction, must regard one another as obstacles. They can't reveal a crack, no matter how slight, in the brittle cuticle wrapping the self. Boundaries must be drawn, rules oberserved. As the saying goes, the race is 100 meters long and one lane wide. Explaining the catalyst for the Mitchell-Adeniken brawl, witnesses on both sides reached for the same metaphor: A line was crossed.

Such a sentiment is ironic, because among the Fab Five, fate would seem to have scripted a closeness. The four Americans were raised within 25 miles of one another in the working-class lowlands of Delaware Valley; Christie, in London's rough West End. Their backgrounds, in most cases, are like echoes: close families, talented siblings, caring coaches. They are mature (average age 30), intelligent businessmen, well versed in the ironies of being a successful black man in a predominately white nation. But when race time approaches, commonalities fade.

Top-ranked in the world, Dennis "The Menace" Mitchell is a drill-sergeant's son from Sicklerville, New Jersey. Best known for his prerace routine, an intimidatory mélange of barks, snarls, and karate chops that belies his smiling off-track demeanor, Mitchell's Bruce Lee tendencies sometimes overshadow his steady achievements: two Olympic medals, four consecutive world rankings no lower than fifth; last year, his second under John Smith, he scored the number-one ranking for a second time. The breakthrough race, however, has eluded him. Favored for gold in the Carl Lewis-less 100 meters at the Barcelona Games, Mitchell was called for a false start and was forced to linger in the blocks while Christie, a man he had regularly beaten, vaulted from relative obscurity to stardom with a gold medal.

Perhaps the person most responsible for Mitchell's own leap to fame, however, is Carl Lewis. Growing up a half-hour from Lewis's hometown of Willingboro, New Jersey, Mitchell was naturally drawn into the wake of the burgeoning star: They ran for the same track team and were part of talented brother-sister duos--Carl and Carol, Dennis and Denise. When Lewis hit the big time, teenage Dennis played admiring younger brother, pasting Lewis's picture over his bed, tagging along during the 1984 Olympic trials. But as time passed, the parallels proved too confining. When he was recruited by Lewis's alma mater, the University of Houston, Mitchell chose Florida. When Lewis tried to persuade him to join his Santa Monica Track Club, Mitchell said no thanks. The two friends grew distant, once nearly coming to blows at a 1988 press conference when Mitchell felt Lewis had shown disrespect for him. Even now, toward the end of his daily weight-lifting sessions, Mitchell grunts a name with each rep: Leroy. Jon. Linford. He always saves Carl for last.

Ranked second is Linford Christie, the defending Olympic champion. At age 35, the hard-eyed Brit has perfected his on- and off-track role as the Impervious Outsider--avoiding the Americans' squabble to become the 1993 world and European champion and 1994's second-ranked sprinter. Starting the sport full-time at the late age of 25, Christie has come to be worshipped in Britain, where his family's gritty story (his father is a lowly BBC porter, his brother is a convict, Christie himself was wrongfully jailed for possession of a stolen car and subsequently awarded a small settlement) has provided regular tabloid fodder. Christie will run in Atlanta, he has declared, only if he knows he can win the gold.

One of several runners standing between Christie and more Olympic glory is third-ranked Jon Drummond, for whom the 1994 season served as a coming-out party. Hazel-eyed and eminently quotable, he is alluring enough to have been featured in a British teen magazine and fast enough to have beaten Christie twice last year, a feat no one else accomplished. Drummond irritates competitors with his prerace routine of yelping, dancing, and working the crowd, but he's young and smart enough not to care. (Case in point: He accidentally ran a relay leg with a comb stuck in his hair two years ago; he now brandishes a comb before races. "The Europeans go crazy," he says.) The son of a Philadelphia minister, Drummond preached sermons as a child and now serves as booking agent and backup singer for Kirk Franklin & The Family, a popular gospel troupe. The charisma translates. "He did a solo one time," says Franklin, "and the ladies were going crazy. He brought the house down...and I mean down."

