High school track-what was that like?
September 25, 2012 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What happens at high school track practices and meets?

I'm working on a story, and the main character is supposed to be on her (small, rural) high school's track team, so the story involves several practices and a meet. The problem is that I don't really know what happens at either track practices or meets. For example: How many schools would typically be involved in a meet, and how many people from each school might participate in each event (everyone? one per school?)? Do you use starting blocks or would that be more unusual at the high school level? What sort of exercises would you do during track practice (assuming the emphasis was on the running side)? Do you have practices year round for track but only meets in a certain season? Any details about participating in track at the high school level would be greatly appreciated.
posted by pie_seven to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I need to run out, so I'll be brief, but I can answer any other questions when I get back.

I lettered in fat boy track (discus and shotput) two years in highschool, and it went something like this:

Practice: the whole team would run two miles, then people would break off by event and work with the specific coaches for that event, after which we'd head inside and do strength for 45 minutes to an hour.

Meets: There were 72 public schools in our county, so we were divided into multiple "divisions", and would often have 8-12 other schools at a meet. We'd all ride the bus together, get to the meet, warm up, do our events, and then spend the rest of the time before the bus left hitting on girls, watching other events, etc.
posted by Oktober at 5:47 PM on September 25, 2012

Where is your fictional school? In my Massachusetts junior/senior high school, we had cross-country in the fall and track and field in the spring. Other people I know went to schools that had track and field all year around.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:04 PM on September 25, 2012

What event is your character participating in? Different events will have different practices.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:07 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Fictional school location: Not exactly specified, but northern US, with four season-y weather.
Event: 100m and 400m (would people usually have more than two events that they participate in?)
posted by pie_seven at 6:28 PM on September 25, 2012

On my HS track team, it would have been reasonable to only compete in 2 events, especially considering they're running events. I don't think anyone who ran the 100 also ran the 400. As a data point, my upstate NY high school had track in the spring. We had starting blocks, but they were optional.

For practice, we all met at the track and ran 1/2 mile warm-up together. Occasionally the mens and womens teams would run separately. After the warm-up, we all met on the grass to stretch and do some strength work like supermans and scorpions. Then we split into events.
Runners' practice was mostly running. We had drills like banana hurdles, overdistance training, intervals, and weight lifting.
Throwers did more lifting and practiced throwing. Jumpers did some sprinting and lots of jumping. Pole vaulters were doing their own thing.
When your event coach dismissed you, you could go home. The whole team did not convene at the end.

We had practice every school day for a few weeks, then every school day except Thursday, which was meet day. Practice started at 3, an hour after classes ended, and went until around 5.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:40 PM on September 25, 2012

Track is in the Spring in MN. Some of the same kids run cross country in the Fall and cross country ski in the Winter.
posted by Area Man at 6:42 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most high schools would only have meets and practices during one season, which would be the spring season or second semester. For me in the midwest, I think we had our first meeting sometime in Feb. This also meant it could be very cold early in the season and hot towards the end. Your character would almost surely run the 100 and 200, not the 400, though it is possible. If they were good, they might also run on a 4x100 relay. We used starting blocks.

Practices: We'd all gather and warm up together, usually jogging and sometimes organized aerobic, stretching sort of drills. Then we would split up into more specific groups and go with different coaches: short distance or sprinters (100m-400m), long distance (800m and higher), high jump, long jump/triple jump, and hurdles. Typically runners might have one "other" event they do so might split time or days of the week between hurdling or jumping practice, per the coaches directions. I only competed in long jump and triple jump which meant I wasn't fast enough to compete at sprinting and also was an excuse to get out of more grueling running practices to practice jumping.

