Coach Perspective: Coaching the 4x800m at S.C. State Champs

Editor's note: Please note I (John) is continuining to share content and stories of state championships as soon as possible. 

Guest column by Timothy Supplee, Dreher track and field coach.

In my experience, the 4x800 meter relay has been the "go to" event of choice for distance runners. At all the beginning of season meetings and questionnaires that ask "what do you want to run?", the answer is most commonly the 4x8. Flash forward to time trials, workouts, and the first meet, where I put who I think might be the best four 800 runners on the line. Throughout the season this quartet changes almost weekly. Whether it being other runners trying to focus on open races (800, 1600, or 3200), or a new runner that you just want to try and mix around.

Some background, as a full heartily long distance guy (5K-10K), the 800 is sort of an enigma to me. I ran a semi-decent one in high school, but mostly focused on the 3200. For me, the longer, even paced race, the better. In my seven years coaching, and with the athletes I've had, I've been looking at and adapting what training should look like for more 800-3200m runners. A new assistant coach has really helped with that. We do plenty of short intervals mixed with plenty of aerobic work. Unlike colleges that mostly have athletes specialize in one event, high schools mostly lean on their top athletes and spread them as thin as possible in as many events as they can handle, or as much as a coach thinks they should be able to handle.

Where does Dreher's 4x800-meter relay rank? 

For the boys going into the 4x8 at the county championship, a meet that doesn't mean anything for qualifying for state, we wanted to run the A team to lower the school record. We talked about how there were no worries if you're tired for the open events, just go see what you can do in the 4x8 and then give the rest to your other events. The main goal was to beat their own school record of 8:21 set in the first race of the year. They ran the usual order of second, fourth, third, first fastest. They didn't have much competition to push them, as the second place team was 14 seconds back, but still ran 8:11, 3A #1 and beat their previous school record. In the coming weeks a few other schools in 3A would run 8:11, and we knew it wouldn't be a cruise at the state meet. But we knew with our three that have run 1:58 in the open 800, and one at 2:06, we had a shot at the low 8s.

"As with any race, you can have a set plan going in to it. But once the gun goes off you have to trust that your athletes can get it done on their own. Whether the plan works or plays out differently, all a coach can do is sit back and enjoy the ride." - Timothy Supplee

Coming into the state championship goal #1 was start the meet off with a 4x8 win. We had 5 boys in 10 distance events (4-4x8, 4-1600, 3-800, 2, 3200). On the current short schedule we knew it would be survival of the fittest, but also knew/thought for the team title we had to try to score as many points as possible in as many events. Hindsight we probably would've scored more if I planned them out better, but that's the gamble. With two other teams matching our season best of 8:11 we knew the 4x8 be a good race.

Tactics for a 4x8 race can be like making spaghetti, 1,000 people can have similar ideas, but get different results. We changed up tactics from our usual 2, 4, 3, 1 order to 4, 3, 2, 1 to let the faster foot speed runners play catch up if needed, and give the lead off leg more people to race with. The 1st leg is usually pretty bunched up, especially with 16 teams. Having those others around our lead off guy helped him run 4 seconds faster than normal and get our team near the front. The idea was to run as slow as possible for the other three legs and give the 53 second open 400/1:58 guy the chance to close it out for the win.

See more 2023 South Carolina track and field coverage -  more coming

So, how do you run a tactical 4x8 at state and conserve as much as possible to succeed in the open events? You don't when the competition is breathing down your neck the whole race. Our race plan went from conserve as much as possible to win at all costs very quickly! And all I could do was watch from the coach's box and trust that they could adapt and go on their own. First leg kept is in the mix, second got a decent lead, third ran near a season best but Powdersville's #3 ran a 1:56 to bring it within about 10-15 meters. Our anchor leg I knew had the speed, but knew anything can happen on any day. Powdersville closed the gap and swung wide in the last 100m, and our guy holds him off. The plan worked, besides the conserve for other events. Such a great race for both Dreher and Powdersville to run sub 8! It took a good 30 minutes to get my heart rate back down to normal!

As with any race, you can have a set plan going in to it. But once the gun goes off you have to trust that your athletes can get it done on their own. Whether the plan works or plays out differently, all a coach can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.