The Pre

I’ll tell you what I did not expect. I did not expect to find myself down at the local watering hole with a bunch of grizzled Ontario old-timers, watching Game 7 between Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t expect it because game 7s still hurt a little. I didn’t expect it because I’m not much for going out to bars. I didn’t expect it because I’m in Eugene, Oregon, Tracktown USA, and who knew there were hockey fans here!

The funny thing is though, after the Hawks scored (for real) to win the series, as the boys drifted out, paying their tabs and handing in their rink fees in American greenbacks, the common question was: “You goin’ to ‘The Pre’?” Track is on everyone’s mind here.

Mike from Ottawa is the foreman on the construction crew that does all the work at Hayward Field. He’ll be there all day tomorrow setting up, and maybe Friday for some races, but his wife isn’t well, so he won’t be there Saturday. Danny won’t make it, but he’s got tickets for his kids, one of whom just started running last year, and just missed out on making it to the state meet in the 800m. He’s about a 2:00 kid, at 16 years old. Gets good grades. (Would make a fine Redman, though his mom doesn’t want him to leave town) His dad wants him to see ‘The Pre’ and be inspired. ‘The Pre’ starts Friday night, with my new best friend Kenenisa Bekele in the 10000m, and on Saturday we’ll see if Cam Levins can make some money for charity via Jeff Schiebler, and also if Makhloufi is still on drugs. Levins, Mo Ahmed (10000m), Melissa Bishop (800m), Sheila Reid (1500m) and Derek Drouin (HJ) are the Canadians competing. Track is a big deal, in town.

I’m not sure what I expected out of Eugene as a town. For some reason, I thought it would be dustier. It’s pretty green up here on the hill where I’m staying, with Phil Johnson of tracktownphoto.com. It reminds me of the Green Mountains in Vermont, a little bit. When we drove past Hayward Field after the hockey game, you sure could tell something’s up. There is a buzz. This weekend is ‘The Pre.’

On my first full day in Eugene, I met with Olympian Ian Dobson, OTC Elite coach Mark Rinker, and Eugene Running Company owner/operator Bob Coll. They’ve all been extremely generous with their time (and in Rinker’s case, with Nike’s gear!) I’ve been asking questions about the running community and how elites manage to secure support, both financial and moral, from the general running population.

There’s no easy answer. Tracktown USA is actually getting older. According to Dobson, the majority of people who go to the monthy community talks are over 60, and so are the fans at Hayward. Sure, they’ll still put 5000 people in the stands for a twilight meet where none of the Ducks are racing, and the OTC crew is training through, but young coaches like Dobson and Rinker are wondering if it is sustainable.

Dobson is pushing hard to bring the elite and the community together. He’s starting in the youth market, coaching elementary school track, running programs for kids. That’s right, the Olympian coaches kids under 10. He also coaches a local run club as part of the Team Run Eugene project. I attended their workout and post-workout festivities at The Beer Stein (wasted on me, but if you drink beer, wow!). Ian’s a good coach, listening to the athletes, responding to their queries, giving encouragement, and of course keeping track of the times. Almost everyone from this club, a group not unlike the Boreal or Vainqueurs clubs back home, will attend The Pre this weekend, because they care about, and are interested in track and field.

As an example of how the elites interact with the larger community of runners, another Olympian showed up to the workout: Bridget Franek of steeplechase fame. She was fresh off hitting the A standard for Moscow at the New York Diamond League meet, so she was relaxed and happy. Her mom coaches at Akron, Ohio, and was in town for the NCAA championships next week, so mom ran the workout, while daughter watched, cheered, and chatted with the runners, and then Franek, a member of OTC Elite, had a beer and a panini with us on the patio!

It may sound a little over the top, but Eugene really is Track Town USA. Olympians are like squirrels: everywhere you look, you see one! Franek said she loves coming down to the track and seeing people train. My host Phil told me of a twilight meet at South Eugene where he toed the line in an 800m with Gabe Jennings and Lauren Fleshman. At the line, he turns to Jennings and says: “Hey Gabe.” Jennings looks over, thinking maybe he was going to ask for an autograph or something, and Phil continues: “You’re going down!” Gabe laughs, and replies “Oh really?” And the two have just shared a moment where they are equals. Because at the startline, we are all equals, and after the finish line, we’ve all accomplished the same thing, though some maybe a bit faster than others. (Gabe 1:50, Lauren 2:10, Phil 2:30)

Tonight, the meet starts with a tight 3-hour schedule, and tomorrow we’ll have the same thing in the afternoon. This time the Olympians will be on the track alone, and the community will be in the iconic bleachers at Hayward Field, cheering them on, understanding that what they are seeing is a truely special expression of human ability and acheivement. And I expect it to be awesome.