By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
EUGENE, Ore. (29-Jun) — The four-day USA National Track & Field Championships have now come and gone, full of excitement and controversy. Many hearts were broken on the track and in the field, as the majority of athletes finished outside of the top three, seeing another national team selected without them. An elite group saw their dreams come true, earning a coveted late summer trip to the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. The world’s top stage awaits.
Fewer than 24 hours after the final gold medal was awarded, Track Town USA was quiet. Most of the athletes and fans had begun their journeys home, escaping the Emerald Valley to head back towards training bases or hometowns. Crews had nearly completed their cleanup of Hayward Field, dismantling equipment and loading giant pallets into trucks parked outside.
The palpable feeling of excitement that permeated throughout the neighborhood for four days was gone, barely a trace left behind.
With ample time before an evening flight out of town, I decided to explore. From the West grandstands at Hayward Field you can see thousands of Douglas fir trees dotting the landscape, rising from the mountains above that dwarf America’s Mecca for track and field.
I’d heard of Hendricks Park, the oldest city park in Eugene that lies not even a mile from the stadium. It’s a gorgeous setting among those firs, 78 acres full of trails, world-class rhododendron gardens, and wildflowers.
On this still morning, a quietness filled the air. No longer were the ooh’s and aaah’s from Hayward Field’s faithful rising through the valley. The booming voice of the P.A. system had long been shut off, replaced now by the chirping of birds and the occasional train whistle from the railway tracks downtown.
The wooded trail I took led to a sea of green. The shade of green here is deep and has a natural personality that puts the famed tint of Augusta National Golf Course to shame (granted, I’ve only seen Augusta on television during The Masters). It’s how Mother Nature intended it, pure as can be.
Wander out of the trails and you’ll soon come to the 1630 block of Skyline Boulevard, home to Pre’s Rock. An annual right of passage for many, the spot marks where American running legend Steve Prefontaine died in May of 1975, a car crash claiming the track and field icon. Prefontaine had held national records from 2,000m to the 10,000m, a running stalwart that stood up for athletes and their rights. His sudden death has been debated for 40 years, whether his MG-B convertible flipped because he was driving drunk, or if he swerved and simply lost control. We will never know.
For two minutes I stood in front of the memorial that sits like a tombstone, decorated with numerous running objects. Eight ticket stubs from the USA Championships laid around the stone, joined by an all-access credential and three pairs of shoes. A USA Track & Field bracelet sat on top. Undisturbed, the scene was peaceful.
A Honda broke the silence, and a man of maybe 50 years strolled out with a camera. He snapped a few pictures, then we both stood looking at Pre’s Rock. I posed a question — not directly at him, nor at anyone. I was more thinking aloud than anything else.
“What would Pre think of American track and field right now?”
Two days earlier I heard someone utter a question of the like at Hayward Field. It had stuck with me ever since. What would Steve Prefontaine, an athlete, an icon, a competitor, a leader, think of the state of the sport.
The man was silent for ten seconds, then fifteen. I’m not quite sure if he heard me clearly.
When I blurted out the question, I meant it in two ways: one, focusing on the athletes who performed spectacularly well this week, some of the best in the world qualifying to wear our nation’s colors internationally.
But deep down I meant the question at a whole other level — what would Prefontaine think of the state of the sport, USA Track & Field, and the direction coaches, athletes, and governing bodies are headed? What would he think of the scandals and controversies, the white, grey, and black sides of the sport that no one has come to define properly, the hot button issues right now?
As I stood there thinking, the man again broke the silence, heading back to his car.
“What would Pre think of the news right now?”
Neither of us answered my earlier question. There was no real answer. Just silence.
I’d like to think Pre would support athlete’s rights, be a proponent for fair sport and strict drug enforcement. I’d like to think that if he were still alive he’d have answers to all the questions plaguing the sport right now, that he’d be able to define what is right and what is wrong, where that grey line stands, who is good and who is bad. Would he be President of USA Track & Field? Would he be involved in anti-doping or event organizing? Or would he simply be a track official, firing the starter’s pistol at Hayward Field?
As a high schooler I idolized the rebel in Pre, the gutsy front-runner who worked hard. I thought that if I worked as hard as him, I’d make it to the Olympics, or at least get to run in college. No matter how hard I ran and how dedicated I was, I never came even close to his high school bests.
