Hard to believe that a track junkie like me had never been to Track Town USA. I’m talking about the hallowed grounds of Historic Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene – the epicenter of running. When I was sent to last week’s NCAA Track & Field Championship, I fully committed myself to be the perfect running tourist, and that I did.
Arriving in Eugene Wednesday after a drive from Portland, I raced to the Hayward track for the men’s discus and women’s triple jump finals that featured KU athletes. The setting was everything I had hoped to see, and sadly, the weather was everything I always associate with life in Oregon. It poured. Countless officials perpetually reminded me that the rains weren’t normal June weather. Sunny skies were on the way they all said.
Really, I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t rained. It is Oregon. The rain didn’t stop me from immediately being impressed with the greatest track and field fans anywhere. On a Wednesday afternoon with rain pelting down, over 11,000 fans filled the stands on both sides of the track. Granted they sat under beautiful old wood canopies, but those roofs only helped amplify their perfectly timed cheers for every event. At its best, a well-run track meet is a dazzling three-ring circus. Discus throwers and triple jumpers shared infield space with heptathlon high jumpers taking jumps on both of the side-by-side matching high jump pits. At the same time, runners circled the track in qualifying events. Through it all the fans kept an eye on all events and immediately roared their approval for every top performance.
Because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, I was plenty hungry which was good because I drove directly from the track to Track Town Pizza just off campus. Each pie featured a track and field theme such as the Hammer, Olympian, Track & Field Combo, 5000 Meters, Decathlon, Triple Jump and the famed Heptathlon, an all-meat monster with Canadian Bacon, salami, pepperoni, linguica (pork sausage), Italian sausage and ground beef. I settled for a small 100 Yard Dash that was packed with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, pineapple, black olives, ground beef and sausage. I couldn’t get through it all. The walls of the pizza parlor were lined with photos of the great track and field athletes that have competed in Eugene. One of those prints featured KU coach Stanley Redwine competing during his days at Arkansas. The long day was a good start but only that. Thursday was going to be a big day.
There are two historic figures you need to know to fully understand the magic that is Eugene. The first is Bill Bowerman, the esteemed coach that took the Oregon program to epic heights and along the way developed Hayward Field from just being another track with a small stand to what is now known as Historic Hayward Field. In his spare time he destroyed many a waffle iron creating the revolutionary waffle sole for his new running shoes that led to the formation of a little company known as Nike.
There also was one other little idea he picked up on a visit to New Zealand in 1962 – the crazy idea known as jogging. Through his seminal work on the subject, the book Jogging, millions took to the streets and trails for fun and fitness. The little company that provided shoes to those millions soon grew to be the monster we now know as NIKE. No community embraced the phenomenon more than Eugene, but more on that later.
For now we need to discuss the James Dean of running, the Rebel WITH A Cause, the blazing embodiment of giving all or nothing, Steve Prefontaine. No single runner has ever sparked as much love or hate as Prefontaine. In his years running for Oregon and later for the Oregon Track Club, the ultra-cocky Prefontaine held every American record in races from 2,ooo to 10,000 meters. Many of those records came at Hayward Field with the fans shouting, “Pre, Pre, Pre” as he circled the track. Despite a disappointing fourth in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 meter race, hopes were extremely high for even greater successes until May 30, 1975.
In the hills east of the Oregon campus that evening an MGB convertible hit a rock wall along a quiet street, rolled over and crushed the driver. The life of Steve Prefonatine might have been lost, but the spirit of the man known world wide as Pre has lived on and the legend of the man has only grown. Today a small memorial at “Pre Rock” is a must visit for anyone that has ever laced up a pair of running shoes and headed out for a run with his famous quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift” filling the heart.
That memorial was my first stop Thursday morning. After a few moments looking at the small items left behind by devotees, I drove on to Hendrick Park for a hilly run along the same paths Prefontaine once soared. The rest of the morning was spent getting a feel for the city. Eugene seems to be a city that has very little physical room to grow, so every bit of space is put to good use. Old homes are not abandoned. They are converted into a wide variety of restaurants or small businesses. During my stay I ate at the Cornucopia and Agate Alley both in retrofitted homes. The salmon, rockfish and tuna I ate at various times were all delightful and the settings were wonderfully earthy.
There is still a very “hippie” feel to Eugene that has sadly been all but lost in Lawrence. As I moved from bike shop to running store to outdoor store, that feeling of the late 60’s and early 70’s made for a very enjoyable morning in Eugene.
At the track later, Jordan Scott went late into the night to win the pole vault for KU. Vaulters have always been a breed apart at a track meet and very favored by me. My first published photograph in 1969 was of KU vaulter Jan Johnson winning the Big 8 title in Ames, Iowa. The idea of using a pole to launch one’s self over 19 feet into the air fills me with envy. Scott’s victory was made special by some of what he had to overcome Thursday night.
