Ottawa Citizen

Editor's note: This is the final instalment of an Ottawa Citizen three-part series written by Jim Bray on the Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson 150-metre race scheduled for June 1 at Toronto's SkyDome. The series is a construction of the race based on the projections of Bill Orban and Jean Kozak, human performance researchers at Sisters of Charity of Ottawa Health Services. The projections are based on the athletes' best times at distances up to 400 metres. The quotes from the participants are real.

Michael Johnson never set out to be the world's fastest human. The fastest over 200 metres, yes. The fastest over 400 metres, yes. But not the fastest human. That honour always goes to the winner of the 100 metres, the most explosive race in track and field. And that honour should belong to the man in front of him: Donovan Bailey.

Nearly 10 months ago at the Atlanta Olympics, Johnson's remarkable time of 19.32 seconds in the 200 metres had stirred a controversial debate. Johnson had averaged 9.66 seconds per 100 metres, 0.18 seconds faster than Bailey's world record time. Never mind that Johnson covered the first 100 metres in 10.12 seconds. Never mind that the second 100 metres, which he covered in a spectacular 9.2 seconds, was the result of a running start. To some in the track-and-field world and to the American broadcasters covering the Atlanta Olympics, Johnson had shown that he -- and not Bailey -- was the world's fastest human. "For some reason, a lot of people decided to give me that title and I'm not going to give it up that easy,'' Johnson said when the Challenge of Champions was first announced, adding later, ``This will definitely sway people's opinions.'' Johnson, however, is quickly discovering that earning the unofficial title on the track isn't going to be easy, either. While Johnson was guaranteeing a win before the race, Bailey was issuing his own warning. "`It's not my persona to sit and tell people I'm going to win a race,'' said Bailey, ``but anything I've prepared to win, I've ended up winning. I'll be ready for the 150 metres. If Michael isn't, it's going to be a long day for him.''

It has, at least, been a long 10 seconds for Johnson. At the 100-metre mark, Bailey led by 2.5 metres and, though he seldom runs beyond that distance, Bailey is continuing to widen his lead: 3.3 metres at the 110-metre mark; 3.4 at the 120 mark.

But it is between 110 and 120 metres -- where Bailey, for the first time, hasn't added significantly to his lead -- that the race is beginning to change.

For most observers, the race has been viewed as Canadian against American, 100-metre specialist against 200-metre specialist. But there is a third matchup which has been largely ignored. The alactic runner (Bailey) against the lactic runner (Johnson).

When the compromise distance of 150 metres was first proposed, it was a simple matter of splitting the difference between the two sprinters' disciplines. In doing so, organizers may have inadvertently stumbled on the perfect distance.

In the 100-metre sprint, a stunning combination of power, speed and strength which lasts less than 10 seconds, the runners need not worry about oxygen. They run on a reserve of chemical energy stored in their fast-twitch muscles which comes from a diet of carbohydrates. The food, when broken down in the system, releases an energy the athletes convert into movement.

The side effect -- everything in the human body seems to have side effects -- is that the breakdown of nutrients also produces a buildup of lactic acid, a result of sugar only being partially broken down, which causes fatigue in the muscles and forces athletes to slow down.

While little seems to affect Johnson, lactic acid plays a part in at least one-quarter of the 200-metre sprint and more than one-half of the 400. It initially kicks in, coincidentally, near the 150-metre mark.

``It's such a neat race that they picked this spot,'' Dr. Al Reed, a professor of human kinetics at the University of Ottawa, says of the Bailey-Johnson match race.

Reed estimates the distance is a mix of about 95-per-cent anaerobic exercise (without oxygen) and five-per-cent aerobic exercise. And the sprinters, he says, are like cars.

Geoff Gowan, a track analyst for CBC, goes one step further, using a drag racer as an analogy. The muscles are the engine; the energy is the fuel.

"They're running the race on their battery,'' says Reed, referring to the chemical energy stored in the muscles. ``They're going to burn through the battery and, toward the end of the race, they're going to get into the backup system. That's where they get into the lactic acid.

"And therein lies the tale. That's what's going to make them slow down.''

Reed feels Bailey did the right thing by delaying the race. When it was first proposed last fall, the Canadian begged off, claiming he needed rest after a long outdoor season and suggesting the race, when it did happen, would be on his terms.

The result, says Reed, is Bailey gave himself time to build his battery to better combat the onset of lactic acid. Through alactic training, or short interval work with a work-to-rest ratio that allows the system to replenish itself, sprinters can stretch the distance they can run before the effects of lactic acid take over.

