10 SECONDS IS A LIFETIME
Donovan Bailey had always been fast. But until
he met the right coach, no-one had
ever taught him how to run
Donovan Bailey seems to have come out of nowhere. Just three years ago, he was a mere alternate on Canada’s 4 x 100 relay team. Then suddenly last summer, on a broiling afternoon in Montreal at the Canadian Track and Field Championships, he ran the 100-metre dash in 9.91 seconds. It was the fastest run of 1995, and the fourth-best performance of all time. No-one has run faster since. Bailey went on to win the 100-metre dash, as well as to anchor Canada’s gold-medal-winning 4 x 100 relay team, at the World Track and Field Championships in Gotenborg, Sweden. Still, the country has not yet embraced the Donovan Bailey phenomenon.
It’s January 12, and although this is the first time he’s raced in Canada since becoming the world champion, not even half the stands are filled at Copps Coliseum for the Hamilton Indoor Games. Organizers are disappointed at the record-low attendance. In 1991, when Ben Johnson marked his post-suspension comeback at this same meet, it was standing room only. Perhaps, even after five and a half years, Ben’s public dethronement is still too raw, too humiliating for us to invest emotionally in another sprinter. Or perhaps it’s simply that track and field captures our imagination only every four years, and Bailey’s accomplishments came in a non-Olympic summer.
As the runners take to the blocks for the fifty-metre dash, though, a buzz of anticipation builds. This is the final race of the evening, the purest test of speed that can be run indoors, and the spectators know they are about to watch the fastest man on the planet – a mantle as universally understood as it is exclusive.
Bailey seems relaxed, his face impassive. Last to remove his sweats, he offers encouragement to his competitors. To his left, in lane three, Bruny Surin, ranked number two in Canada and in the rest of the world too, flicks his legs in nervous impatience, trying to find optimal comfort in the blocks. To Bailey’s right is Donovan Powell, the latest talent to come out of Jamaica. Bailey takes his mark. He looks neither right nor left, nor even down the track. Instead, his head is bent, his eyes focused on the space between his hands. Forming a bridge, his thumb and index finger cradle the start line, the remaining digits splayed, ready to counter the force of legs pushed against the blocks on the next command. The starter instructs the runners into the set position and five men lift. Coiled and poised, Bailey waits to react.
The gun is fired, and the deception begins.
As he lags behind, Bailey creates the illusion that he is a poor starter. Almost every commentator and article mentions this as fact. Bailey, however, has learned that the sprint is not won at the gun, and he has the confidence to be patient.
But more on that later. He pulls even at thirty-five metres. He looks tall and lean, with a lithe and graceful form similar to that of the American Carl Lewis, a two-time Olympic 100-metre champion. When Bailey runs it’s an expression of legs; beside him, Surin is all torso. Heavily muscled, neckless, his head subsumed by shoulders, Surin is a pit bull to Bailey’s greyhound.
Bailey lunges to the tape first. His time is 5.62 seconds, a Canadian record by 0.05 seconds and just 1/100th of a second off a world-record time that has stood for twenty-three years. Surin finishes fourth in 5.70. A month later Bailey will crush the world record at a meet in Reno, Nevada.
Donovan Bailey has risen from obscurity to superstardom at an age --he’s now twenty-eight – when a lot of sprinters are considering retirement. It turns out that he has had the makings of greatness all along, even if he didn’t have the inclination.“Technically, Donovan came a long way from where he was,” his coach, Dan Pfaff, explains. “I don’t think that anyone ever convinced him that there was a model for sprinting.”
So Pfaff did.
Because the 100-metre dash is the rawest of athletic events, the human eye has a hard time comprehending it as anything but a mad lunge down the straightaway. For a world-class sprinter, however, ten seconds is a lifetime. Separating immortal from also-ran is a moment, an interval of time literally less than the blink of an eye. Albert Einstein said, “I want to know God’s thoughts. All the rest are details.” For Dan Pfaff, the opposite is true: when a tenth of a second is everything, detail is god.
It’s a month after the Hamilton win, a warm February day in Austin, Texas. Dan Pfaff sits quietly in the first row of the bleachers at the University of Texas’s Longhorn Stadium, watching his athletes. He answers my questions with drawling, laconic replies, pondering vowels, never taking his eyes off the runners. He metes out advice to them only when prompted, precise instructions interspersed by a stream of tobacco juice into a Gatorade cup. “Work on your breathing pattern,” he tells Glenroy Gilbert, a member of Canada’s 4 x 100 team and another sprinter who is a click away from superstardom. “I’d like to see four and four rather than five and five because right now you’re holding.” Gilbert is trying to inhale over five strides and exhale over the same, but Pfaff thinks he’s straining too much. I am amazed that he can discern a breathing pattern. I am also amazed that a sprinter can adjust it on demand.