Runners would obviously spend a lot of time running different distances. Other exercises could include:
-sprinting up a hill and jogging/walking back down over and over until you're dying
-"ladders": running 100m, walking 100m, running 200m, walking 200m, etc. on up to 400 or 500 meters and then back down again
-practicing using and coming out of the starting blocks in reaction to hearing the gun -practicing baton hand-offs for relays
-walking 100m, jogging 100m, sprinting 100m and repeat (this has a funny name, I think)
-we had these chest harness things where someone would hold onto a rope behind you and make it harder for you to run forward
-sometimes a coach might time everybody in certain distances to prepare and choose who would be in meets

Meets: I would say 6-12 schools would be normal. Meets happen on Fridays or weekends usually, they may be in your city or you might drive up to 5 hours in our case for a bigger regional event (usually more like 1 hour maximum). We would take a bus there or sometimes your own car if you needed to be late or early, parents often took kids home. Meets were long and had a lot of downtime, somewhat loose supervision and lots of room for awkward hanging out, flirtation, checking out people from other schools and showing off your discman. There may be different JV and varsity meets, or meets that include both JV and varsity level events.
posted by dahliachewswell at 7:00 PM on September 25, 2012

I also lettered in track & field at a small, rural high school (sprints, shotput & discus). We had an Indoor Track & Field season during the winter and an Outdoor season during the spring (Cross Country was a fall sport where I grew up).

Practices were very similar to what Oktober described. After a 1 mile run and stretching at the beginning of practice, there would be weight training two days a week and conditioning/technique the other three days. Sprinters typically would focus on their starts & had various drills (baton passes, etc), while throwers would work on their throwing technique. Distance runners just ran. Most sprinters would compete in several events, usually the 100 & 200 (plus their respective relays). Starting blocks were available to and almost always used by sprinters in my high school. Depending on the event, Sprinters and distance runners who had an affinity for them would also compete in the jumping events. The Head coach would usually carve out some practice time for them on one of the conditioning/technique days. There was a LOT of free time as there were only 2-3 coaches for 70+ kids during practice, so it was easy to disappear for a few minutes without getting noticed. The whole team would re-convene at the end of practice, do a 1/2 mile cool-down run and some more stretching.

During the winter, we had a Meet every other Friday night at a local college that had a fieldhouse large enough for a quarter mile track. Typically there would be about 12 schools at these meets (Since indoor facilities are at a premium in the NE during the winter, your whole league was represented there) . Spring meets were typically smaller in terms of the number of schools participating (no more than 4, at most) and occured twice a week, hosted by one of the competing schools. There is surprising amount of waiting around that occurs at a track meet. Clandestine pick up football & hackey sack games out by the buses were not uncommon.

At the league level as long as there were enough competitors for events, multiple heats would be held. Once you got to the League Championships there were limits on the number of competitors for an event from each school. Beyond that (sectionals, etc) it got very competitive and your school might not even be able to field a qualifying athelete for an event.

Track was a pretty laid back sport (as compared to football or basketball), and unless you were REALLY good at something (like, winning the state championship in an event good), there wasn't a lot of intense pressure on you from the coaches. Your motivation had to come in from inside of you, so it was very much a "you got out of it what you put into it" sport.
posted by KingEdRa at 7:08 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you, these are great answers! One quick follow up: Would it be unrealistic for someone to do both cross country and track (one in the fall, one in the spring) or would that be relatively normal?
posted by pie_seven at 7:30 PM on September 25, 2012

In Bernardsville, NJ, Fall was Cross-country, and the field events guys were usually playing football then. We came back to Track in the spring, where it was encouraged because we spent lots of time in the weight room. The runners did both. It was an 11 month training program with two sports.

The descriptions above are very familiar, including starting with some time running on the streets. In the summer, the runners would do 20 mile runs on Sundays and often do 80 mile weeks.

I recall lots of dual-meets, which are scored thusly.

Bernardsville at the time was really good at track, and the coach would spend time going to the elementary schools to evaluate kids who might be on his track teams in 5 years. It was a machine. He coached generations of kids, and had an amazing record in dual meets (20+ years of never losing one).

Some more background stuff: Sports Illustrated's article about two HS runners in 1982

A website dedicated to my HS's track program: The Polo Grounds. I'm not sure whose site it is, but there's a lot of material from the mid 80s, which may mean it's the work of a classmate of mine.
posted by Mad_Carew at 7:37 PM on September 25, 2012

100m will have all, or most of the lanes full, one kid per lane, everyone using blocks and track spikes. Longer spikes for cinder tracks, shorter for fancy pants synthetic tracks.