Next is Leroy Burrell, who would be overlooked in such raucous company were he not the current holder of the world record. Like Mitchell, this soft-spoken 28-year-old from Landsdowne, Pennsylvania, was compared to Lewis at an early age. Unlike Mitchell, Burrell liked it: He followed in Lewis's footsteps to Houston and then to the Santa Monica Track Club. The most powerful runner of the group, he can sometimes be erratic, a fact that observers attribute to his fluctuating weight ("One year he's lean, the next he's the Pillsbury Dough Boy," says one coach) and a slight tendency to get distracted--a variable that assumes new importance with the recent birth of Cameron Malik, his first child. Still, Burrell has made a habit of overcoming setbacks and distractions. Legally blind in his right eye, a result of an untreated childhood eye disorder, and with a left knee scarred from 1986 reconstructive surgery, Burrell has quietly built a remarkable sprinting career in Lewis's shadow. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed with the spotlight squarely on him.

Finally, haunting each race, there's Carl Lewis--or more accurately, the specter of Carl Lewis. The corporeal Lewis will turn 34 in July and hasn't gone sub-ten in the 100 meters since 1991. But when you're the finest track and field athlete in history, you can win in other ways. Lewis, still by far the largest drawing card on the circuit, is known to agitate fellow runners to anger with his stare. With eight gold medals, Lewis is gunning for his fourth Olympics (without the 1980 boycott, it would be his fifth), and he is not being underestimated. "People have written him off before, and they've always been wrong," says John Smith. "Carl can still inconvenience a career."

Complicating matters more, the top four Americans are divided into two competitive mini-cartels, corporate tribes with radically different styles, that regard each other with wariness, if not dislike. On one hand, there's the powerful and exclusive Santa Monica Track Club, home of Lewis and Burrell, whose decade-plus domination of the track business is best symbolized by the dark-windowed limousines that it demands from meet promoters rich enough to afford its runners. Masonic, exclusive, and protective of its members, Santa Monica was the first organization to successfully apply a corporate approach to track. But as its prize asset teeters on the verge of retirement, its long-term future is subject to question.

"What makes Santa Monica tick is Carl Lewis," says Tony Campbell, a prominent sports agent and manager. "Once he retires, they're going to drop a few notches--that's the general consensus."

In the opposing camp is John Smith, a 44-year-old, six-foot-two embodiment of street wit and Hollywood charm who, together with Vector Sports Management, represents Mitchell and Drummond. A Santa Monica coach who broke away in 1990, Smith is an eclectic, flamboyant teacher who carries a cassette of Sun Tzu's The Art of War in his Lexus and, not too surprisingly, has created a niche in a track world weary of Santa Monica's cold-blooded success.

And yet, as one discovers in talking to Santa Monica founder Joe Douglas, the rivalry between Santa Monica and Smith cuts deeper than mere business. Like the race itself, competition has become personal.

"If you're talking to Smith, we don't want to be in the story," Douglas says briskly. "I don't want to legitimize those people. I know they're going to attack us. Dennis Mitchell's going to trash-talk, Drummond's going to pump himself up--they're like Dennis Rodman, nothing but red and green hair. Some folks like that. We don't, and we're not going to cooperate." (On Douglas's advice, Lewis and Burrell declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Smith, who says he harbors no resentment toward his former colleague, has his own theory for the bad blood. "Somebody came out of school and is now kicking the teacher's ass." He smiles dazzlingly. "And the teacher doesn't like it very much."

It's hot. Incandescently hot. He looks around, and sees a washed-out sky, a white sun, and a red track that burns to the touch. He can't tell what country he's in or what year it is. The air is still. A disembodied voice issues the command. Runners, take your marks. He loads himself into the blocks and notices without surprise that the other seven lanes are empty. Set. The gun blasts, and everything goes black. He feels the perfect, flowing sensation of moving fast, faster than he's ever run, like he's being pulled down the track, like he's running downhill. As he breaks the tape, he regains his vision, and a number flashes. 9.83. The crowd screams. A world record.

"I throw up my hands at the line, and the dream cuts off," says Dennis Mitchell. "It drove me crazy--I wanted to celebrate."

