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THE ART of the SPRINT : For Coach Tom Tellez and the Santa Monica Track Club Speed Demons, the Point Is Not Just Winning the Race, but Perfecting the Run.

July 19, 1992|HOWARD KOHN | Howard Kohn, a contributing editor of "Rolling Stone," is the author of "The Last Farmer," a runner-up for a 1989 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. He is currently at work on a book about race relations , to be published by Simon & Schuster. He also coaches Little League.

Marsh sits down. "Coach T is in charge," he says. "We go to meets when he says and stay home when he says, even if we lose out on appearance fees. Money is never part of his decision-making. We trust him. He has a vision and a plan for our careers. Right now it's how to get to Barcelona." Right now Marsh would follow his coach over a cliff. After a long career as a middle-of-the-pack runner, through school in Hawthorne and undergraduate years at UCLA, Marsh came to Tellez in 1990, hoping that a new coach and a new approach would change his luck. At first, it didn't. At last year's U.S. championships, he struggled to fifth place in the 200 and seventh in the 100. But this year, just in time for the trials, Marsh all of a sudden was a legitimate contender. The man to beat, though, was still Lewis, and after him, Burrell, who held the world record for the 100 through much of the 1991 season only to lose it to Lewis at the very end. There have been mechanical lapses for Burrell this year, but recently he has regained his form. "I kept telling him he had to bring his legs all the way through," Tellez says. "About a week ago, it clicked." Burrell gets to his feet at a signal from Tellez, a slight nod. No yogi ever controlled his surface demeanor better.

Over his shoulder, Burrell says: "When we're on the track with Coach T there are no stars." A smile and a wink. "Except for him."

THE QUIET ONE, FLOYD HEARD, leans against a cement wall, suffering from mental fatigue. "At this level, it's 100% mental," Heard says. "Like Coach T is always telling us, 'Your body wants to work perfectly. It's your mind you have to concentrate on.' " Yesterday Tellez caught him overreacting to the gun, his head snapping up, and today Heard is working on that single flaw, over and over. Tellez calls for at least four practices a week, from 1:30 to 3:30 in the afternoons. Speed is the emphasis at half the practices, technique at the other half. The former leaves the runners with their tongues hanging out, but the latter is far more exhausting. They work on their technique until their brains feel fried.

Every flaw is worth a fraction of a second, and a fraction is all that separates Heard from Lewis, Burrell and Marsh. He has been a few hundredths of a second away from the magical 10-second 100, and this year he is the fourth regular, along with the three of them, on the Santa Monica Track Club 4x200 relay team, a quartet that broke the world record in April, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, despite one poorly exchanged handoff.

Baby-faced, with eyes that seem both merry and serious, the 26-year-old Heard has been with Tellez since 1988. He had tried for a Houston track scholarship earlier, fresh from high school in Milwaukee, but the university was at its limit, so he settled for one from Texas A&M. After two years he left school and joined the Santa Monica club, training with Tellez. "At A&M I ran tensed up. My face was scrinched up. My shoulders were scrinched up. Coach T taught me to run relaxed," he says. "Being relaxed is the secret to my success."

Mark Witherspoon goes to the blocks and is next to get the hard once-over from Tellez. Witherspoon is 28, a long-legged, lean, rippling sprinter and relay man who heard of Tellez while at Abilene Christian College and began training with him in 1986. Though Witherspoon has not yet competed in a big international meet, he has been running some good times this year. He has always had the ability, Tellez says, but he just had to harness it.

"Running relaxed, that's the ticket," says Witherspoon. Each of the six will tell you the same thing. Tellez himself, when he's not zeroing in on specifics, chants a mantra, "Relax. Don't get quick. Slow down."

Slow down? It's one thing to turn conventional track-and-field wisdom on its head, but to tell a sprinter to run slowly? It is so opposed to what most people intuit about racing that it doesn't seem to make sense. Yet Tellez shakes his head, insisting, "Slow down! Slow down, and you'll go faster."

Of course, the riddle is obvious. It's Zen. Running a race is like running a life. Conserve yourself, pace yourself, attend to everything in its own sweet time, and you'll reach the finish in great shape. Notwithstanding that only a rare number of us get the hang of pacing ourselves over a span of 70 or 80 years, Tellez expects his runners to do this through a race that lasts all of 10 seconds, not significantly longer than it takes to turn a page or blow a kiss. He expects them to do it because scientifically it makes total sense.

Tellez's runners know by heart the five phases of a sprint, which, when divided into percentages, provide the perfect game plan for a race. Phase 1: Reacting to the gun (1%). Phase 2: Clearing the blocks (5%). Phase 3: Accelerating to peak velocity (64%). Phase 4: Maintaining peak velocity (18%). Phase 5: Decelerating (12%).

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