The first time I had to run 400 meters competitively was at Silliman University in Dumaguete in the 2010 UniGames in my freshman year of college. Before that, I had already formed what I thought then was enough knowledge in distance running; I had already won a medal at a competition, a cash prize at a fun run and at least a place in the top 15 of major 3-kilometer and 5-kilometer road runs by the age of 17. Unlike most runners experiencing the whole marathon trend, I believed in finishing shorter distance events over running longer at pace because that was where I could race (I didn’t care much about the sensationalized therapy of running if I couldn’t finish strong). By that point, Itunu “K” Kuku, a Nigerian jumper, had even complimented my endurance—and if a fit black man told you that you were strong, you just had to believe all of it.
So it wasn’t a surprise that I almost burst out crying while waiting for the baton to be passed to me during the 4x400m relay on that fateful day. I was useless. Ban, my teammate then, had to hold my shit together to tell me constantly that we were out there for each other while patting me on the back apologetically. My abdomen was starting to cramp from the anxiety because I could tell what she really meant, and it was: “Don’t worry Melissa, we’re all going to die anyway.” True enough, the runners who had already finished were lying on the tartan track with little traces of breathing—with someone massaging their butts as if administering their last rites if they were lucky. Other runners were creeping to the side vomiting. But how was it going to kill me? I needed to know. For those unaware, the 400 is simply comprised of one lap on an Olympic-sized track oval; subsequently, a 3K is seven and a half laps—a distance an average guy would find more intimidating and something I was far more familiar with. But please take note that this event is still, first and foremost, a sprint. In this case, the longest sprint that God allows a body, healthy or otherwise, to do. Man’s threshold is universal—whether you are running late for work, trying to capture a fugitive, or running away from an angry ex for something you may or may not have done. Past this, and you will fall flat to the floor. I promise.
And so the 400 meters simply isn’t just one lap, but a stretch that hides many demons in between its cuts, corners, and straights. You will be acquainted with them the first time you run it, but if you are willing to persevere, you might become a constant visitor in the five segments of hell that lie deep within it. I always used to joke that this event would eventually teach you how to live, and seeing as so many people are led to believe that they are no longer living, knowing how to run this might be of use after all. This is a race plan. And after roughly four years of experience in this event, this is a secret I ought to pass unto you.
Part I: The First Five Steps
Explosiveness is key. Whether it’s coming off the starting blocks or just a standing start, runners are tasked to attack those five steps as hard as they can. Stay low at almost a 45-degree angle to the floor, and hyper-extend your stride as far as you can with each knee propped up before driving all power to the floor. Did you feel yourself spring forward? Now reach out to take up all that space with your arms swinging from the back to over your head in an exaggerated manner. This is much like stepping on the gas, or if you ever had an enemy, now would be a good time to ram them against the wall with your horns. Personally, I had the most difficulty getting to this state because you don’t just have to harness energy but the wrath that will help you crush everything you had behind you and anything coming your way. Unfortunately, I was built as this naturally sweet girl too—and I still can’t seem to clench my fist tight enough. Blessed are those with anger management problems who explode so generously, but if you were like me who needed the extra effort to find that animal instinct—then it would be a good idea to zone in. Prepare that playlist of progressive metal during the warm-up, remember all the bad times, all the people you hate, or all the people you love. Show off. Your shorts won’t suddenly rip this time.
The point of this phase is to start by igniting that raging passion inside of you, because it’s so much easier to begin and maintain that hard pace than come searching for that fury afterwards amidst the dark abyss that will drown you in the stretch. Everyone in the audience will be able to tell if you’re pouring out your heart just by looking at your first five steps, so don’t show them any less. Regardless, a good hypertrophy weights program at an obscure gym is just the trick to get the power up and running at this phase (emphasis on obscure: a place empty of people you want to punch in the face. Even I had to resort to a storage room in school at one point), but if you don’t have anything going for you at this point—just pretend you’re really big and hungry.
Part II: 0-50 Meters
Get to race pace. This is the rhythm that you need to get to that will sustain your speed until the 200-meter mark. At this point, many runners would be introduced to new gameplay in the event: conserving energy. Unfortunately for most, this strategy has become synonymous with laziness, cheap excuses and underwhelming results. Fear tricks you into believing that if you controlled the pace to a minimum by that point, you would be saved from the pain that will come later on. In my experience, I’ve done both a personally strong 400 and a weak 400, and the wrenching spasm in my entire body (but most especially my butt) never left in both experiences. Remember that you signed up for this, and accept that the best time will give you the worst time of your life.
To be completely honest, I’ve faced more disappointments in knowing that I could have given more in this phase but didn’t, rather than in times when I cried and apologized for a top performance that just couldn’t make it. Use your mind to put your body on the edge, but control the tension strong enough so you could sustain your own power. Don’t forget that the arm swing must be parallel to your hips (you’re not out to elbow anyone, ideally). Personally, this process becomes more pressuring when running a relay, because I would either be holding teammates back or pushing them forward. Don’t do the former; being selfish won’t get you anywhere.
