Placing five hurdles on a 60-yard straightaway delays Renaldo Nehemiah's progress to the finish line by less than seven-tenths of a second, based on his world indoor hurdles mark of 6.89 seconds and his recent 6.22 sprint time in the Atlantic Coast Conference championships.
"He's the closest thing to sprinting the hurdles there's ever been," said Nehemiah's coach at Maryland, Frank Costello. "Other guys prepare for the hurdles as they reach them. He just rockets right through. He's blur going over the hurdles."
At 6-feet-3/4 inch and 157 pounds, Nehemiah has been termed the ideal size for the hurdles, and he acknowledges the truth of that statement. A taller hurdler is in danger of overstriding and hitting a hurdle, a shorter man must use an elongated stride. Nehemiah is perfectly constructed for the 10-yard distance between hurdles.
Although each race takes seven seconds or less, many factors are involved, and there is no leeway for error.
There is room for individuality, however, and Nehemiah, in agreeing to discuss his hurdling technique, added, "We all have our own secrets. You want to keep an edge on everyone, so you tell your competitors just enough. You don't want to be the cause of your own defeat. You don't want to give anybody your ace in the hole."
Nehemiah calls himself an "upper-body hurdler," because his arm motion is such a key part of his technique.
"The hurdles require total involvement of every organ in your body," Nehemiah said. "Your hand, your foot, the tenseness in your arms, the placement of your head. Your arms provide balance. My lead arm is parallel with my lead leg and my body is level; otherwise, you'll be thrown off balance. I run in the air with my arms, pumping them like I'm on the ground.
"Greg Foster (of UCLA, 6-3, 180) is big and has to run with his legs. His arms hang. He'd be better if he cut them off. I do weight training on my upper body, but none on my legs. I let my legs develop naturally.
"A big thing is a high knee lift. The higher your knee goes, the faster your leg goes. You pick up more ground when it comes down.
"Your body should be totally relaxed at all times. If you're straining, you'll vary what you do, and in the hurdles you want to always be in control. I'm in control of my mind at all times when it comes to running. I know what I'm going to do throughout the race."
At the start, Nehemiah positions his left foot about 2 1/2-foot lengths behind the starting line, his right foot about four foot lengths behind, with comfort the key factor.
"It must be down to precision," he said, "because you must hit a mark for your first stride. You want a good, solid explosive start, but if you're too explosive you'll go past your mark and you'll have a problem at the first hurdle."
Nehemiah likes to practice hurdling in the rain, because it forces him to make the proper landing -- on the ball of the foot.
"The only way to land is on the ball of the foot, off your toe, and just take your next stride," he said. "Your heel should never touch, because it throws your body back and you have to rock forward again. That's when you lose ground. Since heels don't have spikes, it's ideal to work on it in the rain. You have to come down on your toe."
Each hurdle should be cleared in similar fashion, the same three steps between each, and concentration is crucial. If a hurdler tries to ease up in a race he is winning easily, he risks disaster, as Nehemiah learned Saturday in the IC4A meet at Princeton when he lost his concentration and did not clear the final hurdle.
Normally, Nehemiah treats that last hurdle, the point for acceleration to the tape, as if it was not there, exploding in similar fashion to the start of the race.
"You want to get off the last hurdle as fast as you can and be in sprint position," he said. "It's like getting off the blocks. It's an explosive move but in control.I can run faster off the last hurdle than anyone else.
"In high school, they changed the event from four hurdles with a 15-yard sprint to the tape to five hurdles and a five-yard sprint. My times were exactly the same."
After exploding over the last hurdle and getting his feet down as quickly as possible, Nehemiah leans his body toward the tape in another move he has mastered.
In winning that ACC sprint by inches, he leaned so well that Nick Kovalakides, the meet director, said, "I was glad the automatic timer was working because I think the judges would have placed him third. You just can't imagine what he picks up with that lean."
"My biggest thing is reaction. Russ Rogers and I worked at dropping a spiked shoe on my hand, to make me get off the mark quicker. I try to get out as fast and low as possible, going forward, not up in the air."
Although some taller hurdlers take seven steps to cover the 15 yards before the first hurdle, Nehemiah uses eight. Again it is a matter of comfort. He does not want to be reaching for extra distance and throwing his stride off.
His right leg is his lead leg, first over the hurdle, and his left the trail leg.
"I get as much mumentum as I can going and I lift my right knee a little bit higher than perpendicular to the bar," he said. "From the sound of the gun, when I first look up, my eyes are on the middle bar of the hurdle, so I know where it is. The main thing is clearing it without hitting it. If you're thrown off balance, you lose your rhythm and it takes two hurdles to get it back.
"As I go over the hurdle, my toe is pointed slightly up toward the front of my body. If the toe is down, the weight drops the trial leg and you can hit the hurdle. The lead leg starts everything. The quicker the lead leg, the quicker the trail leg. The trail leg is just a reactor. The thrust of the lead leg going down brings the trail leg along."
"It's not a wild dip, but a gradual slanting of the body," Nehemiah said. "I can lean way low and not lose my balance. You have to have good body position, know where the tape is -- a lot of guys misjudge it -- and be aware of the proper place to hit the tape to activate the photo."
Ankle and hamstring injuries are common with hurdlers and Nehemiah prepares himself with stretching excrcises.
"I stretch almost until my legs feel numb, super loose," he said. "I do a lot of ankle exercises, quad work and hamstring work. The majority of it is relaxation, stretching the legs to full motion.
"I strained a hamstring in high school, when I was too small (5-4) for the 39-inch hurdles. It was pulled so bad it was almost totally stretched and a doctor said I'd never have to worry about it again. Actually, I never worry about an injury until it happens."
Nehemiah does not worry about anything connected with the hurdles, including his opposition. He is so cool that he has most of his opponents psyched out before the race starts and does not work up a sweat.
"I win a lot of races with less effort than other guys," Nehemiah said. "I don't sweat much. When you sweat, you've tried to muscle the race. If you get excited, and put out a total effort to run faster, your body unconsciously can get tight, and you run slower. You have to be relaxed along with your body.
"I had to muscle that sprint last week. It's awkward for me to run the sprints. The hurdles are easier, they're so fluid. I feel faster over the hurdles than running the sprint."
He certainly is not much slower.