Sprinters, all bumpy with muscles, pressure packed—my god, you could bounce a dime off of any appendage and get two cents change—take to the track for the 800 meters. They saunter, super chill. The lankier mid-distance runners come out too, on the same track, at the same time, lean and prancing, wind sprinting, jumping, shaking their legs. The 800, twice around an outdoor track, is the field of battle for two tribes who look different, train different, think different, and rarely go head to head. That’s what we’re here to see: The battle royale between the ladies who launch (from blocks) and the endurance predators who will hunt them down.
Will the sprinter’s comfort with a 55-second first lap secure her lead when hot-burning muscles tie up? Will the mid-distance athlete’s endurance help her hold onto a maximal effort, enough to reel in the fading speedsters?
There’s no better arena to watch this tribal throwdown than the Drake Relays World Championship Preview Women’s 800 meters, to be held tonight in Des Moines, Iowa. A stellar field is assembled, representing the epic quality and depth the US is enjoying in this event: Ajee Wilson, Brenda Martinez, Chanelle Price, Alysia Montano, Heather Kampf, Morgan Uceny, Molly Beckwith Ludlow, Maggie Vessey, Latavia Thomas, Phoebe Wright, Stephanie Brown, Treniere Moser, Sarah Brown, and Shelby Houlihan. In that group are Olympians, World Championship medalists, NCAA champions, the second- and third-ranked women in the world at this distance, and the country’s fastest currently competitive two-lap specialist.
These athletes have used widely varying training programs to post surprisingly similar results. For example, self-described “speed baby” and long run hater Phoebe Wright may reach a peak of 48 miles per week. Her PR is 1:58.22. Brenda Martinez, an 800/1500/5000 wide-ranger, toys with 80 mile weeks. She’s posted a 1:57.91. All 14 women in the Drake Relays field have run between 1:57.34 and 2:02.59.
I thought it would be interesting to look at how these 800 specialists trained, and in so doing, discovered yet another factor dividing this group—those who like to talk about their training and those who don’t. So, using a combination of personal interviews and online stats, I’ve separated the field into sprinters—women who can, and do, also compete at 400 meters—and mid-distance runners who might jump in a 1500, a mile or even a 5K.
I classified Ajee Wilson, Chanelle Price, Alysia Montano, Maggie Vessey, Latavia Thomas, and Phoebe Wright as sprint-based runners, either because they told me so or because their resume lists a 400-meter time. They’re content to focus their speed on the 400 and 800, with little desire to go beyond two laps. Advocating for this tribe’s dominance is the trackism: You can’t maintain a pace you can’t run. Sprinters, though, have gotten tripped up by banking too heavily on their raw speed, with its notoriously short shelf life.
Historically, Jearl Miles Clark is the fastest US woman all-time at 800-meters; 1:56.40, run in 1999. Clark was a 400/800 woman. She’s followed closely in the record books by the now-discredited Mary Slaney, an 800/1500 specialist, who posted 1:56.90 in 1985.
At the far end of the sprint spectrum is Alysia Montano, coming back this year from maternity leave. She has the fastest 400-meter time (52.09) and the fastest 800 PB (1:57.34) in the field, and is the fastest currently competing US woman at the distance. P.S. She is very fast. Not surprisingly, Montano’s known for going out like a bat out of hell, usually 55 seconds for the first lap, which is well within her wheelhouse. Assuming she followed that plan, she could have slowed rather dramatically, seven seconds on the second lap, and still run her US-leading time of 1:57.34. (Here, Montano talks about going from the track, where she ripped off a 53.01 400-meter, to some hill repeats, and a long run the next day, but details are missing. Keep reading for endurance runner Heather Kampf’s Alysia Montano story.)
Alysia Montano, 2013; photo via Getty
Fortuitously, the loquacious and articulate Phoebe Wright likes to talk about training, so we may have to use her as the poster child for sprinters.
“In college, I was one hundred percent a 400-800 girl,” Wright said by phone. “Actually, I was trying to be a 400 runner because you hurt for a shorter amount of time. The older I’ve gotten, the more comfortable I am being uncomfortable. I figure, you can’t grow fast twitch muscles but you can develop more efficiency, so if you’ve got someone who has speed and they’re willing to work like a 1500 runner, that person’s going to be tough to beat.”
Though her IAAF profile doesn’t show an official 400 posting, Wright assures that her 52.6 (.2 added for hand timing) in practice is totally legit. With a 1:58.22 800 and 4:08.60 1500, a respectable time at the longer end of her spectrum, Wright shows remarkable range.
To trick her sprint mentality into holding on for another lap, she resorts to radical acceptance.
“There are two ways to think about the 800: both are crazy. You can brainwash yourself into thinking you’re not hurting, or you can not be delusional. You can acknowledge you’re hurting but tell yourself you like it.”
Wright likes to get out fast and be near the front in races—“If someone makes a move, I want to be able to cover it, not be in the back picking my nose, though that’s getting harder to do because everyone’s so fast. The hardest part is on the backstretch with about 300 meters to go. I’m really working on not spacing at that point and giving up my position.”
Ideally, she’d like to go out in 57 and close in 60 seconds but, interestingly, her best performance was accomplished with very little split differential—a 58-high first lap and 59 second lap—which is (gasp) the hallmark of an endurance runner.
As to training, sprinter-typically, Wright dreads the long runs (about 10 miles) that come with winter base training. “I always think, I’m an 800 runner; I don’t need to do this. Distance runners get stuck just doing mileage, and that sucks.” During the track season, her workouts are almost all speed, about 35 miles per week.
Phoebe Wright; photo by Getty
She detailed a good basic workout: 3 x 400 meters, each in 56 seconds, with 6 to 8 minutes recovery in between. That’s preceded by a two-mile warm-up and “really intense drills.” What sprint life lacks in mileage, it makes up for in the gym—strength, aka “Arnold Schwarzenegger” twice a week, core two or three days/week and plyometrics (jumping lots of different ways) once a week.
