The Guide to Track Markings

I once posted a link to another site that had an easy to understand explanation of basic Track and Field markings. Unfortunately that site has disappeared so I'll have to do it myself. Since I started thinking about writing this article, I have been searching for a track to photograph to give you some visual aids. I have not yet found any track that does not have some weird exception that needs to be explained so I will have to show one of those as an example. When I find a track that has all of the proper markings and nothing else you will see it included in photographs. I guess that shows how rare it is to find a track marked just right. My examples come from California tracks, since I know them so well and have them listed on another page on this site.

VISUAL AIDS--To correspond with this article, I've made a photo layout of the markings at California State University, Northridge

For the complete novice here are the basics: A track runs in a counter clockwise direction, meaning you are always turning left. You are not allowed to run on or inside of the painted lane lines (or obviously the curb). The staggered start lines I describe here compensate for the extra distance you run by being further away from the center of a circle. By the way, the true finish line, just as the true start lines to be discussed later, is the leading edge of the line, meaning a foot or toe on the start line is cheating and timing should stop at the first edge of the finish line you cross no matter how fat the line is. Speaking of FAT, for more and more track meets, particularly the sprints are timed with photographic/electronic devices because no human being can start and stop a watch accurately and consistently enough for times to be valid to the .01 of a second that determine records. That kind of timing is called FAT or Fully Automatic Timing.

A track is measured in lane one, the left, inner most lane. All the other lane lines and markers calibrate the distance the runners are running in other lanes so at the finish line they all have run the same distance. Of course this depends upon the people conducting the race to follow the format the race was measured for. That responsibility usually falls on the starter. Generally, sprints run in lanes so competitors should not ever leave their lane. Some races like the 800 and 4x1600 give runners a certain distance to sort themselves out in lanes before they reach the common break line where they can leave their lanes and break into lane one. Distance races don't consider lanes to be important so they start from a bent waterfall start line. Inner lanes allow a competitor to watch the relative position of the other runners outside of that lane. Outer lanes cannot see the runners starting inside of them (unless they get passed) but they have to run a less severe turn. If races are seeded, most meets seed sprints from the center of the track (meaning the fastest qualifiers get the inner lanes like 4 or 5 and the slowest qualifiers get the outer lanes like 1 and 8 or 9). Major championship meets like the Olympics go one step further and group qualifiers into the first 4 or second 4, then the first 4 group draws for the inner 4 lanes and the second 4 draw for the outer 4 lanes.

How long is a track? I'll discuss metric vs imperial (miles, yards, feet and inches) a lot, but generally a track should be 400m (which means if you run 4 laps you are running 1600m, just over 9m or 31 feet short of a mile). An (older) imperial track, at 440 yards is exactly 4 laps to a mile (meaning it is a little over 2 meters, about 7 feet longer than a metric track).

You can't just pull out a measuring tape or wheel and correctly measure a track. You must first locate the center of the turn and end of the straightaway and calculate circular measurements by pi. In other words, most people have to depend on someone else to have done it for them. Here's a photographic tour of track marks.

If you are looking for a company to plot where to put the marks on your track, here's the best reference I know.

The most common races are 100m (somewhere close to the length of a straightaway, it varies on each track), 200m (half a lap), 400m (one lap), 800m (two laps), 1500 (3 and 3/4 laps), 1600 (a high school distance--4 laps), one mile (4 laps of an imperial track, or 4 laps plus about 31 feet on a metric track), 3200 (another HS distance--8 laps), 5000m (otherwise knows as 5K--12 and a half laps) and 10000m (otherwise known as 10K--25 laps). There are other relays and hurdle races I'll discuss within the article. Since all track organizing groups (High School--NFHS, College--NCAA and Open--USATF and IAAF) have finally agreed on using metric races (a development in the last 30 years, about the time all-weather tracks became popular), almost all all weather tracks I have seen are painted with metric measurements, even if the track is constructed in imperial or non-standard distances. Our problem(s) to be discussed in this article, are to try to decipher the codes someone has painted.

