Last year I was fortunate to be able to attend the legendary IAAF Diamond League meet in Oslo, Norway. The Bislett Stadium track was the location of so many great races, and the crowd was knowledgeable and appreciative of our sport. It was difficult to imagine how to top that experience, especially in North America, where, truth be told, track and field is a secondary, some might say fringe, sport.
Enter Eugene. The obvious place to try to find some epicentre of athletics is the birthplace of Nike, the adopted home of Steve Prefontaine, and the domain of Bill Bowerman. By looking at the start-lists and past results for the Pre Classic Diamond League meet, it was clear I’d find thrilling track and field to watch. I also knew that there was a special place in the community for running, jumping and throwing, but I was not truly prepared for the extent to which track, and distance running especially, infused the small to mid-sized American town of Eugene, Oregon.
Walking the streets, one can see runners, regularly, fanatically, putting in miles. These aren’t joggers, though. They run, and fast. I doubt I saw any runner in Eugene moving slower than 4:30/km. Everyone was hammering! When I showed up at a local workout, no one really looked much different: older men, unattractive with their shirts off, a few pounds to the heavy side; middle-aged women with poor form, trucking along with a hitch in their arm, a grimace on their face. Regular folks. But when I heard (and felt…I was running alongside) the times! These “old fat guys” were rolling at 15min 5k pace. The “elderly ladies” were surely sub-18. What passes for elite, or at least, what wins local road races at home, is mid-pack in Eugene. This was no special group: these were just folks. What’s the deal? Is it something in the air?
I think the answer is complex, but what this is, I believe, is the result of a swell of culture. Since Bowerman introduced jogging in the 1960s, and Nike was formed, and the legend of Pre was born of a tragic crash, the people of this town have had running fed to them three meals a day, seven days a week. And if the trick to successful running is consistency, well, surely we can apply that lesson to a successful running culture as well. The current culture is a result of effort over time, and exposure to some of the best runners America has produced have lived and trained in Oregon: Prefontaine, Salazar, Chapa, Decker, Centrowitz, Cruz, Runyan, and now Simmonds, Wheating, Hasay, Rupp, and Farah.
How do we bring this home? How do we make this happen here? The assumption is that we desire it, and I think we do. The other assumption is that there are challenges, that it would be difficult to reproduce. Perhaps. But I really think we’ve got some of these elements right under our noses. Montreal can be a “TrackTown, QC” if we want it to be!
We’ve got history: great stories and some Olympians living among us, in the heart of our community. We’ve got community: tons of people run. We just need to bring them all together. We’ve got some pretty nice training environments that we may take for granted, too, despite tough winters.
Take the legend of Gerard Côte. Côte is an important part of running history in Quebec and Canada, and a name worth knowing: he was the Canadian marathon champ from 1940 until 1948, a significant string of dominance. He’s still best known in Ste. Hyacinthe, where he was from, and where there is a race named after him. Recently Paul Foisy has written a book about the man.
What’s interesting is that in the years prior, another Quebecer, Walter Young, beat Côte and was the top Canadian himself a couple times. In 1940, 43 and 48 Côte won Boston and in 1942 he won New York. In 1938, Young beat Côte in the Verdun marathon, and the year after, he was 3rd at the Boston marathon, both years ranked top in Canada. He’s also a great uncle to Ryan Noel-Hodge (2012 provincial 5000m champion). What a family, (not to mention Ryan’s cousin on the other side, Meggan Franks)! These, and many more that we don’t know about, are the stories that need to be told.
Another example is that of Pierre Léveillé, an Olympian in 1984, who still walks (and runs) among us. Indeed, you can find him at his store, Boutique Endurance, and at home in Blainville, running with his group there, preparing runners for the Montreal marathon in the fall.
When the runner travels, especially to Oregon, the beauty of the trails make an impression. I was running on Spencer Butte last week, and I found myself thinking, man, I wish we had something like this at home. But we do! Not far from Montreal are a couple mountain trails that provide the same soft surface, elevation gain and magnificent views as Spencer. Go to Mount Sutton in the summer and try out the trails. It’s a challenge and a thrill. Mont-St.-Bruno is a little tamer, but still a fantastic run.
So, we do have places to run, we do have history, and we do have a community. The Athletics Federation is putting on a fundraising dinner prior to the Canadian Junior Track Championships, in July. The goal is to bring together alumni of the sport, at an event where the future of track and field in Canada will be showcased in Quebec.
I hope this marks the beginning of a relationship between the heroes of running past, and the present community. We have pockets of people doing things that are very similar to what’s going on in Oregon. We just need to coordinate and collaborate more in getting these groups together, teaching new runners about the history, and getting people excited about all levels of the sport.