The day after his 1992 dream, Mitchell graffitied his house with the number, scribing it on pieces of paper that he taped to his television, microwave, refrigerator, car dashboard, bathroom mirror, front door, gear bag, kitchen table, toilet. He named his infant music company 9.83 Records. He wanted the number everywhere, a mantra by which to live.

Most runners and coaches agree that the perfect race has not yet been run. Even when setting world records, as Lewis and Burrell have each done twice, there is invariably some aspect of the race that could have been tighter, cleaner, faster--such as the exhausted, near-staggering finish to Burrell's 9.90 in 1991. Even in the much-heralded Tokyo race later that year, when Lewis's 9.86 led four runners under 9.92, observers could nitpick Lewis's start. The perfect race, as in Mitchell's dream, functions as a Platonic ideal. It's fundamentally not of this world.

And perhaps that's the point. An unattainable goal allows the athletes, like Trappists, to build a life around the paradox of the never-ending search. Training only a few hours a day, sprinters are often derided by other track athletes as experts at wasting time. More accurately, they are experts at clearing space in their lives so they can focus on the few seconds that matter. Lying around the house is an art form: Drummond is a feared Sega Genesis player; Burrell, a pasta gourmet; most everyone is a card sharpie. Mitchell loves cartoons and programs his VCR to turn on at seven each morning so he doesn't miss Spiderman and The Fantastic Four. ("The eighties was a rough time for me," he says, shaking his head. "All that Smurf bullshit. Now it's better--they got some action.")

Overheard in casual conversation, a sprinter might be mistaken for a member of a quilting circle. Sample topics: how well one's been sleeping, how much weight one's lost, where one might find a good muffin. Away from the track, sprinters exchange vitamin tips. They speak admiringly of those who can travel without jet lag and offer cutting reviews of one another's warm-up suits. They appreciate low-cal chicken recipes. As their earnings reach the mid-six figures (meet appearance fees plus shoe-company sponsorships), they also discuss BMWs, investments, and Napa wines. But always, beneath the surface, the race is there. Sitting at a stoplight, Drummond visualizes himself in the blocks. When the light turns, his foot hits the gas pedal. "I try to get up front most of the time," he explains.

At big meets, sprinters will travel with a masseur, a physical therapist, an agent, occasionally a lawyer, and assorted family members. Some bring their own starting blocks. If a gear bag is heavy, an associate will shoulder it from the hotel to the track to ensure that the runner doesn't become imbalanced.

Their training is a continuous cycle of suffering and recovery. Hard day is followed by easy day; strength work is followed by speed work. The objective is to stress the muscle fibers and connective tissues and then to rest, allowing the body to perform its unique brand of alchemical voodoo, in which it rebuilds itself stronger than before. Rarely will they run 100 meters in practice, preferring to divide the race into its key segments--reaction, block clearance, acceleration, maintenance--and hone their ability in each.

But the sprinter's cycle of exhilaration and pain plays out most fully in the race itself. A good start, it is said, should look like syrup coming out of a bottle--smooth, short steps lengthening as the sprinter gradually straightens up. By ten or 15 meters, strides are evening out and the athlete is in what is referred to as the acceleration phase of his race. Here, some sprinters visualize gear changes, gradually reaching maximum velocity at around 60 meters. The point is to hold that speed as long as possible--around ten meters, maybe 20. Then, as Jon Drummond says, "It's time to pray."

The last ten to 15 meters of the race, everyone is decelerating. It can't be helped. Rigor mortis, the runners call it, the time when the muscles stop obeying, the limbs start slowing and seizing up, causing the runner to lurch drunkenly, angrily toward the tape. The only cure is counterintuitive--the sprinter must stop trying so hard. He must relax and concentrate on form. The late-race surge that defined Lewis in his prime was in fact no surge at all. He simply had more control over his deceleration. "Try to run hard, and you won't," says Tom Tellez, Santa Monica's head coach and guru. "You have to stay smooth to the finish."