Lets start at the "common" finish line. In theory, it is usually a wide white line at or near the end of the straightaway that usually ends in the direction the prevailing wind is going. Occasionally tracks will offset the finish line by 10m down the straightaway to let the 4x400 passing zone end on the straightaway--if this exists, all the other lines will also be offset by the same distance. If automatic timing has been used at this facility very often, it likely will have a black square on each lane line--that serves as a guide to line up the camera and lanes in a phototiming device. Not all facilities have one common finish line that works for all lap and sprint races, though it is preferred so the phototiming camera does not need to be moved and recalibrated for different races (slowing down a meet). If there is a finish line at the end of each straightaway, you may need to be a little more observant. On a metric track, there will be multiple staggered start lines into the turn from the common finish line. The secondary start line on the opposite side of the track will only have one set of staggered start lines (meaning one in each lane) going into the turn. It is possible to have a track marked with two common finish lines (and thus a full set of start lines relative to each finish line)--Cal Poly, Pomona is one of these. If they aren't running dual finish lines, why would a track have a second finish line? Some tracks might have it for training or odd races to take splits at, some tracks run additional sprints on the backstretch (to double up processing lots of competitors in huge meets), some leave themselves the option to go either direction, depending on that day's wind conditions and a few tracks finish the steeplechase in the opposite direction just because they built the water jump on the wrong end of the track. Some facilities will have the European style of a finish grid--white lines, one meter apart for the five meters before the finish line. The evenly spaced white lines, if present, are a good indication you have found the common finish line--which is the last line in the set.

You should determine if this is a metric track or an imperial track. The finish line on a metric track is the same as the start line (for all even lap races) in lane 1--so lane 1 has fewer start lines than the other lanes on a metric track. So if there are multiple start lines in lane one this is likely an imperial track and certainly is not a 400 meter metric track. There are some tracks that are no particular distance (usually short because there isn't enough space to build a full sized track) and measured race start lines are a hodge podge to compensate (examples are Rio Mesa see picture below, also Chaminade, McClymonds and Oakland Tech--Ambassador College, at 1.5 laps to 400m is completely weird, though well marked). On a proper metric track, the common finish line is in the center of the 4x400 relay passing zone--which is also the passing zone for most other relays that involve 400 or longer legs. Most modern tracks mark that zone with triangles (the wide end of the triangle being the actual line). By the rule book the triangles for the 4x400 should be blue. Some places might use lines or other types of markings to define the relay zone. The international rule book calls for a line with a "Chevron," which is a V-shape on one end of the line (placed so the V is on the side that is "In" the zone). I will stick with triangles for the U.S. High School dominated application. The proper imperial track will have the same relay zones, but they will be slightly offset toward the turn from the finish line--and for any non-400m track there should be three different passing zones that progress the same distance in the same direction away from the finish line. Imperial tracks with cascading relay zones sometimes offset their finish lines to allow space for the relay zones (Righetti, Santa Maria). Other imperial tracks just give up on running a 4x400 relay and instead are marked for 4x440y relay (meaning you will find the imperial start lines along with metric which can be confusing). If you see two start lines, separated by the same distance (about 7 feet) in each lane (as opposed to being progressively further away from each other) you have dual metric and imperial staggered start lines.

Unfortunately we cannot depend on tracks to be marked the same way. The rule book (actually the rule books--they all agree) provide for a "recommended" color code. Since it is only recommended, not absolutely required, the color code is regularly ignored by track painters--I guess these painters are artists and need to be creative. I've seen some liberties taken because the base color of the track is not orange (blue frequently) so they change colors to contrast with that track's base color. So when I quote the rule book, I only quote what they should be. Similarly, I am told by people in the know, there are many tracks where the proper measurement procedures really weren't followed. For example, all lanes are to be measured 20cm outside of the outer edge of the lane line. If there is an inner curb, the measurement is 30cm outside of the curb and if there is a lane line in lane 1, that means the 5cm wide lane line should be 5 cm outside of the curb. On my All Weather tracks page, I criticize many facilities for not having a curb, even though it is necessary for record acceptance--meaning if someone sets a record on an improper track it still doesn't count You can fairly dependably NOT find ALL of these particulars at most tracks. I've also been told by experts that most RECENTLY constructed track curbs are significantly less accurate than the ones built decades ago, particularly before WWII. I suspect this is because old tracks were 1) dirt and thus dependent on an accurate curb for all other measurements; 2) new tracks are supposed to be built metric, but the average american construction worker/surveyor can't figure out metric measurements; it could also be 3) people just don't care about track anymore so administrators figure anything close will do (why spend the money to get it right). The question one must always ask is: How did they measure the track you are standing on and if they made a mistake, did they then do all the other markings relative to the initial mistake or make more mistakes as they went on? Who really knows? You had to be there when they measured it. In all my years of watching this stuff, try as I might, I've never been there when a track was measured. Sometimes we just have to trust and hope that all runners starting from the proper line are truely running the same distance even if isn't exact.

