Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 15 May 2003 08:34:40 -0400

Making Tracks

RUNNING COMMENTARY 466

Most of us have at least two homes -- the one where we grew up (and never completely leave no matter how far we wander) and the one where we now live. I claim more than two homes, but the two that nourished my passion for this sport the most also happen to be America's most fertile oases of track and field.

Everyone knows about Eugene. Tell even the most casual sports fan that I live here, and I'm likely to see nods of familiarity followed by some combination of the words "Track City," "Prefontaine" and "Nike." Tell a runner I'm from Eugene, and eyes light up with envy.

My ancestral home in track, and the sport's second great center, is harder to guess at if you don't know me. It isn't Sacramento, which despite landing the last two Olympic Trials plus this year's NCAA Championships, hasn't yet gained a feel of permanence as a track mecca. Nor have Los Angeles, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Atlanta -- sites of 1984 through '96 Trials, whose tracks are now either little-used or gone.

It isn't Fayetteville, Stanford or Boulder, where great distance runners train now but the city is either a newcomer to or a nonplayer in the major-meet business. Philadelphia has the history, with its century-old Penn Relays, but the city is so big and busy that "track" isn't your first thought when you hear Philly's name.

When I say my college was Drake, I'm likely to hear "Drake Relays." One wit has written, "Drake is the only university named after a track meet."

Sports fans may not have heard of my school and may not be able to place it geographically (a USATF news release this spring had the meet happening in Omaha), but they've heard of the Drake Relays. The track meet introduced me to the school.

Drake was a magic name in my family. Charles Henderson, my late uncle, first took us to the Relays 75 years ago, when I was minus-15.

At plus-16 I ran there for the first time, in the high school mile. I ran the first, 10th and 25th (and last) Drake Relays Marathons. At almost 60 this year, I ran the shorter of the meet's two road races.

I'm a Drake graduate -- with a one-of-a-kind, self-designed major in running. Traveling to half the states with the team, and writing about the sport and the Relays for the school paper couldn't have prepared me better for my career.

I also belong to a much larger alumni association, as a graduate of the Drake Relays. Anyone who has ever run there, or coached or worked or watched there, will never forget it -- same as with anyone who has ever visited Hayward Field for a track meet.

Hayward and Drake have been the settings for memorable events for a long time. Besides hosting the Prefontaine Classic each year, the Eugene track is the only one to house three Olympic Trials (1972-76-80), plus a World Masters meet (1989) and many USA and NCAA Championships. There's talk of making it the NCAA's permanent home.

Des Moines has hosted the Drake Relays for 94 years. The Saturday program has sold out the 18,000-seat stadium for the past 38 of those years.

Both tracks bring in loyal and knowledgeable crowds. Both have dedicated and experienced officials.

Both places are national treasures, shrines even. Runner-turned-TV-personality Marty Liquori once called Hayward Field the "Carnegie Hall" of track.

That's close, but even closer would be the "Fenway Park." Drake Stadium is our "Wrigley Field."

Just as the two baseball parks have their quirky trademarks -- the Green Monster and the ivy-covered outfield wall -- so do the tracks. Hayward has its wooden, covered grandstands. Drake has its sunken infield and squared-off north turn.

As shrines usually are, both stadiums are old, built in the 1920s. Both must preserve and protect the old atmosphere while keeping up with the competitive times.

Hayward has done that better than Drake, with major upgrades in the 1970s and '80s. Repairs were made last year when the original east grandstand faced condemnation. Other costly overhauls are planned.

Drake has been slower to act, which is why it hasn't been able to host another NCAA meet since 1970. The stadium is showing its age, and the track can't be considered for events on this scale.

Which is why the folks in Des Moines are trying to raise $25 million to maintain and modernize this shrine. Drake wants to become a serious bidder for meets that routinely go to Eugene -- from NCAA regionals and nationals, to USATF championships, to U.S. juniors and masters.

To borrow a line from the fictional movie "Field of Dreams," set in Iowa, Drake's promoters believe, "Build it and they will come." Here that line probably will come true.

Whichever site a big event chooses, Des Moines or Eugene, it will be a home meet for me.

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