John Harvard's Journal
The 1,200 Loop
A legendary route’s disputed distance
It was just a normal Instagram picture: two sisters in running attire, stretching and conversing outside Harvard Stadium. It was the caption that riled people up. “Discussing how long the Harvard Tempo Loop actually is,” wrote Molly Seidel, a Tokyo Olympic qualifier in the marathon. “#its1200m.”
A debate began on the true length of the loop. One commenter guessed that it was between 50 and 70 meters shy of Seidel’s estimate. Another sided with Seidel. “1,200 meters,” asserted Kieran Tuntivate ’20, a sub-four-minute miler who amassed hundreds of miles on the loop during his time at Harvard. “Plus conversion for not being completely fast and having two 90-degree right turns. Equivalent to 1,210 meters on a track.” No one could agree; the debate raged on.
The Harvard Tempo Loop, like any good running loop, is simple. It starts at the stop sign near O’Donnell Field’s right-field foul pole, runs clockwise around Gordon Indoor Track, continues past the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, and cuts right after the Palmer Dixon Lifting Facility. After a long straightaway along Soldiers Field Road, it turns right before North Harvard Street, past Blodgett Pool and the Murr Center, and wraps back around Harvard Stadium. It’s a clean 1,200 meters. Or 1,170. Maybe 1,150.
Loops are important to runners. Repeating a certain stretch breaks a longer run into more digestible chunks, making it easier to maintain a certain pace. In Boston, there are plenty of beautiful, aesthetically pleasing loops: Chestnut Hill Reservoir and Jamaica Pond (both about 1.5 miles around) and Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum (2.6). The Harvard Tempo Loop is not one of them. Instead of circling a beautiful locale, the loop cuts behind buildings, across pavement, and through parking-lot traffic. Yet despite its imperfections, it’s become not only one of the most popular workout spots in Boston, but also a stretch discussed nationwide.
Tuntivate jokes that he turned the loop into a Harvard track and field staple. After his left shoe fell off during a 2019 race, causing serious blisters (see “One Shoe, No Problems,” May-June 2019, page 34), he had trouble running the usual 1,000-meter loop through the athletic complex because of its many sharp left turns. He requested that the team switch to the 1,200 loop, with its gentler turns.
Associate head coach Alex Gibby shares a simpler origin story. “We had some construction,” he says, “so we moved to the outer loop.” (It had been used by Harvard athletes and community runners for years, but Gibby ramped that use up tremendously for his team during the 2018-19 seasons.) What the outer loop lacked in appearance, it made up for in convenience and practicality. About the distance of three laps around the McCurdy Outdoor Track, it was a perfect block for breaking down brisk “tempo” runs and an ideal length for interval workouts. Its location—steps away from the Gordon Indoor Track—made scheduling easy. And no matter how much snow fell, it was always quickly cleared.
The loop also has its charms. Almost completely flat, with three lengthy straightaways, it’s an easy place to get into a groove, and the surrounding buildings help shield runners from the brutal Charles River winds. Using it so often for workouts made athletes intimately familiar with all its features: an almost imperceptible downhill during its final stretch, a small indent where a puddle often appeared. It also allowed runners and coaches to track improvement over time. “That’s sort of the beauty of it,” says Charlie Davis ’20, a former team captain. “Once you’ve been there, the magic only builds.”
Another piece of magic is the loop’s distance. Perhaps because of interference from Harvard Stadium, GPS watches are no match for the route. When runners stopped their watches at the end of an interval, there was no consensus on length. “I’m pretty sure our coach measured it with a wheel and said it was less than 1,200 meters, but we didn’t want to believe that,” says Gillian Meeks ’20, another former captain who finds herself nostalgic for the loop as she continues her studies at the University of California, Davis. “And then we would say, ‘Oh, well, we didn’t run exactly how you measured it.’” Admitting that the loop is fewer than 1,200 meters is tough to swallow, because blazing fast workout times aren’t quite so blazing fast after all.
On the website Strava, where runners log their runs and compete for the best times on certain routes, the Harvard Tempo Loop has exploded in popularity since the early months of the pandemic. With indoor tracks closed, outdoor tracks crowded, and most races called off, a number of ambitious runs have taken place at the athletic complex. In one instance, a six-person relay team participating in a virtual race ran the loop for 30 hours straight. When they won, someone in Washington, D.C., complained that there were questions about the loop’s distance. (On Strava, the route is emphatically labeled “It’s 1200 meters”—a sly acknowledgment of the unceasing debate.)
Davis, often injured during his undergraduate career, was confronted with the course’s “true” distance every time he measured it with a wheel for workouts. “I would bet a serious amount of money that it is plus or minus five meters from 1,150,” he says. “And that’s taking what I would call a reasonable inside line.” Coach Gibby agrees that it’s probably just short of 1,150; his guess is 1,146.
All admit, however, that the distance doesn’t really matter. David Melly, a prominent local runner and host of the Run Your Mouth podcast, writes, “Just as there is value to working on the Newton hills in the rain to build toughness, there is value in working out on the Tempo Loop to build confidence.” Even if it is a little short, he says, it’s good to associate hard effort with good outcomes. That’s part of the reason professional runners from all across Boston use the loop regularly, and might help explain why Harvard’s track and field team has improved in recent years. “You get a little boost from that,” says Seidel.
And the Harvard team recognizes its significance. At the NCAA cross-country Northeast regionals in the fall of 2019, snow and ice forced the race to be moved from a golf course to roads—where most teams don’t spend much time working out. But for the Harvard athletes used to the loop, says Gibby, “Honestly, it just felt like home.” By day’s end, the men’s and women’s teams finished first and second in their fields, each earning a trip to nationals.
“If I’m being honest with myself, I know it’s not 1,200,” Tuntivate says. “But…I’m happy to believe that whatever you do on the 1,200 loop should be equivalent to 1,200—even if it doesn’t measure out. It should probably be called ‘It’s basically 1,200 meters.’”