So you have found the common finish line and have determined if you are on a 400m track or something else. On "something else" there will be lots of start lines even in lane 1. On a metric track, lane 1 starts all races (in that area) on the finish line. Distance races will have a waterfall (curved line) start all the way across the track. In lane 2 and beyond you will find multiple start lines:

The first line is the 800m or one-turn stagger line--it should be green. On some, collegiate tracks you might find a white line and a green line almost on top of each other (with the green line being slightly further into the turn as you move out lanes)--in that case the while line is the 200 meter start that finishes at that opposite side finish line, and the green line is the one turn stagger start line. Why the difference? The outer lane has to run a slightly longer distance to the tangent of the next turn--this compensates for that distance just as the curved waterfall start line(s) compensate for it when there are no lanes involved. From some of the one turn stagger lines, you might find a mini-waterfall start line extending out two or three lanes. This is for an "alley" start, where large fields in a distance race can be broken up into multiple starting groups (so the competitors don't fall over each other)--each group will run one turn in their (multiple lane wide) alley until they reach the break line, by then the field should be spread out enough to make it safe to run in a pack. On an imperial track, you should note the lane 1 start line for the 800m is about 15 feet into the turn from the common finish line, about 7 feet beyond the 400m start, but in lane 2 it is just a few feet behind the 400m start (meaning it is now closer to the finish line than the 400m start). If you think about the math for why this occurs, the 15 feet shorter is offset by the extra for 1 turn stagger in 800m vs 7 feet shorter for 1 lap, plus the extra for a 2 turn stagger in 400.

This photo from the imperial track at Los Gatos High School shows the orange (should be green) 800m start line behind the white 400m start line in lane 2, but it is also the orange waterfall line in front of the white 400m start line in lane 1. If you look carefully, you will see three sets of blue triangles (the closest ones staggered in lanes) for the cascading 4x400 relay zones that you will need to properly conduct the race on an imperial track..
This is Rio Mesa High School where they just plain did it wrong. The track is not metric or imperial but somewhere in between. The red line is the 400m start (that should be white), the thin white line is the 800m start (that should be green) and the spacing between the two lines, no matter what the length of the track, should be exactly a 2 to 1 ratio to the finish line (the thick white line)--which it obviously is not.,

VISUAL AIDS--for a more complete visualization of all this stuff, I've made a photo layout of the markings at California State University, Northridge

The next line in each lane should be white and is the 400 meter start line--which can also be used as a two-turn start line, though it does not compensate for the tangent at a break. In addition to ist normal duty as the start for 400 meter races (which include 4x100 relay and 400 hurdles), the two turn start line is usually used for odd relays (like sprint medley or 4x200 if it is not marked for a 4 turn stagger). There should be at least one more start line, a blue line for the 3-turn stagger for the 4x400 relay (3 turns are called for in the rule bood, though many schools fail to have the markings). If you have found the 4x200 relay zones marked on the track, there should also be a fourth, red start line for that race (4 turn stagger, which is two laps entirely in lanes). Also in the lanes other than lane one, you will find two sets of blue triangles. The set that is equidistant from common finish line is the 2nd and 3rd passing zone for the 4x400 relay, while the set that is staggered (equidistant from the one-turn stagger line in each lane) is the first passing zone, still in lanes relative to the blue, 3-turn stagger start line. To run the mile on a metric track, there should be a waterfall start line about at the front edge of the triangle which indicates the beginning of the passing zone (a little over 9m before the finish line).