Most observers are so focused on the parts of Maggie Vessey that peep out of her creative costumes, they fail to notice that she has run quite fast—52.82 for 400 meters, 1:57.84 for 800, with a sprinter-typical drop-off at 1500 meters—4:17.87. While I did not get to talk with Vessey, she is no stranger to social media. The takeaway is that she could, like, so take you in a street fight, which, come to think of it, is a bit like the first 200 meters of the 800. Things get pretty physical with all the speed queens out front, plying their talents to best effect on the first lap.
Meanwhile in that same race, the endurance-based, 800/1500 runners are in the back of the pack, stalking their prey. These women have logged an easy 10 miles uphill and posted photos on Instagram before breakfast. They relish a lengthy to-do list—miles, drills, core, plyos, strength—and take great satisfaction in checking things off. For reference, think back on every card-carrying over-achiever you’ve ever known. For runners who compete at 800, 1500, mile and even 5K, willingness to work hard is their strength, and their weakness. The criticism of endurance-based training is that miles kill speed, that running 10 or 15 miles at a go makes you good at running 10 or 15 miles, not a half-mile at top speed.
Let’s meet an endurance-based, 800/1500 specialist, Heather Kampf. Crowned the Queen of the Road Mile, Kampf won the Road Mile Championship in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and a slew of other such drag races. Her 800 PB of 2:00.04 and mile record, 4:21.39, show that she can maintain close to her top speed for another two laps. By comparison, Chanelle Price, one of the few sprint-based runners to even record a mile time, posted a best of 4:31.68. Though Kampf thought of herself as a 400 runner in high school, the writing was on the wall when she won the Minnesota state championship her senior year—at 800 meters.
She laughed at the idea of competing now at 400 meters: “Nope, my max speed in college showed I was not going to be competitive with the best in the country.”
While it may not be brag-worthy among sprinters, Kampf has run low-54 seconds in the first half of an 800. That’s blazing by any other measure, and keeps her within striking distance of the leaders on the second lap, when strength becomes more important than speed.
“I like to stay near the leaders in the first lap,” she said by phone, “and then start kicking with 300 or 350 meters to go, sort of a long, hard drive to the finish. I’m a strength runner; I have to start earlier and take the kick out of the other runners.”
Heather Kampf; photo by Getty
Like other strength/endurance 800 specialists, Kampf runs more even splits (about the same pace for both laps) than the speedsters. Her PB 2:00.04 was accomplished with a mid-58 second first lap and 61-ish second lap. She described it as “suicide” to try to go out blazing and hang on, spoken from personal experience.
“I paced Alysia Montano at the 2013 Pre Classic, and she wanted to go through the 400 in 55 or 56. Which we did,” said Kampf. “I wanted to see how long I could hang on after that and was hoping I could go further, but I had to step off the track at 500 meters because she was nipping at my heels.”
Kampf does fairly typical strength/endurance based training, hitting a peak during her base phase of 75 miles per week, with a long run of 15 miles. The 1500-meter runner’s work ethic that Phoebe Wright alluded to is evident in Kampf’s program. It’s not miles or speed and strength training, but rather miles and speed and strength training—strength and plyos twice a week, and core work every other day.
She described a typical 800 workout as: 200 @ 27 or 28 seconds, 400 @ 55 seconds, 300 @ 42 seconds, and 200 @ 27 or 28, walking the distance just run in between.
Kampf identified the third 200-meter segment as the toughest in the race—“It’s hard to push yourself when you know it’s going to hurt like hell from 400 to 600 meters.” To practice running fast through that third quarter pain, she’ll do 600 meters x 2 or 400 x 3, at or better than race pace. These two speed workouts are similar in pace and volume to the one Phoebe Wright described, though Kampf probably tacks on a longer warmup and cool down.
At the far end of the endurance spectrum is Brenda Martinez, busily laying waste to the dogma that a lot of miles are ruinous to speed. She reaches a peak of 80 miles per week and told RunnersWorld she’s upped her long run to 14 miles. Of course, that’s during base training. Closer to 800 competition, she’ll drop down to 70 to 75 miles per week, which is still nearly double what most sprint-based programs call for. This high mileage has done nothing to dampen her speed, having run 1:57.91 for 800 meters. Martinez has a wider range than most endurance 800 runners, with a very competitive 15:24 road 5K on her resume.
She’s the Tina Turner of the 800, is Martinez. She likes to do things nice and rough, e.g. 10 miles at 5:55 pace, mile repeats in 4:50, and this killer— eight x 1000 meters in 2:50 to 3:00 minutes, with three minutes recovery between each, and a fast 400 at the end of the workout for good measure. Couple of things to note: That’s 5-¼ miles of volume (2-½ total miles is a lot) without much sacrifice in terms of pace. And Martinez considered three minutes a full recovery between 1000s, while Phoebe Wright took six to eight minutes between three 400s.
While Martinez’s mind-boggling schedule of volume plus intensity makes her also a fearsome competitor at 1500 meters (4:00.94), the mile (4:26.76) and 5,000 meters (15:35), one can’t help but be struck by the unlikelihood that this insane workload and Phoebe Wright’s sprint-based 35 miles/week would yield similar results.
Not that sprinters don’t work hard. No one propels their body twice around a gigantic oval in less than two minutes without godawful hours of blood, sweat and tears. But you’ll never hear a sprinter say, “Damn, I wish I had to run more. What the heck, I wish I got to run 12-1/2 laps of the track.” You’ll never hear that. They’re different breeds, sprinters and endurance runners, that just happen to be in the same show.
Top photo credit: Getty Images