Once every four years, the spectacle of the Summer Olympics splashes across television screens throughout the world. We watch out of a sense of novelty, or patriotism, or curiosity. We thrill to the competition and share in the emotion.

But how well do we understand what we’re seeing?

Eric Heins can help with that.

Maybe not with every last event. Even he finds the full schedule to be daunting, and he’ll leave it to the announcers to explain, once again, “What exactly is a velodrome?”

But the director of track and field and cross-country at Northern Arizona University can tell us plenty about distance running events. Besides, he has a vested interest. Lopez LomongDavid McNeilland Diego Estrada, all of whom have sported NAU blue and gold on the track, will be in London for the 2012 Games.

Keep an eye on these four from NAU

Here’s what to watch for from these athletes with NAU ties, according to coach Eric Heins.

In the 10,000 meters:

Diego Estrada

Diego Estrada, senior at NAU, All-American (Mexico): “His qualifying time was his best race since being at NAU,” said Heims of Estrada’s recent 27:32.90 performance at Stanford, in which he took the lead with three laps to go after trailing. “If you don’t see him leading at the beginning, that’s probably a good sign. He’ll be gaining confidence throughout the race.”

In the 5,000 meters:

Lopez Lomong

Lopez Lomong, 2011 NAU graduate, flag-bearer at the 2008 Beijing games (USA): Although Lomong has moved up to the 5,000 from the 1,500, in which he won a national championship, “he still has the speed of the shorter races,” Heins said. The ideal scenario, he said, is “if he’s in the mix and the pace isn’t super fast.”

David McNeill

David McNeill, 2010 NAU graduate, Academic All-American, two-time national champion (Australia): “He won both of his national championships with a great finishing kick,” Heins said. “If he’s up in the front six or seven and mixing it up with the leaders, he’ll gain confidence.”

Also…in the shot put:

Amin Nikfar

Amin Nikfar, 2009 master’s in education, two-time Olympian (Iran), on his own Olympic experience: “The first memory of Beijing was wishing I would have done better. I trained pretty hard and throwing was going well. I got in there and tanked. It wasn’t a good memory because I fouled out. Another memory, in the back of my mind, was knowing I was going to do it again and get better the next time because of all the valuable experience I gained.”

The 10,000-meter final is Aug. 4. Round 1 of the 5,000 meters is Aug. 8, with the final scheduled for Aug. 11. The shot put qualifying rounds and finals are Aug. 3.

“Track and field gets the spotlight during the Olympics, which is great for us,” Heins said. “Every four years, we get a boost in viewership.”

Even so, the popularity is fleeting, and often leads to only a brief bump in knowledge about the sport. So if you want to do more than just peer at the screen, then here’s some advice from Heins, who this spring received his 10th Big Sky Coach of the Year award.

First, if you don’t speak metrics, the mathematical language of the Olympics, then get a translator. A conversion table will quickly tell you how many yards are in a 1,500 meter run or just how feet that 8.3-meter long jump really was.

And if you are willing to punch in a few more numbers, turning pace into miles per hour might produce a firmer grasp of just how fast even distance runners can move.

“The average person understands that a five-minute mile is pretty fast,” Heins said. “Some of these people are running nearly four-minute miles over five or six miles.”

A four-minute mile, by the way, is 15 mph, which is the speed limit on the NAU campus. If you’re in a vehicle, that is.

Still, those are just the basics. How a race evolves over a long distance, and what strategies are playing out in the minds of the athletes—now that’s the really good stuff.

“Someone usually goes to the front and pushes the pace. It’s almost sacrificial,” Heins said. “The people in the middle of the pack are conserving energy before they work their way up front. Our athletes in the 5K and 10K will hopefully be in the middle.”

The middle is a crowded place for runners, with bumping and jostling and a risk of being tripped. And an awful lot is going on in their minds.

“There’s kind of a conflict of interest in there,” Heins said. “They want to get up front but they want to save energy, too. So each of them is wondering when they’re going to make their move.”

You can see the thought process being played out as runners change lanes or glance over a shoulder. The camera might shift its focus there, away from the “rabbit” out front who’s pushing an impossible pace. Eventually, someone from that pack surges forward.

“Even the best athletes have got to be flexible, and when they go in a race their strategy can’t be set in stone,” Heins said. “If you’re over halfway in a race and not where you want to be, then you need to make an adjustment.”

Even at the two-thirds mark of a 5K or 10K, Heins said, “if you’re in a bad position but you still feel good, you still have time.”

While the mind games are playing out, there’s plenty more to watch for. Biomechanics can display an athlete’s control or betray increasing fatigue. Monitor these signs to form your own insights about how the race is going.

Inevitably, some of the racers at the front will begin to falter. That will be the last you see of them.

“Once they’re off the screen,” Heins said, “they’re not coming back.”

Someone from the back, though, might be moving forward. Keep that in mind if the runner you’re pulling for hasn’t been heard from. As Heins points out, even the experts can be fooled.

“As a coach sitting in the stands with friends and fellow coaches, even at the two-thirds mark, I’m about 50-50” on who’s going to win, Heins said. “I get more certain at 75 percent of the way, but you can never tell for sure.”

But that, Heins said, is where the real fun can be found, and that’s his final piece of advice. Watch with friends, pick a favorite before the starting gun and then witness the full drama of the race unfold.