If you are on an imperial or non-standard track, lane one will also have a start line for each race. But the pattern will be different in that lane--and first make sure it is a pattern. Each of the lines should be progressively the same distance away from each other and the finish line (no matter what direction from the finish line that correction is). Having determined that direction (about 7' into the turn is imperial, anything else is an odd distance compensation and could be anywhere--but it will follow a pattern), if the first line is half the distance of the others, you have a 200 meter start line that finishes on the opposite side of the track, then you have the 400 meter start line (which is not a 2-turn stagger for longer races), then comes the 800 meter start line designed for one turn-stagger. The next line should be a waterfall start line going all the way across the track--it is both the 4x400 start line (for lane 1) and the (waterfall) 1600m start line. Double that distance should be another waterfall start line, which is the 3200 (and 4x800) start line. On many imperial tracks, about halfway through the turn you will find yet another waterfall start line for the 10,000m. Any odd relay races (like distance medly) that don't add up to the distances measured will need to have a special start line created. And on an imperial track, the mile or 2 mile start line is the waterfall at the finish line. Very rarely on an old imperial track (Southwestern College, Chula Vista, I believe), you might find dual start lines, one set that is for metric on the imperial track as described above and another set that match the metric common finish model but are really the imperial start lines. Or it is possible (Gilroy is the only example that I know still exists, West Valley College used to be this way before remodeling) to find imperial start lines to a common imperial finish line with a set of different finish lines for the metric races (which will be counting backward away from the common finish line: 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200).

More likely if you see two equal stagger lines, they will be at the 800 lines and the line closest to the finish line is a walkup line--the place where the starter will have the athletes wait until they are given the command to step up to the line. Many of the better tracks will have these walk up lines just behind the distance (waterfall) start lines and some that do not but have been used for top level meets will show evidence of a chalk or tape line that was put in those locations temporarily for that purpose.

The new Claremont high school has black, dashed walkup lines before the white start lines. Photo from Rich Ede.

Lets move away from the finish area--I'll go in the running direction (into the curve) first then we'll come back to discuss the sprints and short hurdle marks.

45m into the curve (from each staggered 400m start line) should be a small (hurdle) mark (though not all high schools will have it) which is the first hurdle of the 400m hurdles (I'll call 400H). It should be green, but remember whatever color it is, you will find 10 in each lane, each separated by 35m each. See the guide to hurdle marks for proper heights of hurdles. The second of these 400H marks is even with another mark, most frequently a small yellow triangle, but an x or a line have been used. This is the beginning of the first 4x100 acceleration zone. This is farthest the second runner can stand before the passing zone. This is 10m before another large yellow triangle or line that marks the beginning of the first actual passing zone. The outgoing runner can start running at the first mark but cannot touch the baton until it crosses this second mark. The outgoing runner has to have the baton and the incoming must have released the baton by the end of the zone 20m away, frequently marked by a yellow triangle pointing back into the zone. In the middle of the relay zone is a white line (which may be missing on some college tracks) for the 300m hurdles start line. In lane one, that line will extend into a waterfall line across the entire track, which is the 1500m start line.

Near this area at the very beginning of the back straightaway is one additional line--some tracks make this a dotted line, some make it jagged. The exact location depends on the length of the straightaway, because this is the line where the staggered start lines for 800m and 4x400 relay resolve. So after running the full turn (the second relay runner in the case of the 4x400), after crossing this line the athletes can break to the inside. By the time they reach the beginning of the next turn all lanes will have run the same distance.

5m after the relay zone is the third 400H mark and then 30m beyond that is a similar mark of a different color--that is the first 300H mark (it should be red), 5m before the fourth 400H mark. You will find this pair of marks the rest of the way around the track to the finish line. There are eight hurdles in the 300H race, so there is one extra mark 10m before the finish line which is exactly at the same point as the beginning of the 4x400 passing zone on a metric track. The fifth 400H/second 300H mark set is 10m and 5m before the next set of 4x100 markings that start near the turn. Those yellow relay marks work the same as the first zone though there might also be red marks that are staggered much more into the turn--those are for the 4x200 relay.

The white line in the middle of the 4x100 zone is the 200m start line (which could be used as a one turn staggered start for odd races like 600m--1 1/2 laps, or 1000m--2 1/2 laps, a break line will have to be ad libbed at the end of the curve/beginning of the straightaway). There should be a waterfall start line extending off the lane 1 start line (some high schools won't have this), which is the start line for distance races like 3000m (7 1/2 laps) or 5000m (12 1/2 laps). On an imperial track, all of this group might be slightly into the turn (about 3 1/2 feet) and there won't be a waterfall start line here. Instead there will be two separate waterfall start lines as you procede into the turn. The first of those lines is the 3000m start line, the second is the 5000m start line.

