This month, over 600 of the world’s best track and field athletes will gather in Portland, Oregon, to compete in the IAAF World Indoor Championships. Portland 2016 will mark the second time the biennial event has been held in the U.S.—Indianapolis hosted in 1987—and should provide a good indication of who is looking sharp in the lead up to this summer’s Olympic Games.
It’s already been an auspicious year for American indoor running. At the most recent Millrose Games , a prestigious annual indoor meet that is hosted by the Armory Foundation in upper Manhattan, American Matthew Centrowitz edged out rival Nick Willis in the Wanamaker Mile to win in 3:50.63, making Centrowitz the fourth fastest indoor miler of all time. One week earlier, on the same track, Drew Hunter became only the seventh U.S. high schooler to run a sub-4 minute mile, and the only one besides Jim Ryun and Alan Webb to run under 3:59. (Hunter, who goes to school in Virginia, also ran the mile in “B” heat at the Millrose Games, and set a high school indoor record by running 3:57.81.) In the Millrose Games 3,000-meter race, Bowerman Track Club star Ryan Hill triumphed over a stacked field. His time of 7:38.82 is the fastest in the world this year.
Given that Ryan Hill has also had significant success running outside—last summer he outkicked Ben True and Galen Rupp to win the U.S. 5,000-meter title—I figured he would be a good person to ask about the difference of competing indoors vis-à-vis racing on a 400-meter track.
“Indoors, the biggest difference is that it’s a 200-meter track and the turns are banked. So it’s almost like a roller derby,” Hill told me over the phone. “So, tactically, there are some big differences. It’s a lot harder to pass indoors, a lot more traffic, and you’re touching one another throughout the entire race.”
Hill said that he was constantly jostling for position over the last half mile of the Millrose 3,000. As his roller derby analogy suggests, there’s a level of physical proximity in indoor racing that isn’t usually a factor outside.
“It’s very intimate,” Hill said of indoor track. “You’re all on top of each other—from a competitor standpoint and from a spectator standpoint. You feel like you’re all in the action together. Much more than in outdoor track.”
I asked Hill whether he thought that this makes indoor track and field more exciting to watch.
“It could potentially be more exciting,” he said, “there’s more conflict and spectators like that.”
Another reason why indoor track might be more spectator-friendly is that, due to the spatial constraints, distance races at indoor meets are usually shorter. The 3,000 is the longest event at next month’s World Championships, while the 10,000 meters (25 laps on a 400-meter track) is still a fixture on the outdoor circuit. In an age where we all carry limitless digital distraction in our pockets, it’s hardly cynical to suggest that there’s only so long an average person will want to watch someone run around an oval.
It wasn’t always this way.
A front page New York Times article, dated November 26, 1908, reports that an indoor marathon that took place the night before was “the most spectacular foot race that New York ever has witnessed.” The venue was Madison Square Garden, and the event only had two participants: an Italian named Dorando Pietri and John Hayes, the Irish-American who won the marathon at the London Olympics that same year—from which Pietri was cruelly disqualified. In an arena filled with dust and tobacco smoke, the two men dueled in front of a packed house of thousands of raucous spectators, running 26 miles and 385 yards on a track that was only one-tenth of a mile long. In a section of the Times article sub-headed “Crowd Wildly Enthusiastic,” one gets a sense of what the atmosphere must have been like:
“Throughout the race Dorando, as he must be called, led the seemingly plodding pace around and around 262 circuits of the prepared track on which the race was run, and the crowd watched and shrieked appreciation of every move of the long grind until at the climax, when Dorando, leading by a distance that made him seem sure of winning, finished the twenty-sixth mile, and the crowd began to acclaim him victor.”
According to the article, the audience rushed the track at this point, despite the fact that the athletes still had two laps to run. Police and race officials were able to keep a lane open so Pietri and Hayes would able to finish. The Italian won in 2:44:20.
Almost one hundred years later, the Armory Foundation in New York wants to recreate some of the excitement. From April 8 to April 10, it will be hosting a round-the-clock indoor marathon at its facility, which also happens to be the site of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Fourteen time slots are available, both to individuals and relay teams of up to eight people. Prize money will be paid to the individual winners of the championship women’s and men’s race, with a bonus for anyone who is able to set a new world record. (For reasons that should be obvious, indoor marathon world records are rather modest: 2:27:21 for men, and 2:53:53 for women.) The Armory has a seating capacity of 2,500 and race organizers are hoping the event will appeal to both runners and potential spectators.
But it’s not 1908 anymore. Will people actually show up to watch an indoor marathon?
Jonathan Schindel, executive vice president of the Armory Foundation and director of the upcoming race, argues that, from an audience standpoint, an indoor marathon actually makes a lot of sense.
“It’s really not a great spectator sport,” Schindel said, referring to a typical outdoor marathon. “It’s 26 miles and you get to see the runners one time as they flash past you.”
In an arena, on the other hand, spectators get to see the whole race unfold.
“One of the cool things about doing it indoors is that the crowd can be part of the race, and that’s going to be exciting for the competitors and exciting for the crowd–you don’t just see the runner go by once,” Schindel said.
Time will tell whether spectators prefer to see runners go by 200 times, rather than once, but Schindel certainly knows how to sweeten the deal for a prospective live audience.
“We’ll have food and alcohol, and all the refreshments you could possibly want,” he says. “You can call it a tailgating type of opportunity, or you can call it whatever you like, but you’re going to be far more comfortable watching this marathon than any other marathon you can conceive of, unless you’re watching at home.”
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