If trained properly over a season, a sprinter can eventually reach the Edge, the Peak, the Zone--coaching shorthand for the sprinter's nirvana, the realm where the body feels pulled along by a force greater than itself. Such peak form can't be held for long--a few weeks, longer if a runner is careful. The trick is to reach it at precisely the right time and to avoid mistakes. Because the Edge can be a dangerous place.

"Good sprinters can feel when they're getting close," says Curtis Frye, a member of USA Track & Field's sprint development committee and assistant track coach at the University of North Carolina. "It's like a car--the human body acts strange when it's going at absolute top speed. You've got to get to a certain point and try to hold on to it. If you get fired up and go past it, you'll get major injuries. Something just snaps."

Mark Witherspoon, Barcelona Olympics, 100-meter semifinal: torn Achilles tendon. Hasley Crawford, 1976 Montreal Olympics, 100 meters: pulled hamstring. Don Quarrie, 1972 Munich Olympics, 200-meter final: a hamstring torn so violently that the pop could be heard from the stands. A few weeks after setting his world record last summer, still in peak form, Leroy Burrell injured the arch of his foot and sat out the rest of the year. The image of the sprinter crumpled in agony, fists pounding the track, flickers in the sport's consciousness. When your job is to push the envelope of human limits, the center cannot always hold. Things break apart.

In a small, plainly furnished laboratory in the resort community of Grand Cypress in Orlando, Florida, the world's finest sprinter does most of his workouts. Actually, it is unclear whether this individual should be referred to by the masculine or feminine pronoun, since the world's finest sprinter is a computer-generated line drawing with an alarmingly long proboscis.

"I don't call it much of anything," says Ralph Mann, a lanky biomechanist who at 45 looks not much older than when he won the silver in the 400-meter hurdles at the Munich Games. "But people who come to see it mostly call it Stick Man."

Fifteen years ago, Mann began gathering slow-motion film of sprint performances. Projecting the image of a sprinter in motion upon a digitizer, a desk-size tablet with an embedded grid, he recorded and tracked the exact coordinates of specific body points--wrist, arm, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle, ear, and nose--through several strides, creating a biomechanically accurate, if artistically lacking, image of that sprinter's performance.

After collecting data from 150 or so top performances of all time, Mann was able to merge the best of each digitized race. The result is sprinting's version of the ghost in the machine, the spectral embodiment of the modern era's greatest racers at their peaks--Burrell's 9.90 in New York, Lewis's 1984 Olympic gold, Ben Johnson's disallowed 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics. (Mann chuckles at his inclusion of the steroid-banned Johnson, whose attempted 1993 comeback ended when he tested positive for human growth hormone: "He's in there because his performance is something you'd like to do, not necessarily something you can do.") Most important, Mann enabled Stick Man's dimensions to be adjusted to match those of any runner.

A testimonial: Five years ago, Dennis Mitchell was analyzed using Stick Man. It was concluded that, if he could improve his power, he could add four inches to his stride and run a 9.91. After a year of concentrated work, Mitchell lengthened his stride and ran a 9.91. "He was right on," says Mann admiringly, leaving one to wonder whether he's referring to Mitchell or his model.

Running may be inborn in humans, but watching Stick Man move across a black screen--spine upright, knees high and proud, hands snapping chinward--it is difficult to recognize anything of flesh and bone. What one sees instead is a stark illustration of the perilous physics at the heart of the sprinting motion: a body arcing through the air, rescued from disaster at the last possible moment by a flashing limb, and then launched again. Watching Stick Man, it becomes clear what Mann means when he says, "Great sprinters excel in minimizing ground time." They are not running, one gradually understands, as much as they are flying.

When on form, sprinters speak of "clawing," "tipping," or "pawing" the track. A look at the numbers shows why: an improvement of 0.01 second per stride in ground time can subtract, over a 45-stride race, nearly a half-second. A half-second accounts for the difference between a mediocre college runner and the olympic gold-medal winner. How long is that precious 0.01 second? it takes three times as long for a honeybee to beat its wings once.