The rarely run race that sometimes is and sometimes is not marked on a track is the 4x200--the 800 relay. When it is marked, there are different variations on how to run it (with a 2 or 4 turn stagger). The color code for 4x200 is red, but some variations share lines with other races--the key is where you start. The 4x200 is allowed an acceleration, so there will be a small acceleration zone mark 10m before all the zones described. If there is a 4 turn stagger start line, it should be red and will be the fourth start line in lanes. 4 turn stagger runners never run outside of their lanes. There will be a set of red zone marks hugely staggered for the first zone and a set of red zone marks framing the 400 start line in the common finish line area. The third passing zone in this format would be the second 4x100 zone. If there are separate 4x200 relay zones, Lane 1's relay marks should be split (frequently two tones) red/blue near the common finish line (with the red triangles continuing in a staggered pattern as you move out into lanes) and red/yellow at the opposite line (with yellow continuing in the staggered pattern out into lanes). The other variation would be the 2 turn stagger which would start at the common 400m start line. Use the second 4x100 zone as the first zone and the common 4x400 passing zone for the second. Tracks marked for that format would have relay zone markings that frame the opposite side finish line just like I described for the common finish line--those markings and should be red. On an imperial track, this and most other metric relays will be impossible to run exactly correct--and I cannot recall ever seeing all of those markings on any track.

Moving to the other end of the turn will be the last set of yellow 4x100 passing zone marks.

Straightaway start lines may or may not coordinate with with the common finish line and the relay zones. Lets look at the standard way first. With extreemly rare exceptions, the 100 meters (or 110 hurdles) is not run on a turn. The sprint straightaway should have an extra chute to give the 100 or 110H a place to start. A chute is the part of the track straightaway that extends out of the arc to give the track more room to run straight than would be allowed between turns. Both those lines should be white and if they are relative to the common finish line, will be an obvious pair of lines 10m apart. The 110H start line obviously is the one that is farther from the finish line. 100m falls exactly in the middle of the relay zone, 110m aligns with the beginning of the relay zone.. But since all straightaways are not 100 meters (or if the finish line is offset), the lane may not be on the straightaway by the 100m mark (though you will see they approximately align across the way). While I am amazed some people need this explained; if the straightaway lane crosses the curved lines, the straightaway line is usually dotted (or dashed). Follow the straight lines. I've actually had kids (not in the Special Olympics) follow the curved lane lines from a 100m start.

The sprint straightaway is loaded with hurdle marks. You will find the remaining 300H and 400H marks (remember the color code). And you should find at least two more colors, the mens 110H marks (which should be blue) and the Women's 100H marks (which should be yellow). There may be four sets of marks to allow for reverse straightaway races or shuttle hurdle relays. Starting at 100m start and walking to the common finish line, the first mark you will find (about 5 yards out) is the first mens 110H mark. If there is a reverse mark, it (the last 110H mark) will be just about a foot further away. Most of the reverse marks are either small triangles that point the direction they refer to or they are lesser marks (meaning they may only be marked in the outer lanes as opposed to one mark on the inside or two marks on opposite sides of each lane. If they reverse for the men, the next likely mark is the last reverse women's 100H mark. If there are no reverse marks, the next mark you reach (13m out) will be the first women's 100H. Like I said before, remember the colors. You will find 10 hurdle marks for each race (in each direction). I explain in greater detail on the hurdle marks page, but men's hurdles are legacy race invented in yards, so the spacing is 15 yards (to the first), 10 yards in between and 15 yards (plus the one foot that came in the metric conversion that I will note is always at the end) to the finish. Some tracks might also have the imperial start line marked (or have the an extra finish line to use the same hurdle marks). The Women's 100H was invented in metric. The spacing is 13 to the first, 8.5 between and 10.5 to the finish. In order to have common marks (with the wide difference between start and finish) some facilities (Channel Islands for example) have two start line/finish line combinations. In some rare locations, the youth hurdle marks are also on the track though I have yet to see masters marks painted on a track.