As an assistant coach at the University of Houston, Pfaff worked under the guru of sprinting, Tom Tellez, coach to both Carl lewis and the current 100-metre world-record holder Leroy Burrell (9.85 seconds in 1994). He went on to become field-events coach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge before taking over at Texas. He has a masters degree in sports science and has done doctoral work in motor learning. He inspires reverence and unbridled loyalty in his athletes. Bailey, who calls him “one of the most intelligent human beings I know,” didn’t think twice about moving from Baton Rouge to Austin when Pfaff changed schools.
Pfaff first noticed Bailey during a training session at the 1993 World Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. “I was practising [relay] hand-offs to Glenroy and Dan said, ‘You’ve got all the tools to be world class, you just have to get serious.’” What Pfaff saw was a terrible starter, a sprinter who was a technical nightmare with no coordination, and who was still managing to run fast in spite of his inefficiency. Bailey packed his bags and headed down to Baton Rouge. “Basically, I decided I was going to quit everything I was doing and give this a shot.”
Bailey had long been in need of just this kind of intervention. The son of a machinist, the fourth of five boys from a comfortable middle-class family in Oakville, Ontario, Bailey had been a teenage track star almost despite himself. Basketball was his preferred sport at Queen Elizabeth High School. The rigours of daily track practices held so little appeal for him that each year he was cut from the team. Motivated by the social (rather than athletic) opportunities track afforded, Bailey annually reinstated himself by beating everyone else on the last day of practice. His best high-school performance was 10.65 in the 100 metres at the Halton Championships, just one-tenth of a second off the provincial high-school record of the time. After graduating, he didn’t lace up a pair of spikes again for five years. In the meantime, he received a diploma in business administration at Sheridan College, continued his basketball career as a small forward on the college team, and worked as a marketing consultant.
He returned to the track to quell the what if? voice inside his head. “I realized from very early on that I was blessed with speed. Basically, what I wanted to do was not get older and regret not doing something I could have been good at.” Running out of the Phoenix Track Club in Toronto in 1991, his first season back, Bailey finished fourth in the sixty-metre dash at the Canadian Indoor championships. His talent was evident, but sprinting was still just a part-time hobby. The next year, hampered by injuries, still not fully committed, he placed second in the 100 metres at the nationals. But his time of 10.48 seconds wasn’t fast enough to rank him even among the planet’s top 200.
His career, and his attitude, changed in 1993. By medalling in both the 100 metres and 200 metres at the national championships, Bailey won himself a spot on Canada’s 4 x 100 relay team for the world championships in Stuttgart. He made the trip, but at the last minute the Athletics Canada coaches dropped him from the squad, telling him they wanted to use runners with more experience in big meets. He was furious. He decided to render the selection committee dispensable in future, by being so fast he couldn’t possibly be turned down. That’s when Dan Pfaff happened along. “When I met Dan I was just an empty book I knew that I was there for a reason but it was like I was lost. I said, ‘You flip the pages and write your script.’”
“I’m interested in the balance, the rhythm, the harmony,” Pfaff says. “I think there is a blend of art and science when you’re coaching sport.” He began with Bailey’s start. Actually, he began before that, working on Bailey’s concentration in the moments before the start.“When I’m in the blocks - and this could be the Olympics or a twilight meet - I hear Dan speak to me. I think about the little things that he teaches me,” Bailey says. The little things include aligning his shoulders over his hands, pressing his back leg hard against the block, making sure his front leg is forty-five degrees off the ground and his hips are in the air. By properly positioning his body in the universe, he reduces everything to an intimate relationship between himself and the sound of the starters pistol. There is no time to think about the bigger picture, or even about ten, twenty, eighty metres down the track. Consumed by details, there is no time to get nervous.
Which is essential, because the art of the 100-metre dash is in achieving a precise balance between relaxation and adrenaline. It’s a conundrum: too nervous and muscles tighten, shorten, constrict, and are no longer able to work to their maximum capacity. Too relaxed and an athlete won’t have enough adrenaline pumping to summon vast reservoirs of energy in a very explosive space of time. The ideal is easy to envisage but hard to execute. Crouched in the blocks, poised for the gun, knowing the dizzying payoffs that await the winner makes it hard to draw slow, even breaths.