Part III: 50-200 Meters
This is the roll. After the 50-meter mark, you will begin to notice your position against your competitors with the stagger along the curve. It’s a noble intention to run this for your own personal triumph, sure, but always remember that there are people out to do the same. If you’re ahead of everyone else, great, but if you’re not, stay close or even up with the rest of the pack, take a deep breath—and roll. Run tall, with your chin and chest up. Keep the rotation of your legs, step over the knee, and drive down. Relax. These are strides. I was allowed to think of this segment as the security blanket where the seawater splashes on the shore by my feet and my body willingly runs with me in each step. The 50-200 meter segment marks the calm. It might be likened to that time when you got all the high grades in class without studying for any of the tests—don’t feel guilty, it even happens to the most undeserving of people. Rightly so, this segment is the easiest to master for any kind of runner. Only a rookie would put out all his cards and sprint this all out (he’s going to end up jogging those last 200 meters; it’s a more excruciating sight than seeing him stop and writhe in pain). But don’t get me wrong- from a spectator’s perspective, the roll must still be strong. The runner must not slow down, but float in his speed instead.
This instruction was the easiest that I could absorb, because all I had to do was think of the strong strides that I could do in longer distances. I was taught that I could breathe at this point below the margin of insanity, and thus took all the oxygen I could get while coasting through—without ever fully realizing that I had sustained my speed all along. In this segment, the art of breathing properly is introduced. I was born with really powerful lungs (whether I enjoyed the obligation of keeping it that way or not is another matter entirely), which compensated for my lack of speed—so breathing became my most powerful strategy. In many races, I felt that it was the only thing I had after my legs would give out and my mind would shut down. I also used this practice in my bedroom to overcome various breakups with men who weren’t mine. Regardless, know what you’re good at by this point and use this to overcome the panic you will face ahead.
Part IV: 200-310 Meters
Panic. The dream is over. You might want to punch your coach’s face for demanding that you accelerate at this segment—without mentioning one crucial thing: you couldn’t. I’m pretty sure I’ve made a lot of people cringe at the sight of all the times I bailed right at that spot thinking that I could cheat death just for one more day, but I’ve also received standing ovations for the few times I attacked that turn and ate it up. Reaching a curve, it may be advisable to shorten the stride and quicken the cadence of each step. Keep driving to the floor as many times as you can and run this as if it were uphill. In fact, that floor may have even moved after all at a split second, because it sure didn’t feel that painful before. But the only way to battle this segment is to have some more of where that pain is coming from. I’ve heard a few remarks about how this run must have been made for the masochist—but I honestly have not heard of anyone who learned to enjoy this grind. I wish I knew what it felt like to have my body quartered by horses, because I am this close to using absurd metaphors. Whatever it is, something is tugging you away from that finish line and convincing you to walk away.
By this point, it would also be wise to start listening to the screams around you. It could be your name or your school from a parent, a sibling, a lover, a teammate, a friend, a stranger, a driver at the parking lot or all of the above. They’re going to tell you to “push!”—and if you had the time to understand that the context could be mistaken for a baby delivery, then you did the whole race wrong.
Part V: 310-400 Meters
Welcome to the world of lactic threshold. Now is a good time to pray. Latif Thomas has never been more accurate in saying that if you didn’t believe in God, you had to “make something up.” One thing is for sure: the finish line seems to be going farther and farther away. I had often felt trapped by my own body at this point, and drowned until I hit the mark where I could drop dead to the floor. The first time I ran this segment, I teared up because I honestly didn’t know if I could still make it to the hospital afterwards. My glutes would always twist into tiny bite-sized pretzels at this mark, and my arms—hyper-extended as my swing was—felt so sour that the sting made my entire body burn.
The only thing I recommend at this point is to overstress every single range of movement your body can make because truthfully, none of that will translate to the actual race besides a normal-looking stride at best. Never run your body from side to side, and don’t divert your arms to other places except forward. The simplest and most efficient motivation would be to get it all over with, or to outrun as many competitors as you can see in vision. But during relays, I normally would ask a teammate what they wanted to think of at the end of the finish line that would get them there as fast as they could. I’ve had a fellow athlete who thought of the beach that we were heading to right after that very race, and another who always thought of her murdered father. I thought mostly of my teammates, or a cup of cold Milo. There was absolutely no wrong answer. In a relay, I would always start screaming to the runner before me at the attack of her last stretch to make sure that she reaches out to me in the hopes that my grip would be tight enough to receive the next responsibility. I never got rid of how scared I was, but my determination to run the 400 always stayed genuine. I was privileged enough to be given the opportunity to run this for collegiate level track and field for the past four years.
I sincerely wish that someone had told me all of this earlier in life.
Precision in executing each strategy down to the millisecond was never enough to overcome the sprint. I bid goodbye to my school years thinking of my years in track with the resolve of finally knowing what it was that I was leaving—pain, discipline, leaner limbs, a nice firm butt, ugly toenails I always had to paint in a dark colour. But most of all, the confidence of knowing exactly what I wanted to kill for, and what I was willing to leave behind. Getting to know the 400 meant knowing how to walk away from far greater forces to reckon with than the refrigerator: people, parties, A’s, the chance of becoming a billionaire under 21, and even protesting against the nation’s grueling corruption. I couldn’t be everything.
With this, I conclude my retirement with a soft drink in hand.
*Photo by Tiebreaker Times contributor RJ Dimla