But I also admired that fire in his eyes, the notion that he’d stand up for what he believed was right, and would fight the battles no one wanted to take on.
If Pre was around now, would he be “righting the ship” as they say, making sure all of the athletes competing at Hayward Field were on an even-level, no one having reaped the benefits of medical practices or intricate science.
I walked about 50 yards down the road, to where the green trees grow a bit sparse. Peering through the branches I could see out into the distance, where the Willamette River flowed and runners ran on Pre’s Trail, not giving a damn about the pesky brown soot that coated their calves. Pre would never know there would one day be a trail named after him, nor would he know that the sport he cared so deeply about would face challenges that seemed as tall as the sky-high mountains in the distance. I bet he didn’t know what a TUE was, or if PED’s were fully rid from your system four years after a doping ban ended (there was doping when he competed, most notably by the East Germans and other Eastern Bloc countries). Should there be two-year bans, lifetime bans, or should we just throw our hands up and say do whatever you want? (I don’t think that last one is right, but that’s just me).
Pre is said to have run with “guts” and “fire” and “motivation,” three qualities that surely could out-run any science of the time. Right?
After ten minutes at Pre’s Rock I continued walking down Birch Lane then onto East 15th Avenue, back towards the University of Oregon which Pre called home. I left the tranquil forest above Eugene and came back to what seemed like reality: cars zooming by and students walking to classes (summer school?) with backpacks on.
I passed Fairmount Park, filled with children running around. It reminded me of the most pure level of the sport I — We — love. The kids ran around without GPS watches or compression socks on. They chased each other from one tree to the next playing tag in just bathing suits and bare feet. It hit me then and there: at some point in life most of us fell in love with the sport of running at the purest level because it gave us freedom. At it’s most basic level it’s man running around in circles or from one place to the next with some far off finish line, trying to be fastest overall to reach the stripe. It’s trying to be your best until the burn in your legs and chest makes you quiver.
Was this the way it was at the USA Championships? Sure, there were hundreds of athletes whose brilliant races and phenomenal abilities wowed 38,795 spectators over four days, drawing standing ovations and victory laps. It was incredible seeing the competition play out as it did, with upset winners and record-chasing times popping up on the scoreboard.
Yet hovering over the national meet was a cloud of controversy that seems like it will stay for a while. No one knows what the future will bring, a prolonged investigation or quick fix. Not even Pre up above can predict what’s to come.
I continued on East 15th Avenue until I reached Hayward Field. Parked outside was a big white truck filled with everything that was in the stadium days before: signage, field event implements, you name it.
The gates to Hayward Field were open. I walked in and saw a family of seven –a mom, a dad, and five children– on the track near the steeplechase pit. They wore smiles, and seemed to be having a great time. I overheard them talking about fast runners. The youngest boy waddled with big steps, not having quite perfected a stride worthy of the Olympics. Maybe someday he’ll race here.
The stands were empty on both sides and the aura that brought Hayward Field alive for four days prior seemed to have gone away, likely not to return until next year’s track season.
Walking back out through the gates –a pair of forest green steel gates that rise like those you’d imagine would guard heaven– a man was talking about the history of Oregon track and field. He mentioned coach Bill Dellinger and Pre to a teenage boy I assumed was his son. As I passed them I smiled.
Tonight I’ll fly back East, towards home and my family. In my head will be memories of this weekend, the great competition that reached a crescendo on Sunday. I’ll also remember my adventure on Monday, walking through the forest, stopping at Pre’s Rock, and continuing down to Hayward Field, the capital of Track Town USA.
But most of all I’ll remember the man up at Pre’s Rock. I didn’t ask his name, didn’t know his background, didn’t know if he was a runner, worked in the sport, or was just a fan.
Part of me is glad I didn’t ask, for that would have changed my view of him. I’d like to think he was someone who loves and respects the history of the sport.
Then again, part of me wishes I had been more inquisitive. Maybe deep inside he had the answers I –and so many people– are looking for.
On the memorial at Pre’s Rock there is an inscription:
For your dedication and loyalty
To your principles and beliefs…
For your love, warmth, and friendship
For your family and friends…
You are missed by so many
And you will never be forgotten…
I know that both the mystery man and I were reading that passage over and over. The top two lines held extra meaning on this day, and brought the same questions into our minds.