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Runner’s World: This Is Track? Meet Brings Athletes Close to Fans in Atlanta The American Track League Series offers cheerleaders, live music, live TV, and opportunities for spectators to get close to pro runners.

The American Track League, which aims to make track more entertaining to casual fans, held its first 2016 event on Saturday in Atlanta. With live music between events, cheerleaders, and postrace interviews conducted directly in front of the homestretch grandstand, the lively atmosphere appealed.

Jeshua Anderson winning 400 meters hurdles in 48.88.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN KISSANE
JESHUA ANDERSON WINS THE 400-METER HURDLES IN 48.88 AS FANS WATCH FROM THE INFIELD.

“I think it’s incredible,” said Molly Ludlow shortly after running 2:00.44 to finish fourth in the 800 meters, a race won by Jamaica’s Natoya Goule in 1:59.38. “This kind of atmosphere reminds me a lot of the European circuit, and the reason the crowds and fans are so good over there is because they have a lot of fun with it. Once you put in interactive things like this, it makes a huge difference with the crowds.

“All the athletes will say they’re a little more relaxed,” she continued. “You’re getting ready for a really hard effort but there aren’t so many high-tension, high-pressure feelings.”

Meet highlights included former world record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica speeding to a 10.01 win in the 100 meters and Queen Harrison claiming a narrow victory in the 100-meter hurdles over Sharika Nelvis, 12.72 to 12.84.

Queen Harrison requests more crowd noise after her 12.72 100 meters hurdles win.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN KISSANE
QUEEN HARRISON REQUESTS MORE CROWD NOISE AFTER SHE WINS THE 100-METER HURDLES IN 12.72.

Fans also cheered a pair of solid performances by Candace Hill, 17, of nearby Conyers, Georgia, who made her professional debut in the meet. Hill, the world youth record holder at 100 meters and 200 meters, finished fourth and third in those events, respectively, on Saturday.

She is scheduled to compete in the USA Junior Championships (June 24–26), which serves as a qualifier for the IAAF World U20 Championships in Poland (July 19–24). Hill will also compete at the U.S.Olympic Trials (July 1–10).

The genesis of American Track League was the May, 2013, Atlanta Grand Prix, a single meet pulled together in a few weeks by Paul Doyle, CEO of Doyle Management Group (DMG), which represents track and field athletes worldwide. Encouraged by the success of initial efforts to combine world-class track and field with interactive fan opportunities, Doyle’s firm planned and presented a five-meet American Track League schedule in 2014. Only one ATL meet was staged in 2015, an early August tuneup before athletes departed for the world championships in Beijing.

Adam Nelson, 2004 Olympic shot put gold medalist, joined DMG early this year and is also coming out of retirement to compete in next month’sOlympic Trials. Nelson served as meet coordinator on Saturday and was also a member of the ESPN2 crew that provided live television coverage.

“The meet was a tremendous success,” Nelson told Runner’s World via email. “We were able to showcase many of the world’s greatest athletes in a format that kept the fans engaged and the athletes responded with excellent performances.”

The only distance event on the streamlined meet schedule was the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase, won by six-time Baylor All-American Rachel Johnson. A year out of school and currently running for Asics, Johnson stopped the clock at 9:46.87, the current year’s No. 9 performance in the U.S. Although a bit off her lifetime best of 9:41.56, the mark is a season-best for Johnson, who narrowly missed the Olympic “A” standard of 9:45.00.

Following her race, Johnson expressed satisfaction with her performance and praised the meet. “I really wanted to PR,” she said, “but it was kind of hot and humid so I just wanted to get out there and compete well against a very good field. I wanted to feel comfortable and run confidently, that was my main goal.”

As to the meet to itself, Johnson acknowledged the benefits. “It would be fun to see track become more like football or basketball,” she said, “with people really getting involved and knowing the runners and their PRs and stats. So stuff like this is really helping to bring up the sport.”

a band on the track.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN KISSANE
AFTER THE CONCLUSION OF THE MEET, A LIVE BAND ENTERTAINS SPECTATORS.

Dustin Shinholser, who owns the Fleet Feet Sports store in Athens, Georgia, and is heavily involved with the Northeast Georgia running scene, acknowledged that the meet was fun and engaging for fans. “The crowd in the middle of the bleachers, where all the music and entertainment was, really got into it,” he said.

Nelson is optimistic that the approach will succeed, provided innovation remains at the forefront and the sport becomes more inclusive. “Just like road running has grown by creating communities of running, track and field can grow by creating communities of track and field,” he said. “Everyone wants to be part of a family, a team or a community. Our future and the long-term success of the ATL will depend largely on building new communities of track and field.”

Read more on The American Track League from Runner’s World here.