Do you remember the 100-metre final at the Seoul Olympics? When the gun went, Ben Johnson popped out of the blocks. While the other runners still had their heads down, he was already fully upright, his Popeye arms pumping, his eyes devouring the finish line. Though this was magnificent to watch - a spectacular display of power - it is not necessarily the best way to start a race.
There is the element of the tortoise and the hare even in the 100 metres, and Pfaff has taught his protege to come out of the blocks like a tortoise. In the pre-Pfaff days, Bailey could rocket off the line with the best of them. “When I first started track I had a whole lot of confidence in my start. But I didn’t know how to run a 100 metre.” Before the race was even half over, Bailey would begin to tighten visibly. By eighty metres he was an unsightly mess of contortion staggering towards the finish line.“When you start a race it’s like you have a nine-volt battery,” Pfaff analogizes.“You have to use that battery wisely.” Bailey was using up seven volts just trying to stay with his competitors early in the race. But because he is such a long-legged guy, he takes longer to unfurl and get into optimal running position. Is it any wonder that sprinters with similar physiques - Carl Lewis, and the former world champion Linford Christie of England - have also been labelled slow starters? They’re not. To think of them in such a way is to mistake strategy for slowness.
The daily highs in February hover around seventy in this part of Texas, making Austin a mecca for winter training. A trio of Russian sprinters are doing laps. Two 400-metre hurdlers from France have been here since the fall. Jamaicans, Austrians, a veritable United Nations of athletes contribute to the mini-Olympic Village feel of the university. Most have come with their own coaches and are simply taking advantage of the facilities here. Some have been invited by Pfaff to work out with his regulars. Others have just shown up, hoping to catch his eye.
The sprinters are easy to spot. They’re the ones who don’t seem to be doing much. Distance runners can will excellence by pounding out endless miles. Throwers can spend hours in the weight room transforming themselves into behemoths, but for sprinters, success is in large part a matter of genetics.
Fast-twitch muscle fibres are to speed what hormones are to the sex drive - the physical manifestation of a rather nebulous phenomenon. Fast-twitch fibres fire quickly, burning glycogen that’s stored in the cells - a fuel supply that’s readily available, but finite. Slow-twitch fibres fire slowly but continuously; burning oxygen pumped in through the blood supply. Though it is true that sprinters have a higher ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibres than the rest of us, the ratio is not an absolute indicator. Sprinters also need a cardiovascular system that can pump enormous amounts of blood, and thus oxygen, into the legs quickly. They must be strong enough to explode out of the blocks. (Bailey bench-presses 225 pounds, which is not a prodigious weight. Glenroy Gilbert bench-presses 325 pounds. But the measure of Bailey’s leg strength - his squat of 505 pounds – is formidable.) Sprinters must, at the same time, be flexible enough to extend through a full range of motion. They must have high muscle elasticity (or bounce) so that, on impact with the track, energy is returned to the body, rather than absorbed by it. And they must have the motor skills to coordinate all this into a fluid running motion.
Training doesn’t breed speed, it fine-tunes it. Which is not to suggest that the sprint does not require hard work, or that sprinters don’t make themselves hurt: the highlight of Pfaff’s Saturday session - three runs of 120 to 200 metres, at full speed, with six-minute recoveries between them - is appropriately referred to as the “puke runs,” even with the precaution of a light breakfast. But today, Pfaff is away with the university team at a meet in Houston, and without his prodding the sprinters are into the second hour of their work-out, and they are still warming up.
Stretches, leg lifts, sit-ups, push-ups, and “Young and Restless” plot developments are demarcated with full-body reclines that threaten to turn into power naps. Bailey stands up, walks slowly to the end of the straightaway, takes a deep breath, then rockets down the track. He repeats this procedure twice more, for a daily dose of speed training that totals less than two city blocks. After strength exercises (tossing the medicine ball and hopping on alternate legs), a very slow half-mile jog cool-down, and a debate on the existence of an afterlife, practice is over. When I comment on the light fare he’s just endured, Bailey is quick to point out that three days a week he’s also in the weight room doing Olympic-style lifts, squats, lunges, bench presses, and toe risers. Trevino Betty, a Canadian long-jumper, rolls off his stomach, props an elbow under his head, and chimes in: “I know you’re going to make it look like we don’t do anything.”