No one's sure how fast a human can run. One hundred and fifty years ago, the title of the World's Fastest Man was held by the legendary George Seward, an intense Connecticut barnstormer with a Prince Valiant haircut. At Hammersmith, England, on September 30, 1844, from a standing start in unspiked shoes, he was hand-timed at 9.25 seconds in the 100 yards. Eyewitnesses said that, given a few steps, the five-foot-seven Seward could leap over the back of a standing horse.

After Seward departed the scene, the World's Fastest Man title passed duly to Henry Perritt of Georgia, then to John Day of Kentucky, and then to the famed John Wesley Cozad, aka the Plow Boy of California, who was actually from Iowa. Then the mantle was assumed by Englishman Henry Hutchens and, nearing the turn of the century, by Georgetown's Bernard J. Wefers, a handsome lad who rewrote the record book at distances up to 300 yards. From there, the title was passed along a parade of more than 50 runners who broke the record, on the average, every two years, lowering it a steady 0.1 second per decade in the process.

Given potential advancements in training and technology, as well as humankind's general trend toward increased size and strength, most coaches and scientists shy away from forecasting barriers. "I could see a point in the distant future where some [chemically] enhanced kid is running sub-nine," says Bill Carson, head of sprint development for USAT&F and track coach at East Carolina University. But a natural runner? Carson is more circumspect. "Limits apply to individuals."

To satisfy his curiosity, Ralph Mann once boosted the talents of Stick Man slightly beyond those of the world's best runners. The resulting model--built, one is interested to discover, along the same long-legged dimensions as Lewis--would cover 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, nearly three-tenths of a second beneath the current world mark, a span of time equal to humankind's improvement in the event over the last 41 years.

But in the real world, the latest glimpse of near-perfection occurred last summer, on a warm July evening in Lausanne, Switzerland. The videotape shows it all: Leroy Burrell gets out of the blocks behind the field but then finds a rhythm. He accelerates past everyone at 50 meters, breaks into a smile at 80, and crosses the line with arms held wide, tilting like a fighter jet. Nine-eight-five, 0.01 second faster than Lewis's 1991 run, a new world record. Burrell turns an uncharacteristically exuberant cartwheel, and the celebration begins.

More revealing, however, is a photograph taken by Frenchman Jean-Bernard Sieber at the finish. At first we are drawn to the intensity of the other racers' struggle--their grimaced faces, grinding jaws, vein-corded thighs. But then the eye moves to Burrell's face. His mouth and eyes are wide open, his skin creaseless, relaxed. It is a face of unadorned surprise, of childlike astonishment beyond exhaustion or ego. If you were to see his face out of context, it would be impossible to tell whether this person was happy or sad, fearless or scared, in pleasure or in pain. You only would know that he is experiencing something powerful.

While most of these sprinters are religious, none comes off as a prude or is prone to spout the "Jesus won, not me" prattle of some athletes. Their spirituality is carried low and tight; it functions beyond decorative purpose. Perhaps, in attempting to compress their lives onto the proverbial head of a pin, they have earned what many of us lack: intimate knowledge of their limitations, the place where the self ends and something else begins.

"Look into the eyes of somebody who runs a fast time," says John Smith. "They have this blankness--like an aura. Fear is released; they've walked into the unknown and let go. Maybe that's where the body understands what the speed of light is, what absolute zero is, what infinity is." He pauses. "I know, I sound euphoric. But to me, that perfection is beyond logic."

A full moon hangs over the Cuyahoga River on a brilliantly cold February night. Inside the limestone-and-steel ovum of Cleveland's Gund Arena, however, the temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees, and the seats are beginning to fill with the 11,000 spectators who will witness the KeyCorp Track and Field Classic. The Singing Angels, a sequined battalion of perky teens, are midway into their "Achy Breaky Heart / America the Beautiful / You Are My Sunshine" medley, and Dennis Mitchell is under the bleachers, staring at the concrete floor.

"He's not too bad today, but you can't even talk to him the day of a big meet," says his manager, Charlie Wells. "I'll call him on the phone and it's like, 'Fuck you, take care of it, get out of my face.'"

