Someone once said the best runner wins outdoors and the best athlete wins indoors, and this probably is true. Certainly, indoor and outdoor track have little in common, as Martin Nathan's photographs on the following six pages clearly demonstrate.
For instance, a long race outdoors—say a mile or two miles—is run with a certain stately dignity. It often is exciting. But there is no sense of direct competition of man against man. The competition is of man against the ticking sweep hand of a stop watch, and the runners compete in a silent, withdrawn and introspective world. Most of them run to an inner timetable which they have devised or which a coach has set up, and they are conscious only rarely of the other men on the track with them.
But the intimate small oval of wood indoors—with the crowd close and loud, and a brass band playing circus tunes during the races—makes it impossible for the runner to retire to this secret world. At each of the sharp, banked turns of his long race he is forcibly reminded of the physical competition in his race. An elbow in the ribs jolts him off stride; a bad guess on when to pass sends him, arms flailing, high up to the outside edge of the track.
"You have to learn to run all over," one coach said recently. "For instance, you run the turn outdoors, your rhythm and arm action don't change. You lean a little, but you run the same way. Indoors, you change your whole style of running. Your inside arm swings in a shorter arc, your outside arm in a longer one, and you chop your steps to keep your balance. The tactical part is much tougher. You would figure running indoors you sprint down the straights and float through the turns, but if you do, you lose. You float the stretch and work the turn. You can't relax around the bend because you're under pressure from other runners. You work to defend your position. It's a different sport."
February 6, 1961
It is, in its way, much more exciting. The runners are close, and you hear the dry, rustling click of the spikes on the wood floor; as the race goes on, you see the strain on the runners' faces. Indoor track buffs—and thousands of them visit Madison Square Garden—relish the racemanship of a Ron Delany. They watch with relish as he saves ground and strength by pit-patting happily at the end of a big field in the mile, saving inches by tightroping along on the inside edge of the track. They wait intently for him to make his bid when the leaders begin to flag, and he can make up space with a minimum of effort by starting his sprint with the small, important impetus of acceleration down the slope of a turn.
This easy boost lets him go ahead of the next runner in the stretch in time to return to the pole around the next turn, swing wide as he comes out, then kick down the gentle slope again to pass another runner.
This is close, controlled, intellectual running. The ploys are made quickly and succeed or fail quickly; the crowds are nearly always aware of them, and the swelling, growing roar is the result.
Even the field events have an immediacy indoors that they lack outdoors. The pole-vaulter, pulling, turning and pushing off the pole, rises to the eye level of the first balcony. You can study the concentrated face of a high jumper as he waits in the sudden stillness that comes before the big jump and, by his footfall, count the steps in his approach and hear the squeak of shoe on wood when he takes off.
This is a microcosm, whereas outdoor track, because of the distance between watcher and performer, is a macrocosm, with impersonal figures acting out a soundless drama too far away to seem human. In the smoke and noise and confusion indoors the athletes are one with the spectator, close and very human.
BEDLAM ON THE BOARDS
The gun bangs, and the violent whirl around the narrow track begins with the crowd's lifting roar. It is good to get away fast and in front to avoid the jam on the short turns. Even in long races, the gun begins a sprint for the pole
The relay hand-off comes in a graceful confusion of tired runners offering the batons to tense men who will carry them on
Intent faces (above) reflect the belief of all distance runners that the race is not to the swift, but to the disciplined and enduring, indoors, they are right
The short race ends in a half dozen pulse beats as the runners flick off the infield and into the dark mouth of the tunnel that gives them braking room
A sprinter walks back slowly from a defeat which took only a few noisy seconds; the walk back, in the postrace silence, seems to last a long, long time