For Bailey, the thirty-metre mark is the fulcrum of the race. At this point he will have taken exactly two breaths: one slow exhale and one slow inhale. But the sibilant air around him - punctured each time his foot strikes the ground - sounds like pistons exploding and leaves the impression he is breathing at a furious rate.
He might be trailing. Carl Lewis usually was. Leroy Burrell did not have the lead at thirty metres when he set the world record. The shorter, more powerful runners - like Bruny Surin, for example- are usually ahead at this point. They have to explode from the gun and hope to win by establishing an early lead and then defending it to the end. “If I’m behind at thirty metres I don’t care,” says Bailey. “You better get off the track because I’m coming to get you.”
Fully upright, Bailey begins his race. When he accelerates, the effect is like a spring releasing. Loading the spring involves a mild assault on the body the day before competition. Lifting weights, shot-putting, and jumping over hurdles prime the nervous system for hair-trigger response.
Lungs full of air, hips and shoulders high, Bailey’s stride lengthens constantly until the sixty-metre mark, when he will be covering more than seven metres with each step. He will maintain top speed for the next twenty metres. His head is erect and aligned in the centre of his lane, with minimal side-to-side lolling. Terminal velocity is 11.5 metres per second, or forty kilometres an hour. Between thirty and eighty metres no-one in the world can move faster than Donovan Bailey.
Dan Pfaff cautions that if Bailey has one weakness, it is a tendency to get distracted in this middle section of the sprint: “Donovan blanks in races. He loses running rhythm. He gets lost. It’s hard to imagine getting lost in ten seconds but it happens.” Invariably a lack of focus results in miscues, little errors that precipitate a chain reaction of disaster: legs splaying, knees not properly aligning, a disjointed arm swing, tension in the back, hunched shoulders, will all contribute to a loss of rhythm, thus frequency, thus synchronicity, and, finally, speed.
This is where temperament, or, more precisely, ego, comes into play. Sprinters are notorious for it. From interviews where they refer to themselves only in the exalted third person ('Andre felt good out there today," American Andre Cason comments) to fights in hotel lobbies (like the one between American Dennis Mitchell and Nigeria’s Olapade Adeniken two summers ago), to public trash-talking (of the sort Ben and Carl famously engaged in), uncontainable ego has become an integral part of the sprinting game.
But it is not solely an offshoot of their status as the thoroughbreds of the track-and-field world. In a race where the challenge is to stay focused, where every runner is competing mostly against himself, a failure of nerve or confidence, a moment of doubt, is disastrous. One sprinter’s ego can creep into a competitor’s lane, into his psyche, inducing such a moment, possibly cramping his style and affecting his race. And so for sprinters, ego is a tactic.
Donovan Bailey’s is certainly large enough. “People seem to get shocked at things I do and then ask me why I’m not excited,” he says. “I’m not excited because I think I can do better.” Which prompts Glenroy Gilbert to say wistfully, “He doesn’t fear anybody.” The key for Bailey is to use his confidence as a defensive weapon, as a way to maintain his concentration and keep him focused on his own race. So he refuses to be drawn into a war of words with anyone, or even to speculate on his chances of an Olympic gold. “Carl Lewis and all these people talk about finals and gold medals and world records. I don’t play the game that way. I don’t get caught up in stuff that isn’t going to help me.”
If he’s unrestrained by doubt, if his mind is consumed by the details, during the acceleration phase of the race, he’ll start to fly. “You’re catching more wind at your feet so you’re spending a lot less time on the ground. You’ll see sprinters in a full sprint and they’re not touching the ground at all,” Bailey explains. Sometimes when watching replays of races, he is awed by his ability to soar.
After practice, Bailey walks back onto the track wearing black jeans, a black shirt, and black motorcycle boots. He looks smooth. Sleek Confident. Other runners are still congratulating him on the new world record he set in Reno, as well as needling him on his alleged false start. He laughs, accepts the praise without dwelling on it, and firms up plans for a dominoes tournament later that night.
The world champion is dearly living large. He pulls out a cellular phone and calls his agent to finalize his travel arrangements for a race this Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia. Last weekend he raced in Reno on Friday, then flew first class to Japan for six seconds of work three nights later. A new Jeep Grand Cherokee has just arrived at his home in Oakville. For now he roars around Austin in a black Mazda RX7. He’s got endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Adidas, Kellogg’s, Air Canada, and Degree antiperspirant. The biggest decision on tap today is deciding what type of flooring he wants in the kitchen of the new house that’s being built in the hills of Austin. There is a strong inclination to go with the marble.
