“Runners, take your mark,” intones the Madison Square Garden announcer, quieting a crowd of 16,000 that has turned out for New York City’s Millrose Games, the most illustrious stop on the U.S. indoor-track-and-field circuit. Six Olympic-quality sprinters step up to the starting line and prepare to run the men’s 60-meter race.
Built like streamlined NFL running backs, the athletes each begin a meticulous, 30-second choreography of twitches and flexes. Maurice Greene — the reigning world champion in the 100-meters and the world-record holder in both the 60 and the 100 — crouches and, in one quick, catlike motion, springs backward on both legs, briefly testing his ankles, calves, quads, and hams. Jon Drummond, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in the 400-meter relay, presses his fingertips into the Mondo track, aligning his hands on the starting line like a pool player lining up a break. Ato Boldon, the 200-meter gold medalist in the 1997 World Championships, locks his eyes on the finish line, then bows his head and waits for the next word.
“Set,” commands the announcer. A moment later, the starter pistol cracks. In a microsecond, the sprinters vault forward.
As they burst out of the blocks, they collectively unleash enough force to make a Ferrari go from zero MPH to 60 MPH — in 4 seconds flat. They hurtle down the straightaway with a fury that is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Hands slash through the air like switchblades. Runners reach maximum velocity in 3.5 seconds. At top speed, they cover 8 feet per stride. They are so swift, it is almost impossible for the unschooled observer to take it all in.
But not for John Smith, a six-foot, one-inch combination of track smarts and street charm who stands near the track’s edge. Smith, 49, was once a renowned world-class runner. In 1971, as a member of the UCLA track team, he clocked 44.5 seconds in the 440-yard dash, setting a world record. More recently, in 1996, he cofounded HSI, an Irvine, California-based sports agency.
Smith is also the track world’s foremost teacher of speed. Greene, Drummond, and Boldon are three of his pupils. But they are not alone. His circle of speed demons also includes Inger Miller, the women’s 200-meter world champion; Marie-Jose Perec, the women’s 200- and 400-meter gold-medal winner in the 1996 Olympics; and Quincy Watts, the men’s 400-meter champ in the 1992 Olympics.
The lessons that Smith passes on to the world’s fastest runners have obvious implications for businesspeople who want to win a competitive race that’s measured in Internet time. To learn how fast companies — and the people who work for them — can move even faster, we caught up with Smith, who has embarked on a title fight with time itself. At stake is nothing less than his ambition to reinvent the way that the race is run, to shatter the physical and psychological barriers that prevent the world’s fastest sprinters from doing what they were born wanting to do — that is, to fly.
“What are we after? We are literally trying to stop time,” says Smith. “Running 100 meters in 10 seconds won’t bring you fame. But running it in 9.79 will. He who finishes closest to zero wins. Freeze the clock — that’s what we’re all about.”
Here, then, are five of Smith’s clock-stopping rules for competing in a race where there is no speed limit.
To Go Fast, Take Your Time
Half a step. That was the margin of victory in the Millrose 60-meters, as Greene barely nipped Drummond at the tape. Drummond has one of the best starts in the business, and he challenged Greene for the entire race. But Greene’s searing finish managed to hold Drummond off in the final few meters.
So how did Greene win? “He took his time,” Smith replies. Huh? Greene edged out Drummond by 0.05 seconds — roughly the length of time that it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings once. When did Greene have the time to “take his time”?
The answer, it turns out, is that he ran a smart race. Smith has used 400-meter tactics to help him radically rethink the way that shorter distances are run. “The 400 sucks up everything you’ve got, so you have to be very careful about how you distribute your energy throughout the race,” he says. “You need to structure the race, and you need a plan. I took everything that I knew about the 400 and used it to teach the 100.”
Smith analyzed the shorter race, trying to clip off a few thousandths of a second here, another few thousandths there. He saw an opportunity in the final 20 meters, when a runner is assumed to have lost the capacity to maintain his top speed. If Smith could stretch out a sprinter’s speed for the entire distance, the sprinter would have some fuel left for the finish.