As an early-season 60-meter race, KeyCorp doesn't qualify as a particularly big meet--more like a baseball spring-training game. Accordingly, not everyone is here: Christie is traveling on the more lucrative European indoor circuit, and Burrell and Lewis are at home in Houston, as usual forgoing the indoor season's shorter distances to train for the outdoor. Drummond, who signed to compete, is at home in Los Angeles nursing a groin injury.

"He stepped out of the blocks a little funny last week," Smith said last night in the hotel bar, putting down his snifter of Courvoisier to demonstrate. "Tweaked something. We're going to give it a rest."

All of which leaves Mitchell, never particularly strong indoors, as the race's sole marquee name. His primary opponent is a diminutive, cartoonishly muscular Texan named Henry Neal, an indoor specialist who has won the circuit's first two races. Neal, along with the spectacular but uneven Andre Cason, Nigeria's Adeniken and Davidson Ezinwa, and Namibia's Frank Fredericks, form a second tier of contenders that coaches sometime refer to as Brand X. As the race approaches, Mitchell's mood is light but tempered by concern. Burdened by increased strength work, he hasn't yet performed on par with previous indoor seasons. "I haven't been feeling it yet," he said early in the day. "But I can feel myself coming on."

Now, as he walks onto the track a few minutes before the race, Mitchell passes Neal and the others without acknowledgment. They retreat to the starting area and begin their final warm-ups. Mitchell is wearing black pants, black top, black gloves. He takes a run down his lane, flurries the air with karate chops, then freezes for a long moment in midstep--one leg held up, arms hovering weaponlike--then nods, barks, does a quick about-face, and strides rhythmically back to his blocks. A ripple of noise goes through the arena. A group of Singing Angels squeals with pleasure--a real-life Power Ranger.

Four or five more runs, each one a variation on the samurai theme, and it's time. Sitting trackside, John Smith nervously bounces his leg. Smith's father has just passed away, but he has not told Mitchell for fear it would distract him. "I don't need him trying to win this race for me or anybody else," he says.

With great ceremony, five runners load themselves into the blocks. Mitchell begins his routine: crouch, put hands on line, hop backward into the blocks. Shake legs, kneel, look up once. Wipe hands on shorts--left hand first, then right. Set hands. The crowd quiets. The sprinters rise.

Then it is only color and sound coming too fast to be distinctly comprehended, a glistening pack accelerating in rhythm, a wooden track shaking with their effort, a crowd howling not for an individual's success, but for the human spectacle. Then Neal is in front, his thick body cresting the tape, raising his arms high. Mitchell finishes in the pack, fourth at 6.75 seconds. He works his way through the crowd to his coach.

"Shit, John--6.75?" Mitchell almost spits the words. He is breathing hard.

Gauging his runner, Smith waits before replying. "How'd it feel?" he says finally.

"Like I was jogging." Mitchell glares at the track. A pearl-drop of sweat forms on his chin. "Felt slow...I don't know...like there was no aggressiveness there."

"I didn't see the boom-boom-boom." Smith snaps his fingers in quick rhythm. "I didn't see the explosion."

Mitchell exhales. "It ain't there. I ain't gonna lie to you."

Hurrying to interview the victor of a subsequent race, NBC commentator Carol Lewis walks by. Tall and statuesque, she bears a striking resemblance to her brother, Carl. Passing Mitchell and Smith, microphone in hand, Lewis gives them a friendly hello. Smith returns the greeting. Mitchell stares forward, his face stony. Perhaps he didn't see her. Perhaps he did.

Anyway, there are more important things to do right now. A new training schedule to work on. Another indoor meet next week, in Fairfax, Virginia. A birthday to celebrate--his 29th. And later in the summer, when the weather gets hot, there are little pieces of paper to hang in his house, like prayer flags, to help him run faster.

Daniel Coyle, a former senior editor of Outside, is the author of Hardball: A Season in the Projects (G. P. Putnam's Sons).

Copyright 1995, Outside magazine



More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!