His family won’t be moving down to Texas, at least not anytime soon. Life, says Bailey, is too chaotic. He gets to Oakville as often as his schedule permits, spending a week here, two weeks there, with his twenty-two-month-old daughter, Adrienna, and her mother, Michelle. (Asked if Michelle should be described as his girlfriend, Bailey says no, that she is better described as “a part of my life.”) He regrets that he can’t be with his daughter more often, but there’s just not a lot of down time for the world’s fastest man.
Bright, articulate, and personable, Bailey is the antithesis of Ben Johnson. He doesn’t even seem to resent the taint his predecessor left on his sport. “It’s our job as athletes to change people’s opinion,” he says. Rumours of steroid abuse have occasionally cropped up around Bailey as well, largely because of the suddenness of his emergence. But he denies he’s on steroids, persuasively He has, after all, passed countless unannounced tests. Even this spring, when Sean Baksh, a young Canadian sprinter training with the group in Austin, tested positive for stanozolol, no serious suspicions were cast on Bailey. Baksh was not one of Pfaff’s proteges. He was a young sprinter who hung around the track until he was allowed to join in during training. And how could Baksh be part of an organized doping programme when he was the only one caught and everyone else tested clean?
Bailey’s entourage has swelled with his success. IMG, the world’s most successful matchmaker between athletes and corporate dollars, has been brought on board to parlay speed into green. Two agents negotiate appearance fees for his races. They won’t divulge Bailey’s rates, but appearance fees for sprinters of his calibre start at $20,000 (U.S.) and skyrocket from there. Carl Lewis and Linford Christie, for example, were each paid $150,000 (U.S.) to race in England two years ago. But Bailey’s not solely interested in the money he can make. As part of his effort to rebuild his sport’s reputation, he competed in less lucrative meets in Hamilton, Saskatoon, and Montreal last winter. Mark Lindsay, the husband of Olympic gold-medal skier Kate Pace, will be arriving in Austin this spring as his personal masseur, to knead out the by-products of daily work-outs and make sure his bad hip and old man’s back (legacies of his basketball career) stay healthy.
Which brings us to a moment in Atlanta. Make no mistake about it, Donovan Bailey will be the man to beat. His indoor success this winter – he won eight of the nine races he entered – cemented his King of the Hill credibility. The cast of challengers in Adanta will be formidable. Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell will probably both be there. (The U.S. is still the sprinting powerhouse. Seven of the ten fastest times ever run belong to the Americans, who have never lost the 100-metre dash the three times the Olympics have been held on their soil.) Linford Christie, who beat Bailey five times in 1995, will be a wily competitor, as will Frankie Fredericks from Namibia who eclipsed the world indoor 100-metre record last winter. There’s also his fellow countryman Bruny Surin. And every year the threat of another unknown blasting on the scene a la Bailey looms large.
But if Bailey gets through the three qualifying rounds, if he doesn’t false-start, pull a hamstring, hurt his hip, strain his back, trip, stumble, eat the wrong food, then at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 27, the eyes of the world will be on him.
Once a sprinter hits the eighty-metre mark, his challenge is to hold his form and main-rain as much speed as possible over the last twenty metres. Bailey remembers what the moment was like on his best day, that afternoon last July in Montreal when he ran 9.91 and took his place among the greats. “What I remember most about that race was when I got to eighty metres and I hit top speed, for the first time I felt my body tilt back slightly, which allowed me to take in a whole lot of oxygen.”
In the perfect race, the face does not betray the exertion the rest of the body is experiencing- the eyelids are lazy, half-dosed, the cheeks smooth, mouth petulant, the lower lip flapping in bemused detachment. Only at the desperate lunge for the finish line - a move that goes against the physics of prudent racing will the lips contort into a grimace and reveal the assault the body has undergone.
This summer, if we could freeze-frame the race at eighty metres and study the faces of the eight runners, we would be able to pick the Olympic champion. If Bailey’s is a study in smoothness, he will win gold.“Guys that look like they’re accelerating at the end of a 100 metre aren’t,” Pfaff says.“They’re just decelerating less. It gives them the aura of pulling away.” Thus, to “pull away” is not about digging down deep, going to the well, sucking it up, or any of the other gritty maxims; instead it’s about letting go and giving way to momentum. It’s a belief that the effort and the attention to detail through the first seventy or eighty metres of the race is enough to propel you to the finish. It’s an act of faith.