Four-hundred meters affords a track athlete little margin for error.
Most 400 runners at the high school level incorporate a starting block, typically associated with shorter sprints, into their strategy. Those who don’t opt for a standing position with a slight lean forward.
The increased probability of a fast start is why Whiteland Community High School junior Djimmon Ogega and other single-lap specialists remain loyal to using a starting block.
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“I’ve been running the 400 since eighth grade. I love the block because I like getting out fast,” said Ogega, who also long jumps and competes in the 100, 200 and 4×400 relay for the Warriors.
“As a freshman, I wasn’t good using blocks. As I got older, I realized in the 400 you have to start out fast to finish fast.”
Difficult as it may be to believe, there were eras in which the 400 — be it measured in yards (used through the 1979 season in Indiana) or meters (since 1980) — was considered more of a middle-distance event than a sprint.
This no longer applies, which is why more and more runners use blocks the same way they would if competing in the 100- or 200-meter dash.
With postseason advancement often decided by the slimmest of margins, tenths and sometimes even one-hundredths of a second, any advantage is welcome.
Faster times also can determine whether an athlete gets the opportunity to run in college.
“All of our guys in the 100, 200 and 400 use a block. It’s mandatory in our program,” Center Grove coach Eric Moore said. “A lot of people don’t think it’s very important in the 400, but it is because it immediately puts a runner into a sprinter’s mindset.
“Teaching our guys to use one, you let them know it’s not going to be the most comfortable thing. But if you’re going to be a great runner going against the competition we do, you have to learn how to run out of them.”
Invented in 1929, starting blocks provide support for a sprinter’s feet at the start of the race so that there is no slipping when pushing off. It requires the athlete lowering his body, which isn’t always the most comfortable position.
Greenwood Community High School sprint coach Scott New advocates blocks in the 400 because they teach runners to go out harder for the first few meters as opposed to the alternative.
Standing starts are a rarity today, although Franklin boys coach Mike Hall recalls one of his better 400 runners from the 1990s using a standing start.
Then again, Scott White stood 6-foot-8.
“We’ve always had the kids in the 100 and 200 use blocks, and we’ve gone to making those in the 400 use them, too,” Hall said. “There for a while kids wanted to stand, but it’s important in the 400 to get out the first 50 to 75 meters with some authority.”
Mastering the technique from a starting block isn’t easy.
Ogega is 6-foot, 148 pounds. He is lower to the ground than, say, White, and therefore able to become comfortable in the block.
“Some of it comes down to a comfort level with the kids. If they’re not comfortable using a block we won’t make them use it,” Whiteland girls and boys track coach Brandon Bangel said. “The body position you come out of is unique.
“The biggest issue is getting their body position correct on that first step.”
Bangel said runners have a tendency to either “pop right up” after the first step of a race or “keep their body bent over at the waist.”