Claremont's new track uses arrows for the reverse direction and a straight line for the normal direction. Of course they also use black lines where red are called for. The last 300H marks (at the wide points of the 4x400 triangles) and the 4x200 acceleration marks in lane 2 should be red. I have no idea why they have the dark area before the relay triangles. Photos from Rich Ede

Also on the home stretch, you might find a variety of short sprint start lines, 50 yards, 50 meters, 55 meters, 60 yards, 60 meters and 70 yards are amond the ones I've seen. If they are not labeled, you can determine what they have in mind by doing the math on the women's hurdles (13, 21.5, 30, 38.5, 47, 55.5, 64, 72.5, 81, 89.5). Many schools have a start line at the very beginning (or end) of the chute. That may or may not be functional--even if you find hurdle marks leading away from this point, it could be a training line and the hurdles end or syncronize with the hurdles from the real start line (which may or may not mean that line is valid itself--you will have to count hurdles and see if a finish line is in the right place relative to this start line).

Some facilities have multiple or different sprint start and/or finish lines. Some have the philosophy or the tradition of the sprints starting deep in a chute and finishing in the middle of the straightaway (in front of the stands). Some are cramped for straightaway length and cram both races as close to the ends of the surface as possible. Some just had the chute built in the wrong place and move races around accordingly. Using the relay zone as a constant, if you find an extra straight line that isn't used for a short sprint, look for one or two more lines the same distance beyond where the middle of the last relay zone would align with the straightaway.

The final race to account for is the Steeplechase, which will only have marks if there is a water jump (most colleges, very few high schools). The water jump should be in the turn farthest from the common finish line. If it is in the near turn, the finish line is reversed to the opposite finish line. Since runners deviate from the track's circumference, the steeplechase doesn't start on lines used for other races. It uses a waterfall start but most are on the straightaway, so it is only slightly bent. If the water jump is inside the track, the start line is up the straightaway (longer than the half lap start line), if the water jump is outside, the start line is on the home straight (shorter). The 3000m steeplechase is equivalent to 7 1/2 laps (less or more) and a new 2000 meter steeplechase has recently been invented an is marked in some places--that would be five laps. The four other barriers are spread evenly around the track, usually marked by fatter marks.

More common variations. Some tracks have multiple colored lines, like a white line on top of another colored background. First the white line (front edge) is the line that counts and you should be observant to determine if the color background is to draw your attention to matching information like hurdle mark color, or if it is just to use school colors wherever possible. Some places have painted the color coded line as the middle portion of an otherwise white line or use the color code as another shape within a white triangle for relays. On rare occasions lane lines or markers are black against white background and the black is the correct line to use.

VISUAL AIDS--I've made a display of the various markings at California State University, Northridge


Now that we have discussed the painted all weather track, just a few comments on dirt tracks. Most dirt tracks, at one time or another, were also built to conduct track meets. Most have the information to produce the many of the same marks we just discussed. This is in (frequently color coded) lines or markers on the (usually inner) curb. Deciphering that code is a true art form. While more modern and frequently used tracks has epoxied markers on the curb that specify the lane and mark (like "Lane 3 400", or "110H H3"), others are more vague colored lines. Who really knows, probably only the coach who was there when they were measured and marked (most likely also the guy doing the marking). If that guy died 20 years ago, some of his marks may never be explained but you can conjecture based on the pattern you should expect from the "all-weather" track model mentioned above. There usually are fewer lines, multi-turn starts, break lines etc. are newer innovations and may not be on many dirt tracks.

The lane lines on a dirt track need to correspond with distances measured. Properly, this is done by a device that has a chalk dispenser for each lane anchored to a pipe or other arrangement to keep the separation constant. This device is then walked around the track, alligned to the inner curb--keeping it alligned is not the easiest task. I've seen some places really screw this up, others look beautiful--it depends on the operator. At many tracks you will see the device, or the large parts of it stored behind a shed or under the stands. Some tracks do not use such a device and try to hand mark using a single line dispenser or less--this never works. The only thing I can say about this is, its a good thing the chalk marks on the dirt are temporary and can be easily erased. A few smart tracks also paint the lane line distance on something, a fence or chute end curb, just to make sure the device is still alligned.