Smith divided the 100-meter race into five stages. First comes “reaction time,” a bloodless phrase for the violent moment when sprinters explode out of the blocks. Next, there’s the “drive phase,” when the runners leverage their forward momentum to propel themselves down the track. Then they make the “transition” — often visualizing gear changes as they shift into overdrive and fly into the fourth stage, “maximum velocity.” The goal at this stage is to maintain top speed for as long as possible — for 30 or even 40 meters.
As they approach the final stage, the runners try to “hold on.” They have pushed their bodies to the limit, and now their exhausted muscles stop obeying. Their limbs start to seize up. But if an athlete has run the first four stages correctly, he’s in a position to control the inevitable deceleration. And that is Smith’s great secret: The runner who slows the least over the final 20 meters usually gets the gold.
Smith’s point about Greene’s “taking his time” is that Greene didn’t rush through those stages. He maxed them out, refusing to shift into the next gear until his RPM was just right. That allowed him to relax as he surged to the finish. He won because he stayed fast.
“Sprinters are most vulnerable in the middle of a race, because they want to punch that accelerator,” says Smith. “But if you hit it too soon, you’ll run out of gas. You’ve got to give your body enough time to unfold, so that you’ll be in the best position to apply great force.
“People think that all a sprinter needs to do is to run all out, but that’s so Hollywood. I want my sprinters to do just the opposite. I want them to show how easy it is to run fast.”
The point, concludes Smith, is that there’s a world of difference between “haste” and “speed.” Haste doesn’t win races. Taking your time just might.
Make Your Competitor Your Partner?
In the world of track and field, says Smith, long-distance runners often get along because they share a common obstacle: the race’s distance. Marathoners, for example, must channel all of their competitive aggression into conquering a 26-mile, 385-yard course.
But sprinters are stripped of any such distraction. Their only obstacle is the competitor who lines up next to them, separated solely by the thin white line that demarcates the track’s eight lanes. Metaphorically, that line is often crossed, as the rivals engage in race-day hazing: the territorial stare-down during warm-ups; the trash talk before the start; the winner’s chest-thumping, fist-pumping strut after the finish; the loser’s determination to ignore it all.
“You couldn’t write the stuff that sprinters say to get one another off their game,” says Smith. “They’ll talk about you. They’ll talk about your parents. [Olympic sprinter] John Carlos used to line up and announce, ‘You guys figure out how you’re going to place, because first is gone — I got that. I’ll be waiting for you at the finish.’ “
It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Smith has made teammates out of natural-born rivals. Greene, Boldon, and Drummond are among the world’s top men in the 100- and the 200-meter races. Each of them is gunning for the other, as they vie for their sport’s ultimate grail: the hard gold of the 2000 Summer Olympics, in Sydney, Australia. Most elite runners avoid one another, going head-to-head only when big money and a big title are at stake. Yet these three train together nearly every day, with Smith and his stopwatch at their side.
Smith’s workplace is the rust-colored track inside Drake Stadium, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. On a damp, late-winter day, he leads two of his charges — sprinter Gentry Bradley and 400-meter runner Danny McCray — through an advanced tutorial on speed.
After 45 minutes of stretching and warm-ups, the work begins. Smith tells his runners to do three “350s” — sprinters’ shorthand for 350-meter laps run at near-race speed, with 8-minute rest intervals. “This is going to be a little grueling,” understates Smith. “At 300 meters, you’re at the limit of a human being’s ability to go all out. That’s when all shit stops, and real men start running.”
McCray toes the starting line. Bradley lines up directly behind him. “Set,” barks Smith. “Go!” They take off from a standing start and quickly leg into maximum velocity. As the runners fly into the backstretch, Smith parses out split times and advice over a megaphone: “Don’t lose him, G. Elbows in. Keep your rhythm up. Stay focused. Don’t float on me. Now you’re running. Take it in.”
