Sprinting With The Texans And 4x100 Relay Dominance

On April 20, Fort Bend Marshall's 4x100 meter relay team ran a time of 39.80 seconds at the UIL 5A 19-20 Area Meet, earning them the best time in the country by over two tenths of a second and tying them for the second best time by a high school team ever. The performance was a testament to the brilliance of the Marshall program and their coach, Lloyd Banks - a coach who has produced a sub-41.00 4x100 relay team in eleven consecutive seasons, a feat unheard of in the high school track world.

At the UIL State Meet, that same relay team - the one that had crushed its opponents all season - finished 3rd in 5A behind Red Oak and Frisco Lone Star, an almost inexplicable upset.

That is, to an outsider's eye. This wasn't a case of a bad performance from Banks' team (although he mentioned that his second leg, Devin Wilkerson, pulled up during the race). No, in this case, Marshall's time of 40.71 would have earned them gold at nearly every state meet across the country.

The only problem? This isn't any other state. This is Texas.

As of June 19, 361 high school 4x100 relay teams have produced a time under 42 seconds. Of them, 107 are from Texas - nearly a third of the entire figure. As far as competition, no other state is particularly close; Florida only has 37 such teams, while Georgia and California each have 33, despite the latter having a much larger population than Texas.

"The sprint depth in Texas is phenomenal."
Lloyd Banks, Fort Bend Marshall head coach

"The sprint depth in Texas is phenomenal," Banks says. "When you look at the record books, they're sprinkled with Texas teams all over."

Banks is right; according to MileSplit's archives, Texas teams hold nine of the top ten 4x100 times in history, and 19 of the top 25. Every year, headlines fly out of the state when teams and individuals set crazy marks, events which are expected at this point.

From a glance, it doesn't seem too unlikely that this would be the case; according to the 2021-22 High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the NFHS, Texas has the most high school track athletes of any state, with 128,276, despite not having the largest population in the country. High school sports are a point of emphasis in the state; if you need proof of that, just watch Friday Night Lights.

Still, having a large pool of athletes doesn't fully explain the phenomenon; if it did, large states like California, New York, and Ohio would have much more talent to show. Even for its size, Texas sprinting is impressive.

One reason for that, undoubtedly, is the weather; sprinting demands a hot climate, as warmer temperatures help to loosen athletes' muscles. This is why other southern states, like Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, also have impressive sprinting scenes; all three have over 30 sub-42.00 4x100 teams.

"Our youth programs are very active down here in Texas, they spend a lot of time with the kids, and they get them going in the right direction."
Remon Smith, Klein Forest head coach

The warm weather also provides the ability to train year-round; with favorable temperatures in most, if not all months of the year, athletes in the South automatically have a leg up on their northern opponents.

"The weather contributes a great deal [to Texas' success]," says Remon Smith, Klein Forest Track and Field head coach. "It helps that we can get outside earlier than most people because of our climate."

But what separates Texas from the rest of the southern states - and all other states, for that matter? It's simple: culture. It's the same thing that separates the Kenyans from everyone else in long-distance running. The Texans are serious - even "rabid," as Smith describes - about sprinting in a way that nobody else replicates.

Why? Well, there's a multitude of reasons, to say the least.

First and foremost, the structure of the state's competition demands extra attention on the sprints; at the UIL State Track and Field Meet (Texas state championships), winning a relay earns a team twice as many points as winning an individual event. All of the relays contested - the 4x100, 4x200, and 4x400 - are sprint events, and taking home a victory in any one of them gives a team a commanding edge in the pursuit of a state championship. Just ask Smith, whose boys' team captured the 6A 4x100 and 4x400 titles on their way to a team championship.

"People really, really gear [their programs] towards making sure that their sprints are up to par," Smith says. "If you win [multiple relays]... you have a shot at winning the state championships."

This attention on sprinting is also heavily fostered before high school competition even starts. Smith and many other coaches are quick to point out that one of the main reasons for the state's success is the prevalence of youth track programs, such as The Wings Track Club, Track Houston, and CL Stars, the group founded by Olympian and former University of Houston standout and current coach Carl Lewis.

"Our youth programs are very active down here in Texas," Smith says. "They spend a lot of time with the kids, and they get them going in the right direction."

Of course, these programs are hardly unilateral. The focus on speed, agility and athleticism is also a byproduct of another, much larger culture in Texas, one which must be mentioned in any conversation about sports in the state: high school football.

"When it comes to sprinting, one of the blueprints that's set is the relationship between the football program and the track and field program," says Shelton Ervin, president of the Texas Track and Field Coaches Association. "If you look at some of the big programs, they have a lot of talented football players that also run track... that's the [path] to success."

Ervin, also the coach of Summer Creek Track and Field and the 2021 National Coach of the Year, points to his own program as an example of what he calls a "marriage" between football and track - a fitting partnership, as the Bulldogs' three straight winning seasons on the gridiron from 2020-22 pair well with their consecutive 6A state championships on the track in 2021 and '22. Ervin says that the integration between the two is as seamless as ever, helping them - and others who follow the blueprint - to achieve success.

"There was a day and age when there were two separate systems when it came to football and track and field," he says. "But now, the newer coaches have an understanding of how the two can collaborate."

This understanding is unique, but ultimately crucial, when it comes to two sports that have an "all-in" attitude. Instead of making football players come out for spring practice, coaches allow them to see success on the oval. Similarly, instead of having athletes lift at full strength at times when it may benefit their own sport, coaches from either side communicate with each other to make sure that the athletes are fresh when they need to be. It is this balance, this acknowledgement that neither side can outweigh the other, that leads to a terrifying 1-2 punch.

So, what happens when you combine these powerful, culture-building ingredients? Well, obviously, you get success.

More importantly, though, you get tradition - this is the key to the sprinting capital of the world.

It's as simple as this: when everyone around you is fast, everyone expects you to be fast, and everyone is celebrating the people who are fast, it's enticing to be fast.

 "If you look at some of the big programs, they have a lot of talented football players that also run track... that's the [path] to success."
Shelton Ervin, Humble Summer Creek head coach and President of the Texas Track and Field Coaches Association 

Sure, a program like Fort Bend Marshall is bound to have talented athletes. And with a coach like Banks, almost any group could find success. But when ten years have come and gone, and not a single group has left without producing a sub-41.00 4x100 meter relay, it creates that much more motivation to follow suit.

"They don't want to let anybody down," Banks says of his team. "They don't want to be the group that didn't get it done." For the record, Banks says his staff doesn't count the number of times their team breaks 41 seconds, but rather the number of times they don't.

When it comes down to it, they need to have that fire inside them in order to win.

"All the kids know we're in Texas," Banks says, "and they know it's going to be very difficult to win with talent. You're not going to have the most talented team year in and year out. It's just not going to happen."

That becomes evident when six teams break 41 seconds in a single heat, as was the case in the boys' 5A 4x100 meter relay final, the race in which Banks' team took third.

It takes a lot more than talent to be crowned champion at the UIL State Meet, a meet that, according to Banks, can often see 20,000 fans in attendance. A meet where, as Remon Smith describes it, fans are packed "wall to wall... piling in just to see the sprints." A meet where towns are shut down statewide because the pride of the entire community is packed within a single venue, on a single oval. A meet where future collegiate stars and Olympians walk amongst each other, knowing, even as teens, that they are headed for greatness.

Yes, it takes a lot to be a champion here. After all, everything's bigger in Texas.