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During a relay race, members of a team take turns swimming or running (usually with a baton) parts of a circuit or performing a certain action. Relay races take the form of professional races and amateur games. In the Olympic games, there are many types of relay races that are part of track and field.
Based on the speed of the runners, the generally accepted strategy used in setting up a 4 person relay team is: second fastest, third fastest, slowest, then fastest (anchor). Each segment of the relay (the distance run by one person) is referred to as a leg.
Each runner must hand off the baton to the next runner within a certain zone, usually marked by triangles on the track. In sprint relays, runners typically use a "blind handoff", where the second runner stands on a spot predetermined in practice and starts running when the first runner hits a visual mark on the track (usually a smaller triangle). The second runner opens his/her hand behind her after a few strides, by which time the first runner should be caught up and able to hand off the baton. Usually a runner will give an auditory signal, such as "Stick!" repeated several times, for the recipient of the baton to put out his hand. In middle-distance relays or longer, runners begin by jogging while looking back at the incoming runner and holding out a hand for the baton.
In athletics, the two standard relays are the 4x100 meter relay and the 4x400 meter relay. Traditionally, the 4x400 meter relay finals are the last event of a track meet, and is often met with a very enthusiastic crowd, especially if the last leg is a close race. It should be noted that it is hard to measure exact splits in a 4x400 (or a 4x100) relay. For example, if a team ran a 3:00 4x400, it does not mean every runner on the team has to run a 45 second open 400, because a person starts accelerating before he/she has the baton, therefore allowing for slightly slower overall open 400 times. A 4x400 relay generally starts in lanes for the first leg, including the handoff. The second leg then proceeds to run in lanes for the first 100 meters, after which point the runners are allowed to break into the first lane on the backstretch, as long as they do not interfere with other runners. A race organizer then puts the third leg runners into a line depending on the order in which they are running (with the first place closest to the inside).
4x800 relays and 4x1600 relays exist as well, but they are more rare, especially at the high school level, where schools generally have only one or two competitive strong runners in such events.
A team may be disqualified from a relay for:
- Losing the baton
- Making an improper baton exchange
- Making two false starts (or in some cases only one)
- Improperly overtaking another competitor
- Preventing another competitor from passing
- Willfully impeding, improperly crossing the course, or in any other way interfering with another competitor
The worlds largest series of relays races (in terms of number of races) is the Ragnar Relay Series. There are Ragnar Relays in Utah, Arizona, Minnesota, and Washington State. With The world's longest relay race is Japan's Prince Takamatsu Cup Nishinippon Round-Kyūshū Ekiden, which begins in Nagasaki and continues for 1064 km. The world's largest relay race (in terms of total participation) is Hood to Coast, whose 197 mile (317 km) course runs from Mount Hood to the Oregon Coast.
Medley relay events are also occasionally held in track meets, usually consisting of teams of four runners running progressively longer distances. The Distance Medley Relay consists of four legs run at distances of 1200, 400, 800, and 1600 meters. The Sprint Medley Relay consists of four legs run at distances of 200, 200, 400, and 800 meters.