Watching Bradley and McCray push each other, the coach’s game plan becomes searingly clear: By working together instead of alone, his athletes work harder. The more intense the workouts, the faster the two men run. Ultimately, the day-to-day grind of competing one-on-one will make them get fast — faster.
Smith doesn’t try to control his athletes’ rivalry or ensure that it stays healthy off of the track. “They can be friends after practice. But when they’re out here, I throw gasoline onto the fire. I want them to challenge each other. When someone raises the bar and achieves a higher level of performance, everyone else must rise to meet that person. When that happens, I’ve done my job.”
Work on Your Weakness
Two minutes, 15 seconds. Take away the warm-up time, and that was the total length of Bradley and McCray’s speed workout. Sprinters are fast — but not all the time. They pick their moments.
To the inexperienced observer, sprinters are experts at wasting time. Their workout seems to consist almost entirely of stretching and resting, punctuated by brief moments of maximum exertion. More accurately, explains Smith, they are using their downtime to recover, so that they can focus on the few seconds that really matter.
A sprinter’s season consists of perhaps 10 major races — less than 100 seconds of performance. To prepare for those do-or-die moments, sprinters submit to a continuous round of bearing down and snapping back. They lay themselves out one day, ease up the next. Weight work is followed by speed work. The goal is to stress the muscles, rest, and allow the body to build itself back up — to become more powerful than before. In a variation of the old adage, their suffering will only make them stronger — if it doesn’t kill them.
“I don’t need to get maximum effort every day,” says Smith. “But whenever they can give it, I want it. Last year, Maurice [Greene] told me that he wanted to work with the quarter-milers. It was awesome. They dragged him around the track, but he stayed with them. After every workout, he was doubled over, fertilizing the grass.” Smith flashes a smile and scuffs his foot across a swath of browned grass where Greene and the other sprinters had vomited.
“And that’s a big deal, because it’s no longer a matter of me wanting them to work harder. I have to be smarter in the work that I give them. In Maurice’s case, we were already working smarter. He had a problem handling a short recovery, so he put himself in a position where he had to endure a short recovery again and again and again, until he was able to deal with it. Most people work on their strengths. I admire a man who’s smart enough to work on his weaknesses.”
Move Fast, and Time Will Slow
It happened nearly 29 years ago, but Smith clearly recalls the moment when he reached the “Edge” — that magic zone where it feels as if gravity is pulling the body along, rather than impeding it. That was the day when he felt the effortless, flowing sensation of moving fast, faster than he’d ever run before. It was the day he nailed the world record in the 440.
To get to the Edge, sprinters must be at their peak physically — maximum power emanating from the lightest possible body. And their mechanics must approach perfection. For the 100-meter race, that means a total of 45 steps from start to finish, each step striking and lifting from the track in 0.083 seconds — just enough time to plant the ball of the foot and explode forward with maximum efficiency. Every stride is a balancing act, with the body making countless microadjustments so that it can continue moving in a precise line down the straightaway.
That’s not all. When a sprinter has reached the Edge, he has absorbed race tactics and proper mechanics to the point where they have become instinctive. Now, at the crack of the starter’s gun, all thought reverts to feeling. There’s a vibration, a hypersensitivity to the feel of the track itself. As the runner reaches maximum velocity, breathing and movement are one. He is moving exceedingly fast. But he feels relaxed, in total control.
Smith describes the Edge in near mystical terms. “Everything you’ve trained for, everything you’ve learned, is focused on this single, concentrated moment,” he says. “And that’s the moment when you have your breakthrough. That’s the moment when you steal the light.”
Smith’s moment came in Eugene, Oregon during the 83rd running of the National Amateur Athletic Union championships. “I couldn’t sleep the night before, but I wasn’t tired,” he remembers. “I felt a kind of lightness about me. The race started, and it felt like my feet weren’t even touching the ground. Between 200 and 300 meters, all I saw was blur. I was passing people so fast. I put my foot to the pedal in the backstretch, and suddenly everything was moving in slow motion. That’s what happens when you’re in that zone: Time itself seems to slow.”
