As she made her final push toward both the finish line and the history books, Letesenbet Gidey looked over her left shoulder. Gidey wasn’t checking for runners; she was checking the lights, making sure she was well ahead of the flashing green bulbs that chased her around the track.
Advancements in shoe technology have garnered headlines and stirred controversy recently for the way they boost performance. But three vaunted world records have fallen in recent weeks thanks in part to wavelight technology, a system of flashing lights that helps runners keep pace with record times.
There are no plans to use the lights at high-profile events such as the Olympics or world championships, where runners angle more for titles than for records. But the lights have been deployed in a handful of a single-day meets this year at which chasing world records was the primary target, generating buzz among fans, coaches and analysts.
Some appreciate the visual cues when watching on television or a computer. Others worry that the runners are benefiting from an artificial aid that wasn’t available to previous generations.
“If our activity is sport, our business is entertainment,” Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, and himself a four-time Olympic medalist, said in a telephone interview. “We want things that add to the entertainment value of our sport. Pacing lights adds to our understanding; it gives it a bit of excitement, a bit of jeopardy. That’s really what the sport needs.”
Developed three years ago by Dutch company SPORT Technology, the system was refined and promoted by Jos Hermens, a former distance runner and the chief executive of Global Sports Communication, which represents some of the world’s best runners, including Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele.
Long known as an innovator around the track, Hermens had been tinkering with the idea for years. He employed a similar system years earlier when he broke his own world record in the one-hour run in May 1976. To aid with his pacing, he set up police lights every 200 meters, synced and timed to flash with the world record pace.
“I knew if I could see the light, I would be behind the schedule,” he said. “If I didn’t see it, I would be okay.”
The new system was designed as a visual guide for spectators and television viewers. But it’s also a valuable training aid and competition tool that helped Gidey and Cheptegei in their recent assaults on the record books. Cheptegei, 24, also broke the men’s 5,000-meter mark, which had stood for 16 years, in August (12:35.36) at a Diamond League event in Monaco that featured the wavelight technology.
The lights are positioned along the inside of the track and can be programmed for any pace. The system features different colors, which could be employed in a variety of ways during training. For the recent world-record runs, the green lights indicated the world record pace. They trailed flashing blue bulbs, which illuminated the way for a human pacer.
For the first half of their record-breaking runs, Gidey and Cheptegei benefited from human pacers. Also referred to as rabbits, pacers are often used in world record attempts, running ahead to establish speed and block any wind. Gidey and Cheptegei ran the remainder of their respective races solo, accompanied to the finish line by only the flashing lights. While the blue bulbs might have aided Cheptegei’s pacers, he downplayed their impact on his 5,000-meter record.
“My mind was not actually on the wavelight,” he told LetsRun.com in August. “After the pacemakers were going, I was not after the light. It was Cheptegei and the world record.”
But others see clear benefits, and Gidey and Cheptegei showed remarkable consistency throughout their lengthy runs. For Cheptegei’s 10,000-meter record (26:11.00), except for his final 1,000-meter stretch, every other 1,000-meter split was within a second of 2:37, a metronomic mark that would be difficult to replicate with just a watch.
The steady pacing allowed Cheptegei to break the 10,000-meter mark by 6.53 seconds, barely seven weeks after he bettered the 5,000 record by two seconds. Gidey’s run in the 5,000 last week (14:06.62) shed nearly five seconds off the record.
Molly Huddle, a two-time Olympian from the United States, watched the runs online and could immediately see the benefits. While many factors go into a record-breaking run, previous generations didn’t have the aid of mechanical pacing.
“It’s so hard to find pacing for the level of running needed to get things like world records,” she said in an email, “that I think it’s an exciting piece of technology that can help record setters in many different categories have a visual incentive to chase when they are alone on the track after pacers step away.”
Cheptegei, Gidey and this whole generation of distance runners have turned to high-tech shoes, such as Nike’s Dragonfly and Vaporfly spikes. After much debate, World Athletics gave a green light to the shoes earlier this year. Drawing less attention, it also amended its rule book to allow for “electronic lights or similar appliance indicating progressive times during a race.”
“We are in 2020,” Cheptegei told LetsRun.com. “We are not in 1980s; we are not in 1990s; we are not in 1970s. So every time we have to accept the new developments in the sport, the new technology.”
Hermens, who staged last week’s Valencia meet, has heard from detractors but said every generation has faced an older guard that resists change.
“Should we go back to the Greek times and run barefoot? Come on,” he said. “Let’s be honest: Our sport is already suffering, and if we listen to the conservative people, our sport will be dead anyway. There’s always resistance — coaches who’ve done things the same way for 40 years and don’t want to change. But you have to adjust as a sport, or we die.”