Eugene is Mecca for runners, powered by Pre

Published: Sunday, Apr. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 29, 2012 - 10:28 am

EUGENE, Ore. – Friday Night Lights here connote something far, far different than in most places.

It means that, at precisely 8 o'clock and not a millisecond earlier, not long after an ocher sunset has given way to a gibbous moon, lights magically come on along the Adidas Trail that weaves through Amazon Park.

Yes, in running-crazed Eugene, the self-professed "Track Town USA," they illuminate trails as well as city streets. But this isn't just any trail, as the corporate imprimatur suggests. Lest runners trod upon mere soil or crushed granite, so déclassé, a carpet of finely mulched wood chips has been lovingly laid down. With the path saturated by rainwater, it feels like running on a firm Posturepedic mattress. No spray-painted mile stencils, either; handsome wooden posts mark every 100 meters, augmented by quarter-mile posts for the metrically averse.

Such small details illustrate a larger truth: That the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, scheduled June 22-July 1, just feel right being held in this cradle of America's modern running culture – the Bethlehem of the corporate behemoth that is Nike and the resting place of Steve Prefontaine, the James Dean of the sport.

Sorry, Sacramento, it's not even a photo finish.

Our fair city, which hosted the Olympic Trials in 2000 and 2004, may be nearly three times larger than Eugene and much more metropolitan. But when it comes to tradition and influence, Eugene looms full-eclipse large over its trials predecessor. And while it's true that Phil Knight's personal Nike ATM withdrawals deserve some credit for persuading the track-governing body to award the Trials here in 2008 and '12, do not discount the power of intense and enduring interest among the populace.

Heck, even the weather, it seems, favors Eugene.

"Sacramento is not a great place to watch track," said Eugene resident Steve Evans, a track aficionado since he laced up his own spikes decades ago in high school. "It gets so damn hot there in the summertime. The athletes really don't like that. This is running weather."

Bowing toward Hayward

Augmenting Evans' argument was the setting at which he made his remarks. He was leaning on the waist-high fence bordering the backstretch at Hayward Field ("Historic Hayward Field," as the scoreboard proclaims), site of many famous performances from greats such as Prefontaine, Frank Shorter, Mary Decker Slaney and Alberto Salazar, as well as hosting today's distance stars, Galen Rupp, Jenny Simpson and Chris Solinsky.

You may vaguely recall one or two of those athletes but, in Eugene, they are household names. This may be the only town in America that puts up billboards featuring its track athletes near the bridge over the Willamette River. Or that commissioned a 40-foot mural of runners on the side of a building on a thoroughfare to downtown. Or that is counting down the days to the Olympic Trials in an LED display.

But it is Hayward that will get the TV exposure come June when NBC rediscovers track, as it does for two whole weeks every four years.

More than mystique sets Hayward apart. It is a track-only stadium, making it more intimate than multiuse facilities that carve out space for football, soccer and lacrosse. It is a Spartan intimacy, though. Far from plush, the grandstands are hard, unforgiving metal benches, and the awning overhead doesn't quite cover all spectators from the rain. Most fans don't mind; they're often out of their seats cheering a miler's finishing kick or clapping rhythmically during a long- jumper's last attempt.

Even during a relatively nondescript collegiate meet on a breezy Saturday in early April, in which several of Oregon's top runners did not participate, the stands were packed.

Students donned black T-shirts with "Bowerman's Pack" emblazoned on the pack, a reference to the legendary '70s-era University of Oregon Ducks coach who invented Nike's "waffle" tread in his kitchen. A life-size bronzed statue of Bowerman, stopwatch in hand, looms just off the track's final turn, dubbed "Bowerman's Curve."

Fathers and sons studied event listings with Talmudic rigor. Rail-thin teens in their high school cross-country T-shirts leaned over the railing above where the athletes congregate post-race for a glimpse of their favorites. And the visored masses cheered wildly when it was announced that Ashton Eaton, arguably America's best decathlon hope in 2012, was competing as a "non-scoring participant" in the discus throw.

"Being at Hayward Field, it's like watching a (baseball) game at Wrigley Field," said University of Oregon student Gatlin Neuman. "It's unforgettable."

The legend of Pre

Neuman actually made that comment while standing with two of his buddies, Mark Lyche and Brent Wennerberg, in front of "Pre's Rock," the impromptu memorial to Prefontaine. It is the site of the car crash that ended the record-setting runner's life on May 30, 1975, at age 24.

The rock retaining wall quickly became a Mecca for athletes, who, even more than 30 years later, leave offerings to "Pre" alongside a plaque with his image, including distinctive mustache, facing the curve in the road. Like Dean, he lived fast – on and off the track – and died young. Two major-release movies – "Without Limits" and "Prefontaine" were filmed in the late '90s.

"You should stop by after some of the big track meets," Neuman said. "Guys'll leave their shoes and their medals and stuff. It'll be piled up, and no one disturbs it."

