Jakob Ingebrigtsen was ready to become a Pac-Man when he stepped on the track in early June.
Like the video game character that gobbles dots inside a maze, Ingebrigtsen, a Norwegian middle-distance runner, was focused on keeping up with the bright green flashes plotting his way along the inside of the track. The flashes, called Wavelights, were traveling at the exact pace of the two-mile best time. (The distance is not considered world-record eligible because it is not an official World Athletics distance.)
So when he sprinted down the home straightaway, leaving the blinking lights in his wake, the spectators in the stadium knew they were witnessing the best performance in the world in the event. Ingebrigtsen finished in 7 minutes 54.10 seconds, shattering the previous best by more than four seconds.
Incredibly, it was one of three records set on that balmy summer evening at the Paris Diamond League meet. Faith Kipyegon of Kenya set a world record in the 5,000 meters just a week after setting the 1,500-meter world record, and Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia broke the world record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. All three performances were aided by Wavelights.
Pacemakers, runners tasked with setting a certain tempo in the early stages of a race, are nothing new. Roger Bannister was helped by two pacemakers when he became the first runner to clock a sub-four-minute mile in 1954, and few middle- or long-distance world records are set without the aid of a rabbit, as pacemakers are known. Bram Som, Wavelight’s co-creator and operational director, was a successful pacer himself after a career as a professional runner.
But while human pacemakers drop out at an agreed-upon point in the race, the green flashes do not tire. The 400 L.E.D. lights installed at one-meter intervals along the inside rail of a standard running track accompany the runners all the way to the finish. Stay ahead of them, and the runner will have beaten whatever time the lights have been programmed to.
Too easy? For some, perhaps.
Like supershoes, which combine carbon fiber plates with a midsole foam, and springy tracks, which transfer more energy back from the ground, there is an element of controversy around the blinking lights.
Som remembers the first rumbles of discontent after the device helped athletes break the women’s 5,000-meter and men’s 10,000-meter world records at the same competition in 2020. “There was a lot of talk around it with people saying: ‘Oh, it’s not legal. It’s technical doping. We don’t want that,’” he recalled. “That was a breakthrough moment for us.”
At one point, Nike representatives told Som they were relieved that Wavelight was generating unease among the sport’s traditionalists because it was deflecting some of the heat their shoe technology was attracting.
“The sport always evolves,” Som said. “We used to start running barefoot, then we got shoes, then they got spikes and now they have carbon plates. That’s sport. Now we have a Wavelight, and in 50 years there will be something different again.”
But pacing wasn’t the initial goal of the Wavelight technology. It was originally conceived as an interesting training aid to attract more people to athletics.
Its origins date to 2017, when an athletic club in Zeewolde, the Netherlands, instructed a lighting company to think about a speed concept using lights. Som and Jos Hermens, who was Som’s manager throughout his track career, soon came on board to help turn a rudimentary product into the present-day Wavelight system.
It was not the first time such an idea had been used. The short-lived International Track Association employed a handful of pacing lights at their meets in 1973. Separately, Hermens was aided by two bulbs placed at either end of the track when he broke the world record for the one-hour run in 1976.
While Som — who coaches the 3,000-meter steeplechase world-record holder, Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya — insists Wavelight remains a great training tool, it was the entertainment element that won over Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics.
“The world of athletics needs change,” Coe, who had the rules amended to allow its use in competition, said. Its use has become so commonplace that it will be employed at 11 of the sport’s 14 Diamond League meets this year.
“I think it’s good for young people at home watching on television to properly understand how quickly an athlete is running,” Coe said this year. “Wavelight technology allows him to do that. So for me, it’s about a greater level of understanding.
“Athletes routinely break world records with pacemakers. So whether it’s a human pacemaker or Wavelight technology, I think is a bit of an academic discussion.”
Even so, Coe said, the technology is unlikely to be introduced anytime soon at the Olympics or world championships, where pure racing tends to outshine the time targets common at one-day competitions.
The paradox of Som’s role in Wavelight’s creation is that the technology, on the surface, at least, appears to threaten the existence of his former job.
After his running got him to the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Som switched to life as a pacemaker when injury denied him the chance to qualify for the London Games in 2012.
By the next year, he had developed a reputation as one of the world’s best rabbits, respected globally for his metronomic ability to run any requested pace. He was in demand for most major competitions, commanding a fee of $2,000 to $3,000 per competition. He spent the next seven years earning more money as a pacemaker than he had at almost any other time during his competitive days.
“When you are pacing, you get a fixed price, and sometimes there would be a bonus if someone broke a record,” he said. “I got more attention as a pacemaker than as an athlete.”
But if Wavelight is so beneficial as a pacing tool, does it mean the sport no longer has a need for the rabbit expertise Som became so famous for?
“Of course, it makes the work a little bit easier,” he said. “But, on the other hand, a pacemaker can’t run blindly on the lights because they have to react to what is happening behind. He’s there for the runners. The lights are programmed before a race, but what happens on the track could be different.”
Watching Ingebrigtsen, Kipyegon and Girma work their magic inside a Paris stadium this month, Som experienced a familiar moment of pride. The sense of satisfaction that once came from winning a race and then from pacing a record run, now comes when the technology he helped create plays a part in sports history.
“The atmosphere in the stadium when an athlete passed the Wavelight or the Wavelight passed them was amazing,” he said. “It was like something I’ve never seen before.”