Two schools per meet during the season, more at once during regionals (and with those, multiple heats with the top one or two kids from each school in the fast heat).
posted by zippy at 7:56 PM on September 25, 2012

Would it be unrealistic for someone to do both cross country and track (one in the fall, one in the spring) or would that be relatively normal?

Normal for the 800m and up, somewhat unusual for the 400m, pretty durn unusual for the 200m and 100m. At the top levels for the 1500m and 3000m it's very likely they're doing cross country too.
posted by zippy at 7:59 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Running cross country in the Fall and then track in the Spring is very common. I knew guys who were the Running Back in Football, wrestled in the Winter, and then did track in the Spring. I also knew girls who did Volleyball, Cross Country, and Track. Cross Country is a long distance race, usually the athletes who did that did the longer events in track, not the sprints.

Around here (Northern Utah) fall is heralded by the herds of school cross country runners in school P.E. clothes jogging around town. They seem to follow the same route every afternoon, so we see them a lot. Really dedicated kids will be seen running before school too.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:20 PM on September 25, 2012

I went to a small, rural high school (total 9-12 enrollment was something like 375 students) in SW Washington State. The answers given are fairly close to my experience, but since I’ve typed out this wall of text, here it is.

Athletics were in seasons (fall, winter, spring). Track was a spring sport, and practice started the first week of March, with the first meet two or three weeks after that. (You were required to have attended 10 practice days before you could compete.) There were 10 meets, plus one invitational type event. Sub districts would be in mid-may, districts the week after that, and state usually around Memorial Day. If you didn't make it to districts/state, you could continue to practice with the team, but you weren't obligated to, so the crowd usually thinned out toward the end.

There were maybe 10-12 schools in our district, though there'd usually be 4-6 schools at any given meet (I don’t ever recall less than 4 schools at a meet). Aside from the invitational, I don't recall any limits on number of people per event, but each person could only compete in 4 events. (Our school pretty much required you to do three, and expected 4.) For the running events, if there were more people than they could run in one heat, then they'd sort you into a faster heat and a slower heat (based on your times at previous meets) or divvy the slots up among the schools and let them work out who to run in which heat. There were only points going down to about 5th place, and it was pretty much unheard of for anyone in the second heat to place high enough to score. (I'm a bit fuzzy on the specifics, as I was nowhere near competitive, and therefore always ran in the second heat, but there definitely weren’t semi-finals/finals at the regular meets.) For events longer than the 400, there aren’t lane assignments, so there would only be one heat of the 800, 1600, and 3200. (Girls and boys had still had separate races, of course.)

As far as practices, school got out at 3:10, you were expected to be changed ready to start at 3:30. We’d usually jog a few laps, stretch, and maybe some drill or another that the coach wanted everyone to do. If there were any announcements, they’d make them, and then everyone would break out to their specific groups. We had coaches for sprinters, distance, throwers, and jumpers.

I agree with thewestinggame, it would be somewhat uncommon to run both the 100 and the 400, though they would certainly work out with the sprinters. Depending on her other events, some days she might break off and work with the jumping coach instead. (We had a few girls that were good at a whole bunch of events (100, 100 hurdles, 200, long/triple/high jump, pole vault, and the 4x100 and 4x200) so the coaches would coordinate their workouts differently. At a meet, they’d only do 4 events, but they might not be the same 4 every week.)

I mainly was with the pole vaulters/long jumpers, we’d do various jumping exercises, working on various bits of technique. One day you’d focus solely on planting the pole and jumping at just the right moment. Another you’d focus on the arm motion to get your feet to vertical, or to rotate your body at the top of the arc, or to push the pole away, or dozens of finer points that I never got to. Some days you’d head out to the pit and try to put it all together. I wasn’t very good, and KingEdRa’s experience matches mine, it’s a fairly low pressure sport if you’re not one of the best few in any particular event. I’d get in, and do my thing with everyone else, but if one of the actual competitors needed some other work, I’d either help with that or go off and work on some sort of individual drill for a while.

Schools were grouped by size, 4A (largest) to B (tiny). My school was was 2A, and later 1A. For the most part, we would compete only with other schools of the same size. This meant that we had to travel a fair distance to get to the site of the meet, two or three hour drives weren't uncommon. There were one or two weekend meets, but most were on school days. We'd leave school mid-way through the afternoon, and drive to the meet on the school bus. You also had to be currently passing all your classes, and not have any unexcused absences/tardies the day of the meet, so there was occasionally some last minute drama if someone had overslept or come back late from lunch or hadn’t done their homework or something and wasn’t actually allowed to go.

