Any hints of a plot line for a military thriller are purely intentional. The truth is that Laura and I joined KU’s track and field teams for the two days of the New Balance Collegiate Invitational. Yet, the reality was that covering the meet was very similar to military maneuvers due to the enormous number of athletes.
From our headquarters at the Hilton Hotel, just blocks from Times Square, the New York subway system whisked us to within a block of The Armory. One stop on a B or D uptown train followed by a transfer to an express A train, and we were there. Brightly colored warm ups from schools throughout the United States dotted the subway platforms and filled the cars. Even in a city that has seen just about everything, the regular riders could not help but stare.
Arriving at The Armory, we climbed up beautiful spiraling staircases that posed unique challenges for the pole vaulters from the various schools. Bags of long fiberglass poles were carefully eased along the stairways with the poles whisking just over the heads of other athletes as they bounded up and down the stairways.
In the track area, the light shining through the high windows illuminated a wonderland. Runners stacked up waiting for their heats. Fiberglass poles rose to the sky as vaulters stood in line awaiting a warmup run down the runway. Jumpers splashed into their sand boxes one after another. Every move through this athletic assemblage had to either be acrobatically calculated or required a daring head-long plunge into the throng.
Amazingly, in a city where car horns blare over even a moment’s delay and shouts of derision are part of every day life, the officials at the meet were by far the most laid-back group ever encountered. The meet director informed us we could go anywhere we wanted and encouraged us to “enjoy yourselves.” Many officials actually asked if they were in our way as we took positions to shoot various events and would miraculously move as needed.
Various portions of the track were brightly illuminated as the sun tracked its path through the sky until day gave way to night. When we realized heat 17 of 21 for one event included a KU runner or that 127 sprinters comprised the women’s 200 meter dash preliminaries, reality set in quickly. Like the sands of time spilling out of the landing pits, these two days of our lives were going to be long ones.
The first trip to the restrooms also revealed the days could be dangerous ones. In the tight confines of a long hallway leading to needed relief, three rubberized lanes filled with runners made a seemingly impenetrable obstacle course. The only way to move safely was to join in the circular flow at a pace that allowed for safe passage until peeling off at the restroom doorway. The center lane was no man’s land. Coaches would suddenly cry out “Watch the center lane,” as a line of sprinters would explode in fury down the lane pulling up just in time to not run headlong into the far wall.
Back at the track, trying to track down all the KU athletes was a huge challenge. It made me yearn for the days when the Jayhawks wore pink shorts and baby blue tops. No one could miss a KU athlete then. The same could be said for the athletes from Columbia University in New York. Their blue striped singlets made the team look as though a group of Russian sailors had wondered up from the Hudson River to take a few laps around the track, but their team certainly stood out.
In the far end of The Armory, the shot putters and weight throwers existed in a world of their own. Each throw took place in a cage that encompassed not just the ring but the entire landing area. Forget the octagon of doom caged rings, this looked to be the “Funnel of Death. Officials scrambled through gates to safety before each weight throw since the strapped sack filled with a 20 or 35 shot-filled ball rang off the chain link fencing on errant throws.
Over the course of two days, 114 events were held. Besides a variety of college divisions designed to give every member of a team a fighting chance at victory, there were special high school events, teams from Puerto Rico and French Para Olympians. Those breaks from the college heats allowed Laura and I opportunities to explore the National Track & Field Hall of Fame housed in the expansive building.
There were pictures of Kansas’ Billy Mills winning the 10,000 meter race in a shocking upset at the 1964 Olympiad in Tokyo and a plaque of legendary KU coach Bill Easton. My favorites from my younger years were the Wichita East singlet Jim Ryun wore while breaking four minutes in the mile as a high schooler and the Puma brush-spiked shoes worn by Jim Hines to win the gold medal in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968.
We drifted often into the softly lit room that highlighted the New York City Marathon. There on the beautifully worn wood floor, runners would stretch their muscles after races. Many often reclined on a giant map of the famed marathon course that winds through New York’s five boroughs.
Once away from the track, the KU athletes continued to enjoy their time in New York. Groups could be seen in Times Square or grabbing food from a variety of street vendor carts. Cries rang out from the athletes as rats scrambled along the tracks below the subway platforms. Every minute of our time with these outstanding athletes and wonderful people in the greatest city in the world was a pleasure.
In a facility that once housed battle armament before being converted into the epicenter of east coast track and field, Laura and I shared a joyous two days never to be forgotten. Beside the images seen here, you can view a linked gallery of 71 photographs on the KU Athletics web site. We hope you will enjoy all the photographs as much as we enjoyed making them.