One of the big stories coming out of the Rio Games was Shaunae Miller’s last second dive across the finish line.
To those who have spent any time around the sport it was an atypical but not uncommon ending to a 400m race. Of course unless you have run track then it’s unlikely that you spend much time watching people going in circles on a rubber track – unless it’s an Olympic year.
As such, the finish left many in the twitterverse confused and sparked debate over whether it was ethical for Miller to do so. I’ll explain why it was, what it’s like to run a 400m race, and provide a training program for anyone crazy enough to try their hand at the event.
I’ve actually been a member of a team that benefited from a Miller dive in real life. In high school our girls track team secured a New Jersey State Group 1 Championship because the girl carrying the baton dove across the finish line to win the 4x400m relay – the very last event of the meet.
If you’ve never run a competitive all out 400m race before consider yourself lucky. I was a 400m runner and 400m hurdler for 7 years until a nasty hamstring tear put an early end to my track career at the start of my junior year of college, so I know the event pretty well.
For the uninitiated the race goes like this. Runners are staggered from the starting line through the first curve of the race. Most runners will start out of blocks like a sprinter, however if a longer distance runner (think 800m or 1600m) is coming down to run a 400m they might start standing up.
The cue to start the race is typically two whistles and a gun or two verbal commands – “runners take your marks”…”get set” and then the gun.
My typical race strategy was to go hard out of the blocks until the 100m mark. At that point a coach will be waiting to shout a time from his stopwatch to let me know if I am under, over, or on pace – good teams usually keep a coach at every 100m point to do this.
Through the next 150m the goal is to use longer strides and upright body posture to gain ground without wasting energy with extra steps.
Once you hit the top of the final turn – around 150m left – it’s time to start picking up the pace or ‘kick.’ Since a lot of runners follow this strategy the event tends to become very exciting down the last straightaway as runners try to out kick each other.
Very exciting that is, unless you happen to be running. As a competitor the final 50m of the 400m is like going through the 7th circle of hell…and it’s even worse if you’re doing it over hurdles.
Because the 400m is an anaerobic event sugar is being used as a source of fuel instead of oxygen. When sugar breaks down it creates lactic acid. If you ever noticed your legs starting to feel like jelly during sprints after football practice that was lactic acid saying hello. That feeling won’t subside until you begin consuming oxygen again.
As Miller approached the finish line she likely felt like she had a Cadillac Escalade on her back. If you ever happen to attend a track meet do yourself a favor and hangout near the finish line during the 400m and watch what runners do afterwards. Chances are you’ll see a lot of very fit people curled up in the fetal position next to the track, doubled over with their hands on their knees, or walking around with their hands on their head gasping for air.
To win the event the goal is simply to get ones torso across the finish line before the other competitors. The rules do not prohibit diving and no one who has ever competed in the event would frown upon a runner for doing so. (Quite the opposite actually, most would likely offer a handshake in appreciation for the hardnosed move)
In baseball it is typically argued that diving to beat a throw slows a runner down, but that has more to do with the fact that the baserunner must dive out and down. In track the finish line extends all the way up into the sky. A runner who is neck and neck with another runner can gain a slight edge by extending their torso out across the line while a competitor remains upright and runs through.
It’s also worth noting that, thanks to our friend lactic acid, staying upright may no longer be an option. Athletes collapse in races all the time, and the 400m is arguably the most intense event in the entire sport (the 800m guys may disagree, but whatever). So it’s also entirely possible that Miller felt her legs giving out (I’ve been there) and decided that her best bet to get across the line was to push off one last time and take a leap (dive?) of faith.
So Shaunae Miller won a gold for the new event of land diving, apparently.
Allyson Felix won a gold for running the 400m, in my opinion.
— Strahan Cadell (@Sartor1836) August 16, 2016
Allyson Felix got robbed, if you wanna dive do it in the pool
— Lesean Johnson ⚓️ (@LeseanJohnson) August 16, 2016
Wait seriously you're allowed to dive rather than running thru the line? Allyson Felix got robbed.
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) August 16, 2016
So with apologies to the armchair track and field officials who took to Twitter to contest Miller’s win, the move remains totally legal. And c’mon do you guys even watch sports? What would NFL season be without Dez Bryant extending across the goal line from 4 yards out or a Mets game without Curtis Granderson reaching over the wall to snag a would-be home run? Sacrificing one’s body in the name of victory is what competition is all about, those who disagree are free to collect their participation trophies on their way to the safe zone.
If my description of the 400m has you curious about what it’s like to compete in the event then checkout these 400m workouts from TrackStarUSA.
And if you get bit by the competition bug then AAU is a great place to start.
Even if you decide against competing I guarantee the training alone will have you in the best shape of your life.