We’d get there at 3:30 or 4, unload the various things we’d brought with us (poles, javelins, discuses, shot-puts, etc), and sign in for our individual events. The track events always went in the same order, and they’d announce the current race and the next two upcoming races, so it was your job to keep track of the schedule and show up at the starting line warmed up and ready to go at the appropriate time (or answer to the coach if you missed it). Field events were ongoing, there’d be 20 or 30 minutes to warm up on the actual field, and then you’d have three attempts for the throwing and long/triple jumping events, which you could take at any time. You would be scored for your best attempt. For the events with a bar (high jump, pole vault), the bar would be set at opening height, and you’d have three chances to clear it. Once everyone has either cleared it or not, it would be raised to the next height and the process would repeat. The better jumpers would often clear an easy height to ensure they at least got on the score sheet, and then pass on the next several heights so they didn’t get tired too soon. The danger was that you’d only be scored at the last height you actually cleared, and once the bar is raised, they won’t lower it again, so you didn’t want to pass too far. There was a designated order to jump in, and if you had to leave to go to another event, you had to check out with the person running the event or else they wouldn’t necessarily wait for you once your turn came up, and if you were gone too long without being checked out, they’d go on without you as if you'd passed. Even if you're checked out, they won't wait forever, so you had at least loosely keep track of what height the event was at so you could decide when to fit it in amongst your other events.

Since I wasn’t very good, I’d usually scratch out fairly early and have some free time before/after my running events, so I’d hang out at the pole vault pit, helping out where needed, or just chatting with other people from my school. (Sometimes I’d be dispatched to track down someone whose height was coming up and needed to stop goofing around after their last race and come back.) The better jumpers had a sort of camaraderie that transcended schools, and they’d chat with each other, but I wasn’t really part of that crowd.

After the meet, you either rode the bus back to the school, or you could go home with your parents if there were there and gave a signed note to the coach. Most people rode the bus back, even if their parent(s) came, just because it was fun to hang out with everyone else. Since it was now around 7pm, we’d stop the bus somewhere that had 3 or 4 fast food restaurants nearby and get dinner. This was much more of a big deal then you’d think, as the nearest fast-food place to my hometown is a 20 mile drive, and there’s a certain thrill in being away from your parents and ordering whatever you want (so long as you can pay for it). Then we’d head back to the school, put away the gear, and go home.

Since the high school drew from a large area, we’d stop in two places on the way back to save parents a 40 mile round trip to the high school when we’re practically driving by their houses anyway. It’s a moment in time that’s passed, but I remember the coach passing around the (only) cell phone so that kids could call ahead and make sure their parents would be waiting for them when we got there.

dahliachewswell is right about the weather—the meets happened rain or shine. While the weather wasn’t super cold in mid-march, I remember one miserable meet in Washougal where it rained the whole time, and there was no grandstands, so everyone just huddled under tarps until it was time for their event. The sand-pits were more like mud, and the bus was steamed up for the whole ride back home. I specifically remember that by the end of the meet, my hands were so cold that I couldn’t even fasten the button on my jeans. (Which I suppose speaks more to my lack of preparedness for the cold than the actual temperature.)

One quirk unique to a small town: The district had one high school and one middle school, but only one track, so starting in April, the middle-schoolers would also be at our track, though they usually tried to stay out of our way as much as possible. Occasionally, they’d be working with us on some drill or another, and two days per year they’d host a meet at our track. On those days, we would be the ‘officials’ running/measuring/timing the various events.

Believe it or not, I can write more, but I'll stop here.
posted by yuwtze at 9:41 PM on September 25, 2012

It's less likely for a 100m runner to do cross country, but I went to a small school and there were several girls who were sprinters in track season but also ran on the cross country team in winter.
posted by jacalata at 9:48 PM on September 25, 2012

The main character is supposed to be on her (small, rural) high school's track team, so the story involves several practices and a meet...
Fictional school location: Not exactly specified, but northern US, with four season-y weather.