As pristine as the Hayward track seems and as noted as the officials are for their seemingly flawless efforts, they are human. After the opening height, the officials failed to move the standards up to the new height. After many vaulters cleared for the second time the same height, the mistake was discovered. Vaulters had to vault again at the new height. All the while, Scott sat bundled against the strong winds and dropping temperatures. Then it began to rain. Scott finally came into the competition and cleared his opening height as the rains steadily increased forcing a halt to the vault.
After an hour delay and warm ups again, the other events of the day had concluded. It was now just the vault. In the dark, vaulters fell away quickly leaving only Scott and one other competitor. With victory finally assured, Scott took three more failed attempts. Only five vaults, but the national title was his. Scott leaped into the stands to hug his father as the remaining small group of faithful fans cheered loudly for the victorious Kansan.
Friday featured no KU competitors and only two early brief awards, so the day was mine. It was time to make a long run on Pre’s Trail. Of all Bill Bowerman’s wondrous gifts to track and field, his devotion to spreading the gospel of jogging might well be his longest lasting. Eugene quickly embraced the popular new endeavor and created a wondrous series of trails and pathways for runner and cyclist. Just a short distance from the Oregon campus, Alton Baker Park is laced with bike paths and trails, none more famous than the wood-chip-lined trail named after Oregon’s most famous runner.
After crossing over a footbridge that spans the roaring Willamette River, I soon was on the trail. Inspired, I picked up my pace and felt good as I moved freely along the soft path taking in the beautiful scenery. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize that even at my quickened pace, I still was nothing more than a plodder compared to the NCAA runners that had come down from the track for their warm up or cool down along the historic trail. They swooshed by me with casual ease but always with a smile and a small hand wave that made me feel good. I never run with a phone but did this time for the camera option and a few photos. After an hour of running, I wiped sweat away at my car, but no towel could wipe the smile off my face.
It was time for lunch at a very popular Northwestern food chain, Cafe Yumm. Bowls filled with brown rice, black beans, cheese, tomato, salsa and avocado don’t sound that much different from a bowl at Chipotle in Topeka or Lawrence. Ah, but they don’t have Yumm sauce, a secret blend of healthy ingredients that starts with garbanzo beans. When the creator first served up bowls of rice, beans and his new sauce, eaters offered up the new name when they said, “Yumm.” I know this, it all was delicious and “soul satisfying and deeply nourishing” as Cafe Yumm claimed.
Lest I forget, it also rained. But, I still was being told sunny skies were on the way. I did see some sun. The only problem is that while I looked at the sun to the south, it was raining down on me and the events where ever I stood much like the old Peanut’s cartoon where rain clouds followed Charlie Brown everywhere.
Friday night I ate dinner with my former Capital-Journal boss Rich Clarkson and a former Topeka photographer Carl Davaz and wife Kim at Marche. I see Rich often but hadn’t seen Davaz since 1984. He maintains the wonderful photographic legacy of the Eugene Register-Guard that was long ago started by another C-J alum, Brian Lanker. In these difficult times for the newspaper industry that isn’t easy, but the R-G’s display of photographs each day from the NCAA Championship was still visually impressive. It was delight to see Davaz, and he deserves great praise for his efforts. He rode back to my hotel with me with his wife following, and we certainly enjoyed catching up.
Saturday’s events were held in the morning for television, and I was moving fast. Under overcast skies, I had both a male and female long jumper competing on runways that paralleled each other, a shot putter nearby and a runner in the women’s 1,500 meters and 3,000 meter steeplechase.
Sadly, another mistake dampened the joy of KU shot putter Mason Finley. Officials mis-marked his fourth throw giving him added distance that moved him up to second. Seems some other throwers privately felt Finley should have scratched the throw as the mark eventually did have an impact on the overall team standings. Yet, in all the confusion, the mark stood. Finley had set personal bests already in the event, so a long throw wasn’t out of the question.
Yet, the day had still been a great shooting rush for me, and as I walked back to my car with my work done, the skies finally cleared and the sun shone brightly. Naturally.
After an afternoon of photo gallery work, I took off from the hotel for one more run and intervals on a nearby hospital’s health trails. The evening was filled with great conversation with former KU football player Chris Steppig and a young high school photographer, Rob Denton, ready to start college in the fall. Both were in Eugene for NCAA Photos. Laura and I cherish our friendship with Steppig, so time with him is always great, but talking to the young photographer was a special delight. It took me back exactly to my professional start at the same age at a track meet. As we talked, I could sense some of the same wonder and hope the event had ignited in the young man just as it had in me so long ago.
As we said goodbye, and I said my goodbye to my wonderful time in Eugene, I couldn’t stop thinking that history sometimes exhibits weird symmetries between events. My thanks go out to Rob for helping me remember that wherever I go, I still try to be filled with wonder and hope. Thanks Eugene for rewarding that wonder and hope with many fascinating moments that made the sun shine all the time in my heart.