Again you first have to find the common finish line, but frequently that is not in the "Olympic" position of the end of a straightaway. Instead it could just as easily be at the center, or 10 yards past the center of the straightaway (so races finished in front of the crowd in the stands). Remember, many of these tracks date to the days when there was a crowd in the stands even at the smallest of dual track meets--this may be hard for some of us to remember or imagine. And since there is no consideration for where the timing device needed to be set up, finish lines (and their relative starting lines) could be anywhere. The timing devices were/are always portable--its the finish line crew with stopwatches. Many times they would walk from finish line to finish line for each different race--sometimes on the opposite side of the track and using the backwards directions on straightaways to get favorable wind for sprinters (this even occurs on all weather tracks when automatic timing is not involved--some facilities have to purchase or rent two cameras in order to conduct a track meet).

So figuring out this chaos, or even determining if it is metric or imperial, takes some ingenuity. A lot depends on the age of the track (and these could date to almost 100 years old or more). Look at the age of the oldest building on the school grounds. A great many high schools near the center of a town (frequently carrying the name of the town) date to the 1930's and their tracks also are of the same age. Believe it or not, the curb on the track has never been redone. Schools built after the mid-70's (the ones that look like prisons with no windows) are more likely metric, because that is the time metric distances became standard in high school. There are also some tracks that are not the correct distance at all. 400y and 352 y (5 laps to a mile) are common distances though some tracks were just constructed within whatever space was available--this is most frequent at old Catholic high schools and inner city high schools cramped for space.

Usually the finish line will either be labeled or will be marked better than anything else. If following the finish line you have a group of same colored marks spaced about 12 feet (more or less depending on lane width) apart (possibly with the first one being 7 feet beyond the start line) you have found the 1 lap start lines. You will not necessarily find the same number, a narrow track might have as few as 4 lanes, a wide one could have 8 or 9. With the 7 foot gap means you have found the 400m start lines. There is a good possibility, especially on an old track, the ones without the 7 foot gap are still imperial tracks and you have found the 440y start lines not the 400m start lines. The opposite side of the track should have similar sized lines but should be half the spacing. Also beware. If you find a series of lines 15 feet apart and continuing through most of the straightaway, those are probably the football 5 yard line marks (the last one will end 10 yards in front of each goal post). The football marks need to be distinguished from the hurdle marks that would be 10 yards apart and would have the women's (newer marks of a different color) hurdles with less than that (8.5m). And if you think you found a finish line at the end of a straightaway, this could be the finish for the 300H but nothing else. If so you will find the staggered start lines coming out of the opposite end of the curve. The 300H is a recently added race (added to California and many other states in 1975), while the more traditional events could have been run in the same place on the track for well over 50 years. On some dirt tracks with long chutes, you might even find marks for the predecessor of the 300H, which was the 180LH (20y spacing all the way). Some places would have the 180LH start against a wall at one end of a track and finish just before the other end of the track. It is the history of this race that has caused many tracks (even after reconstruction into all-weather tracks) to have long chutes that are otherwise unnecessary. Of course if 300H exists, you will also be able to track the staggered hurdle marks all the way around the track.

There also could be a pole (or two poles on opposite sides) at the finish line. and possibly also at the 100, 110H and on the opposite side of the track, 200 or 220 (lane 1). You could find a pole at every quadrant (either at the end of the straightaway or in the middle of the straightaway and curve--this is an aid to the coach, who can stand in the middle of the track and take everyone's split for each 100m/110y). The pole could also be a giveaway--if the full lap starts and finishes at the pole, but the opposite side is slightly (3 1/2 feet) ahead of the pole, they could run 200m but 440y. The poles 10M apart are a giveaway of the 100 and 110H starts, reverse direction start or different finish line relative to a common start (depending on where they are--of course the homestretch chute is the logical place to look first). If the poles are 20y apart, that screams of imperial 100y and 120yH, but that is less and less common as time goes on. More frequently schools on imperial tracks run metric sprints and hurdles, but imperial on 440 or 880 on up. Mile relays are far more common (because only one passing zone needs to be marked), though if the 400m starts are marked, a true mile relay should start 7 feet before those lines (and this is a common mistake).