...It's like you asked this question just for me. If you are dealing with a small rural public (I think things are way different with, like, boarding schools or whatever), there are some issues of size that come into play.

At the schools that I covered, which were to a one poor rural school districts, track and field (like most sports that weren't football or basketball, generally) was at the mercy of individual coaches. Some schools had one or two dedicated coaches who spent a lot of time working with the kids and developing them while also getting less-talented kids involved, so they always had plenty of numbers along with kids who made noise in regional and state meets. Other schools had either a rotating cast of coaches or suffered from a kind of benign neglect under the auspices of the football coach, who used the season as a way to get football players in shape but more of less let everyone else do whatever.

The schools that I covered spent most of their seasons in dual meets, against just one other team. Sometimes they would have three-way meets, especially if there was a school that wasn't fielding enough kids to actually win the meet but had a few kids doing one event. Some schools took their kids to bigger schools an hour or an hour and a half away for bigger meets once or twice a season (more like the 6-16 school kind of thing other people mentioned). The one school I can think of that really made a point of this had a very dedicated coach who worked really hard to get his best athletes competing against strong programs and get them to States (he was pretty successful with this).

The most obvious thing you will notice about a high school meet, especially a dual meet, is that there is a lot of downtime, and it's not always clear what's going on when. There always seem to be kids hanging around doing their homework or warming up in a kind of desultory fashion or flirting or just basically killing time.

The stupid things can also take MULTIPLE HOURS, especially if the runners also do field events, because the athletes tend to do one jump, make their height, go off to run their first event, fool around with their friends, do another jump, fault, do another jump, make their height, go off to run their second event, fool around with their friends...There's also just a lot of stuff to get done.

The schools I covered also had kids compete in multiple events, way more than bigger schools ever would. Of the top of my head, I can think of kids who threw shot and discus and did long and triple jumps, kids who did sprints and jumps (this is actually a very common combo- your character might do the 100, the 200 and the triple jump), kids who did sprints and hurdles, kids who did sprints and throws (this was often football players). The only people I can think of who specialized consistently were male throwers (usually heavier-set football linemen) and distance runners (1600 and 3200) of both sexes.

Certain events were often scored separately but the kids competed functionally co-ed. The kids usually went through the triple jump co-ed, and the scorer just had a sheet for boys and a sheet for girls. Some tracks didn't have two long jump runways, so the kids did long jump more or less together. The 3200, because it's so long (the 1600 is the mile, the 3200 the two mile), was always run co-ed, with the girls starting at the third turn and everyone using the same finish line (the boys race in my state was a 3400, so this worked out).

If a school had a cross-country team, the distance runners were very commonly on it. You might find a sprinter on the soccer or field hockey teams, though, especially at a smaller school. At a few schools, kids would do soccer or field hockey AND run cross-country, essentially just showing up to cross-country for the meets and using the race as their off-day soccer practice or whatever.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:15 PM on September 25, 2012

How many schools would typically be involved in a meet, and how many people from each school might participate in each event (everyone? one per school?)?

Where I grew up (urban Canada) there would be ~5-10 schools at a meet, 1-5 kids per school per event.

Do you use starting blocks or would that be more unusual at the high school level?

By senior level everyone is using blocks, at freshman level a few people might not use them. (no one uses them for distances of 1500 m or over).

What sort of exercises would you do during track practice (assuming the emphasis was on the running side)?

Everyone does their A's, B's, and C's skip drills to warm up for practice and meets.

Do you have practices year round for track but only meets in a certain season?

We started track practices indoors in late February and were outside by March. Meets were in April and May.

Any details about participating in track at the high school level would be greatly appreciated.

Track and Field is the most social of all the high school sports in my experience. There's lots of sitting around during meets so you get to know people from other schools pretty well. You're usually friendly with your opponents -- you might be mad that you lost, but you wouldn't get mad at the winner. Everyone gets hugs after the event. And there's lots of downtime so you have time to goof around with your friends (a track meet is a day off school during which you spend 30 minutes jumping into a sand pit).

Would it be unrealistic for someone to do both cross country and track (one in the fall, one in the spring) or would that be relatively normal?