Even on a Friday afternoon early in the track season, Pre's Rock was well represented. Someone had wedged her or his first-place "Junior Olympics" medal in a hollow of the rock. A blue ribbon was draped over the rock's base. Guitar picks and a skateboard wheel were left from nonathletes who apparently felt a kinship with Prefontaine's notoriously rebel sensibilities.

Tracy Pierce and Genelle Harken, two middle-aged track fans who came from the coastal Oregon town of Coquille to watch the Saturday track meet, said Prefontaine is venerated throughout the state. (And, indeed, even in Beaverton, home of Nike headquarters outside of Portland, there is a building named after Pre.)

"I went here when Pre was a student," Harken said. "I used to watch him drive around town in his little sports car. He'd sit on the hood, just hanging out."

"You need to go to Coos Bay, near where we live, to really experience Pre," Pierce added. "Go to the Coos Art Museum."

If the past is any indication, many out-of-town fans will do just that, journeying 119 miles southwest of Eugene, mostly along the Umpqua River, to Pre's hometown of Coos Bay.

There, on the museum's second floor, is a permanent Prefontaine Room. Photos of Pre (including in the 1972 Munich Olympics and in his last race against Shorter) are displayed, alongside his baby-blue track spikes (curiously, not Nike) from when he set an American record in the 5,000 meters in 1971.

"It brings people from all over the world," said Steven Brooks, director of the Coos Bay Art Museum. "Look at the visitors guide – London, Spain, Ivory Coast. He's an international figure."

No less than nine plaques stand at sites in Coos Bay, where Pre once trod. There even is an informal store selling Pre T-shirts, mugs and other bric-a-brac at Huggins Insurance. Bob Huggins was two years ahead of Pre at Marshfield High School, but his younger brother was Pre's teammate.

"He's such a compelling figure because he died so young, before reaching his peak," he said. "A lot of Pre's contemporaries are now coaching and reminding the kids of what Pre meant to Oregon."

Lorrie Metzger, who works in the insurance office, shakes her head at the fervency of some admirers.

"I had a guy walk in here from Spain," she said. "He was in San Francisco for a business conference and told his wife, 'We're going to Coos Bay.' I had a kid from Florida who wanted to run on the beach where Pre ran on his 21st birthday."

In for the long run

Perhaps the most-visited Prefontaine site is back in Eugene. It is Pre's Trail at Alton Baker Park, a sprawling swatch of green, more than 400 acres, along the Willamette River.

Pre's Trail, like the Adidas Trail across town, uses finely mulched wood chips to line a wending, 4.84-mile path. Sure, people can stop and read up on Pre at a kiosk near the southwest entrance, but most just do what Pre undoubtedly would've wanted them to do – run.

Running pals Stephanie Wagers, Katie Putnam and Jolene Cunningham were warming down after a morning workout on Pre's Trail. They laughed when a guy trotted by and raved about the soft running surface.

"Oh, we know," Wagers said. "We're very spoiled here."

U.S. OLYMPIC GYMNASTICS TRIALS

San Jose will host the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials at HP Pavilion June 28-July 1.

For tickets, go to www.sanjose.2012.com.

All-session tickets are available at four price levels; $130, $250, $310, and $525.

The men and women will alternate competition, with the men's events to be held June 28 and 30, and women's on June 29 and July 1.

The trials will be televised by NBC.

Here is a list of San Jose sites to visit close to HP Pavilion:

San Jose Museum of Art (www.sanjosemuseumofart. org) at 110 S. Market St.: Two current exhibits are "Mexicanisimo through Artists' Eyes," a funky mix of high- and low-brow culture from today's leading Mexican and Mexican American artists; and "Frank Lobdell: Wonderland," an artist known for mixing vibrant colors with a wild fantasy vision.

The Children's Discovery Museum (www.cdm.org) at 180 Woz Way: It's a hands-on educational museum, but don't tell the little ones about the education part. It might spoil the fun. At 28,000 square feet of interactive games and structures, touching is just not allowed; it's required.

Peralta Adobe and Fallon House at 175 W. St. John St.: Built in 1797, the Peralta Adobe is the last remaining structure from El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe. It was the home to Luis Maria Peralta, a member of the Anza Party. It's been rated as San Jose's top historic site.

Guadalupe River Trail (www.sjparks.org/Trails/ GRiver/GRiverMapS.asp): There are 11 miles of paved trails hugging the river, though they're not continuous. Near downtown San Jose, pick up the trail at Woz Way near the Children's Discovery Park, and follow it downtown to Julian Street.

OTHER OLYMPIC TRIALS VENUES

Swimming: Omaha, Neb. June 25-July 2. http://usaswimming.org

Tennis: Newport, R.I. July 9-15. www.tennisfame.com/ atp-tournament

Diving: Federal Way, Wash. June 17-24. www.usadiving.org/events-and-results/events/2012- us-olympic-team-trials

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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