The designer of the Long Beach track and others of the same size in Boston, Milan, Genoa and Turin and of six smaller ones is England's Ron Davies, a 51-year-old mechanical engineer and former middle-distance runner. He is president of Amalgamated Recreational Engineers and Network Associates, Ltd. (ARENA). Davies calls it "the first company to study sports facilities from an athlete's point of view." The unique aspect of his tracks, like Highfill's, is the banking of the turns. Davies and Highfill agree that turns must be as wide as possible, but Davies is more concerned with transitions in elevation. As he says, "A runner's legs are in the air much of the time, and changes up or down can affect his performance adversely, even cause him to stumble." Thus, Davies raises the straightaways of his tracks 14 inches off the ground; as the innermost lane begins to curve into a turn, the track actually dips a bit. In mid-lane it remains level, so the runner's elevation never changes, only his tilt, and Lane 2, the main passing lane, rises only slightly. But this is less apparent than the angle of the banking, which is so steep at Long Beach (19½ degrees) that runners routinely tumble off.
The function of banking is to neutralize centrifugal force, which tends to drive a runner toward the outside of any un-banked track as he enters a turn. The larger the track the smaller the problem; on quarter-mile tracks it is negligible. Ideally, a runner in the turn of a banked track should be perpendicular to the track, but that can only happen at one running speed, and the track designer must decide what that speed will be. A runner doing a four-minute-mile pace (60 seconds per quarter) will remain perpendicular to the track throughout Highfill's curves, but to do that on Davies' he must do a 46 flat for a 440. "At Long Beach you have to pick up speed just to blow through a turn," says Mark Belger, who in 1978 set the American record for 880 yards (1:48.1) at a Highfill track in College Park. But the first time he ran at Long Beach he fell off. The conclusion is that you can't just say "fast." You have to say "fast for what?" The 440 or the mile?
Are Davies' tracks faster than Highfill's? Davies insists that the quarter-inch layer of synthetic surface that most of his clients seem to favor does not slow down runners, and that it is much more gentle on the legs than the plywood of Highfill's tracks. He adds, "Resiliency is important, but the fastest surface would be concrete."
There are those who would disagree, most notably a 37-year-old Harvard professor of applied mechanics and biology named Thomas A. McMahon, who is the designer of Harvard's indoor track. Once McMahon held the same views on concrete as Davies, but no more, and perhaps Davies and Highfill should begin feeling a bit uneasy. The two-year-old Harvard track, eight laps to a mile with a polyurethane surface over a plywood undersurface, is causing quite a stir around the Ivy League, where it is known as the Pink Carpet.
The Harvard track is a permanent structure in a bright new building all its own, unlike most of Highfill's and Davies' creations, which are set up for one or two meets a year. It is used for training as well as competition, and from the start Harvard was more concerned with safety than with speed. Runners on the university's old cinder track had suffered numerous leg injuries, and McMahon, who had done research on the locomotion of four-footed animals, was asked for advice on building a new one. Should it be banked? Yes, he said, though he added that safety would be more a function of the track's "compliance" (i.e., resilience) than of its banking. But he expressed concern that an emphasis on safety would produce a very slow track. "Do the best you can," he was told.
McMahon, together with Peter R. Greene, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering at Harvard, began a type of research that had never been done before. In the basement of Harvard's high-energy physics laboratory they set up 80-foot track segments of every conceivable consistency, from pillows end to end to boards to concrete. They began to write computer programs. Twenty volunteer running subjects were hired, and they pounded back and forth on the little tracks. Both men had assumed that concrete would produce the fastest times, but certain board tracks, with surfaces far more compliant than concrete, proved to be faster. They had not at first taken into account the damping phenomenon—the effect of shock absorption, for want of a better term, in the muscles of the legs. They had thought it unimportant, but finally, as Greene puts it, "We decided to throw a shock absorber into the equation. Bingo!" The answer came out of the computer: the degree of compliance they should incorporate into their track should be 10 times greater than that of most modern tracks.
Such a track would certainly be kinder to legs—and there is no question that the new track worked wonders on the legs of Harvard runners. Chronic knee pains and shin splints disappeared as if transported to Lourdes. But more surprising, according to McMahon and Greene's predictions, this unheard-of level of compliance would actually allow runners to travel 2% to 3% faster than they had before.
In the track's first season, 1977-78, the best times for Harvard runners at home averaged 3.87% faster than their best times anywhere else, and 2.04% faster than their best for the previous season. In December of 1978 a Boston educational TV station, WGBH, was filming a series on sports technology, and it wanted to illustrate the unusual qualities of the new track. Buerkle, then holder of the indoor record for the mile, was brought to Harvard to see what he could do. It was very early in the season. He had entered only one timed race—and done a 9:15 for two miles at Cornell two weeks earlier—but now, spurred by nine top Boston-area competitors, he ran a mile in 4:00.45. At the same stage of the previous season, the season in which he had set his record, his best mile was 4:11. It was tempting to give the track all the credit for the marked improvement, but Buerkle said, "Running is so complex. Still, the track didn't hurt at all."
It is difficult to explain the damping phenomenon in non-technical language. Greene says a simple test with a basketball is illustrative. When he drops one on the Harvard track it bounces significantly higher than when he drops it from the same height on concrete. "And in one sense a man is similar to a basketball," says Greene. "Both have springiness and shock absorption."
McMahon compares the Harvard track to another innovation in sports equipment, the fiber-glass vaulting pole. "It bends more than the old pole," he says, "but it stores energy and returns it to the vaulter, enabling him to vault higher than before."