"One of the great mysteries is you put back a little more than was there at the start,'' says Reed.

"These guys are going to run faster on their battery. Bailey has to extend his from 100 to 150 metres.''

If not, the lactic acid will interfere with Bailey's ability to fire his muscles and fatigue will set in near the end of the race. The signs, which vary from individual to individual, can include pain, heat (or a burning sensation), loss of speed, loss of focus or effort and a lack of air.

The last sign, a lack of oxygen, shouldn't play a part in a 150-metre race. But the loss of speed and, equally important, the loss of focus could be devastating.

Gowan recalls a 100-metre final in which Bruny Surin, Canada's second-best sprinter, led until the final few metres when he took a quick, sideways glance to check the rest of the field.

The momentary distraction, an almost imperceptible shift of the head, was enough to drop Surin from first to fourth place and off the medal podium.

"The last part of the race when you've ceased to accelerate demands great concentration,'' says Gowan. ``You have to fight tying up. The athlete, above all else, has to concentrate on his sprinting form and not what's happening around him.''

It is a problem that is now consuming Bailey. While he cruised to the tape in both the 100 metres and the 4x100-metre relay in Atlanta, he is struggling to maintain his form in Toronto. Judging by the pain etched in his face an ugly picture splashed across the Jumbotron scoreboard Bailey has spent most of his energy. The fear of hitting the wall had forced England s Roger Black to settle for a silver medal behind Johnson in the Olympic 400-metre final. If I had gone with Michael all the way, I might not have made 400, said Black. The only way to beat Michael is to run a perfect race and have him make a mistake. But he doesn t make mistakes. Bailey is quickly realizing his. He had gone out too fast, too hard, too early. And the error in judgement is materializing in the race s final metres. Despite the urging of a hometown crowd trying to will its athlete to the finish, Bailey s lead is quickly evaporating. As much as 3.4 metres at the 120-metre mark, the gap has dwindled to 1.9 metres at the 130-metre mark. He doesn t have a whole lot left, says Bill Orban, an Ottawa researcher who projected the final outcome months before the race, while Johnson continues to accelerate. Johnson, whose posture erect, head up, legs churning hasn't changed through the first 130 metres, can t see the pain etched in Bailey s face. Buthe can sense a difference. Bailey is no longer pulling away. His form is fading, crumbling, in front of Johnson. It is just a matter of time, if only there is enough time. With 10 metres to go, Johnson is almost even. And now, with less than a second left in the race and the world s best sprinters back where they started, it is a battle between two athletes with a history of rising to the occasion.

The higher the stakes, the better I am, Johnson had said in Atlanta. Winning isn t enough. Johnson is doing more than simply winning in Toronto. He is restoring the image of American sprinters, tarnished by Bailey s victories at the world championship in 1995 and in Atlanta in 1996. At the same time, he is deflating a SkyDome crowd and a nation which had reveled in a Canadian s ability to destroy the United States reputation as the dominant sprint nation.

With one final surge, Johnson eases past Bailey and coasts to the finish line. His time is a world-best time of 14.56 seconds in the rarely contested 150-metre sprint. Bailey has equalled the previous best, Linford Christie s wind-aided run of 14.74 seconds in 1995, but he has finished 1.8 metres behind Johnson.

Johnson is the world s fastest human.

Or is he?

According to Johnson s agent Brad Hunt, the race only shows that one athlete is better than another on a given day. What does any particular event determine other than the immediate outcome? says Hunt. It s not always the best team that wins the Grey Cup on that day. Colorado won the Stanley Cup (last year), but Detroit still had the best record. Are they the best team?

Like Hunt, Orban has doubts about the meaning of the race. What we re seeing here is a very arbitrary event taking two specialists from different distances, says Orban. If you based it on rate of acceleration, Bailey would win. Bailey is still the fastest accelerator. But that acceleration, the powerful start, has proven to be Bailey s downfall over 150 metres.

Bailey s energy is so great right off the blocks, says Jean Kozak, who teamed with Orban to predict the outcome. He doesn t have the capacity to maintain the exertion.

While Kozak admits the result is something of a disappointment Johnson s performance took us back; our nationalist inclination was something was wrong he, like many of the race s proponents and opponents, feels the outcome of the 150-metre race is anything but conclusive. It s an arbitrary point that, in this case, favors the person that runs the 200, says Kozak. They re both highly-trained specialists.

For 100 metres, Johnson will never touch Bailey. For 200, it s just the reverse. They re two different athletes. The only thing they have in common is their running.

To argue that one is faster than another, it s strictly an academic argument. But on this day, at this distance, the academics give Johnson the nod.

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