Totally normal. Expected, even. Cross country runners would usually run the longer distances (3000 m, 1500 m, steeple chase) sometimes down to 800 m. The odd XC runner would do a field event. I would be surprised to see a good XC runner to well in sprint events, but I suppose it's possible.

Event: 100m and 400m (would people usually have more than two events that they participate in?)

If they're doing the 100 m and 400 m it would be weird not to be doing the 200 m too. They might also be doing hurdles at these distances. A top sprinter could do all 3 sprints plus hurdles. But they might not do every event at every meet in order to keep themselves fresh.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:32 PM on September 25, 2012

Being a participant at a meet involves a lot of waiting for your event(s). You sit around with your teammates. Walk around. Socialize with people form other schools.
posted by jander03 at 8:30 AM on September 26, 2012

I ran track for 4 years and cross country for 3 and my experiences were pretty similar to everyone elses. One meet that stands out for me I ended up meeting an old friend. We were friends from 1st to 5th grade but he moved to a new area and we didn't stay in touch (The internet was getting more an more popular during this time period but it was before things like Facebook) This meet was in our senior year in high school so we had become pretty different people from who we were as children so we didn't rekindle our friendship but it was nice to see him.

I can't speak for other events, but distance runners didn't get a lot of 'coaching'. It was mainly "Today go and run this far at this pace. Have fun!" I can't remember much about the first head track coach but after a year or two the head cross country coach became the head track coach. Things didn't change that much but we started doing team warmups. It used to be broken down by events. He started having everyone jogging around the track for like half a mile along with situps and pushups (1 each for the 1st of the month, 2 each for the 2nd of the month, etc resetting back to 1 at the 1st of the next month). After warmups people would work on their main events. I don't really know what non-distance runners did for practice honestly.

Track meets were on weekends for us. At meets I would usually bring a book to read or homework to do. Most often I'd end up watching the other running events to cheer on my friends. My favorite event to watch was the 3200m (4x800m) relay. It had distance but was still fast paced. And the relay nature made it hard to predict who would win because the current set of runners kept changing. My school actually had a very good relay team my senior year so that made it even better.

The coach would let anyone enter any event they wanted, with some exceptions. And relays were recruited from the non-relay equivalents. For instance, the 4x400 would usually be built from the fastest 400m runners. Most people stuck with either sprinting, distance, or throwing though. And within those groupings people would stick with particular events.

Even then, things shuffle around a bit depending on team injuries. Or a student getting better at an event than another student causing them to juggle events to be better. When your team size isn't that large sometimes a student would need to step up at an event they don't usually do. Like someone doing 100m hurdles who usually just did 100m/200m dashes.
posted by Green With You at 1:59 PM on September 26, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! These will all really help!
posted by pie_seven at 7:17 PM on September 26, 2012

A small detail: when I ran track, the longer distance events had a lot fewer people in them and took a long time (to run the 1500 you have to go around the track SO MANY times, not to mention the 3000). So the boys and girls would run together. We weren't scored together, but it was just faster to do it altogether. It was very nerve-wracking as a girl, if you happened to be in the lead, sometimes you'd hear someone in the middle of the race coming up behind you and you could tell from their pace that they were going faster than you. There'd be that moment of: 'Shit, is that Sam again leading the boys and about to lap me? Or is it what's-her-face picking up her game?' And then it would be the boys.

And yeah, the 400 is a weird distance, too long for a true sprint, too short for a long-distance pace. The true distance races were the 800, 1500, and the 3000. The true sprints were the 100 and the 200. The 400 just hurts, no matter how you do it, but as a cross-country kid, we used to tease the sprinters for thinking that anything longer than 200 meters was Too Long, so more cross-country kids than sprinters ended up doing the 400.

Also, wearing track shoes with spikes feels really weird at first. You look down at your feet and they don't look all that different, except for the snazzy track shoe electric 80s colors, but if it's a wet, rainy day and you're wearing the really long spikes, I always felt like I had claws or something. A couple of kids on my team every year got really serious about track spikes (shoes) too, and it was like a holy ritual choosing the proper spikes and screwing them in, and then after the meet dismantling them.
posted by colfax at 1:09 AM on September 27, 2012

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