A clip from the archives of the New York Times shows Smith breaking the tape. His mouth is curled upward in the slightest of smiles. Otherwise, his face is expressionless. There’s no painful grimace — none of the intensity that you’d expect from someone who’d just pushed the limits of human endurance.
“When you look at someone who’s moving fast, the thing that’s being expressed is movement, which is effortless,” says Smith. “The guys who are tense, the guys who are straining, have lost the race. The race goes to the athlete who’s in control — of his body, of his breathing, of his rhythm. Guys who have just run incredibly fast always say the same thing: ‘That was so easy.’ “
Lose Like a Winner
It’s inevitable. At some point, even the world’s fastest man will lose. Maurice Greene had a dream season in 1999. He set a world record. He took four world titles. But he was blistered in two races. And defeat hammers at the most vulnerable spot in a dynamo’s armor: his psyche.
Each race inflicts on sprinters a taffy pull of conflicting emotions. They won’t win unless they are convinced that they will win, even though they know in their heart that they can be defeated on any given day. In victory, they must hold on to at least a scintilla of humility, lest they get too cocky — and ripe for a takedown. In defeat, they must be arrogant, or they risk losing the confidence that fuels a winning performance.
“It’s kind of a paradox. Just when you start winning a lot and really begin to master the sport, you’ve got to become more humble and realize how much more you still need to learn,” says Smith. “And when you lose, you’ve got to stick your chest out and take on the persona of a winner. Other runners can beat you, but you can never, never let them defeat you. If you do, they’ll take over your market.”
According to Smith, no one was better at losing like a winner than Carl Lewis, arguably the greatest track-and-field athlete in history. Case in point: the 1994 Grand Prix meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. In the 100, Leroy Burrell didn’t just blow by Lewis; he shattered Lewis’s world record. “Carl lost,” recalls Smith. “But Carl did the interview. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Leroy was very emotional. He was crying and celebrating because he’d broken Carl’s record. And Carl was genuinely happy for him. He hugged him. Then, during the TV interview, he talked about how well Leroy had run. It was Leroy’s moment, but Carl was determined to share it. He wasn’t going to let it get him down. As far as Carl was concerned, he didn’t lose; he just didn’t win. How did Leroy feel after that? He was probably pissed. You’ll have to ask him.
“Mind games,” says Smith with a hearty chuckle. “Man, they’re just beautiful.”
Bill Breen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor at Fast Company. Katrina Barnas (email@example.com), a Fast Company intern, provided research for this article.
Sidebar: How to Beat the Clock
Whether you’re designing a new piece of software or launching a new marketing campaign, every project is a race against the competition — and against the clock. And the gold goes to the person who flawlessly executes the three critical stages of a project: the fast start, the maxed-out middle, and the searing finish. You won’t win if you don’t have a plan, but you can use world-class coach John Smith’s tactics for running the race….
“Many people believe that in order to win a race, you have to be the first one out of the blocks,” says Smith. “They’re wrong. The most important thing is to execute a balanced start. The first step sets up every step that follows. If you’re the slightest bit overextended, you have to rebalance yourself — which displaces energy and sacrifices time. But if you’re balanced properly, you’re prepared to handle the choreography that will allow you to win.”
“The middle part of the race is when you hit your top speed, but you can’t rush it. Coming out of the start, your upper body should be parallel to the track. That way, your weight is pushed in front of you, and you’re trying to catch that falling weight. If you snap your head up too quickly, you’ve destroyed all of your explosiveness. Instead, come up gradually, and you’re in the best position to really power down the track.”
“Your finish depends entirely on how much energy you’ve displaced at the start. Burn too much fuel at the beginning, and you won’t have anything left for the end. As you near the finish line, gravity starts to pull on you. Your body feels like it’s breaking up, and your instinct is to tense your muscles. Instead, relax. The guys who tighten up at the finish are the guys who lose.”