Alberto Salazar, World Records, and Athletics’ Greatest ‘Hug’

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NT: Hah. Yes, that’s perfect Lagat. Years back, my children caught toads all summer and named the fastest ones “Simpson” and “Lagat” after the best runners they’d seen. But, so far, the top American performance has got to be Donavan Brazier in the 800m, right? It’s such an unpredictable event: people always seem to come out of nowhere to move from, say, fifth to first over the last 200 meters. But Brazier just crushed everyone on the back straight. And he set an American record while at it.

KR: The 800m has always been my favorite event on the track. I once heard it described as “The Twilight Zone,” because from high school dual meets to the highest levels of the sport, the event remains an incalculable meeting point of speed and endurance that’s sure to guarantee carnage at the end. It’s pure perfection that suddenly erupts into a garbage fire.

It’s sad to see some records go. For me as a kid, Johnny Gray’s 1:42.6 was already a historical fact that subsequent waves of American 800m greats hadn’t been able to touch—until now, with Brazier. So even as I shed a tear of nostalgia, props to him for such a deliberate, focused, technically flawless takedown.

NT: One question about that race, which I take it you’ve run more than I have: Why do people always run the first lap faster than the second? Brazier did the first in 49 seconds and the next in 53. Why not do 51 and then 51? In the women’s race, they took it out in 58 and closed in 60, with a very impressive win by the underdog Halimah Nakaayi.

KR: Well, in running—from the 100m to the marathon—it’s not about who’s fastest; it’s about who slows down the least. Life is like that! We’re enthralled when we hear stories about negative splits, and we love to complain about boring championship races where athletes basically jog to leave it down to a finishing kick. But if you listen to elites across a range of events, few will speak of that as a strategy—going so far as to say that negative or even even splits are just not possible, whether that’s due to the nature of competition or stemming from the demands of racing the distances themselves.

NT: I dunno. Every good marathon I’ve run has been a negative split. It’s psychologically invigorating to be passing people at the end, and it’s crushing to be passed at the end. But maybe I was just brainwashed by the high school coach who told me that going one second too fast in the first mile of a race meant you’d go five seconds too slow in the last one. Anyway, if Donovan Brazier does it, it’s got to be right. From now on, I’m just going to blast it when the gun goes off. Sorry, Mr. Anderson!

Back to the pros, I will add one other thing about the women’s race. Obviously, the debate about Caster Semenya, and whether women with XY chromosomes can compete in the event, is a tangled, thorny, vicious one. But with Semenya out this year, it was the first women’s championship in years where the outcome wasn’t predictable. Semenya hadn’t lost or really been challenged in four years.

KR: Leaving aside the politics around Caster, it’s been tough watching the strain of the evolving debate wear on her over the years. Yes, she was never not winning—but so often she seemed sad, angry, bored and lonely by turns. It’s been poignant because no matter what, she didn’t ask for this.

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