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

Fri, 22 Nov 2013 05:48:29 -0500

A Closer Look

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from July 1986.)

This track season began late and slowly for me. Travel kept me out of Eugene on all of the University of Oregonís home dates, March to May.

But then the season came to a fast and glorious finish in June. The Prefontaine Classic and U.S. Championships meets were the biggest and best, and I saw them both.

"Saw" seems too tame a word. "Savored" would be more accurate.

Iím a track follower whose appetite for that part of the sport has never been sated. I went to meets to appreciate other peopleís running long before I ran there myself, and still do the same long after my last track race.

While I like the freedom and democracy of the roads, and choose to live there now as a runner and racer, I love track for opposite reasons.

Its precision, for one. Every road course differs from every other and records are hard to compare, but every track is much the same and yields perfectly comparable times.

The eliteness of track is another attraction. Anyone can run on the roads, but someone who races on the track must be both fast and brave.

Road racing is largely invisible. Fans see runners start (and usually canít pick individuals from the crowd), at a spot or two along the way and again at the finish. Runners always have someplace to hide and someone to hide behind.

Track athletesí every move is there for anyone to see. Yet I donít watch track critically but view it reverently.

I once wrote that going to a track meet is like attending church. That isnít to say I treat the sport like a religion or view the athletes as saints. It means I go to take part in the ceremony and ritual of track that is absent from the sport in any other setting.

Track has rites that cross-country and road races can never match. How often, for instance, does a marathon winner take a victory lap?

I watch track my own way. My dad, a lifelong fan himself, preferred to sit up high on the backstretch, directly across from the finish line.

ďYou get the best overall view from there,Ē he said. My early mentors at Track & Field News told me the same.

But I donít care to see everything. I can see the big picture in T&FN, the magazine that presents it best. Hereís how I prefer to take in track:

1. By limiting the sights. Following all of track is impossible unless you make a second career of it. The full program has more than 30 events, and T&FN lists dozens of world- and national-class people in each.

Iíve long since giving up trying to see and know all. I pretty much ignore the field events, the decathlon and heptathlon. The sprints, hurdles and sprint relays get only a glance. This leaves me free to focus on races that circle the track more than once.

2. By going where the crowds arenít. I sit nowhere near the finish line, where people bunch up. Listening to their chatter, feeling their elbows in my ribs and knees in my back, and trying to see through them as they stand for every finish or go out for a Coke during the 10,000 isnít my idea of a good time.

At Hayward Field in Eugene my spot is the one least favored by spectators. Itís farthest from the finish line, and at all but the biggest meets Iím surrounded there by empty seats.

3. By staying low. I get as close to the track as possible. At small meets this means the front row of the bleachers. Or I stand near enough to the track to slap hands with runners in lane eight.

High in the stands, you see the whole track, the entire field, all the tactical moves. Down low, you feel the speed and strain of individual runners. You hear them breathe. You see the sweat on their faces, and the fire or fear in their eyes.

You learn from down here that this isnít the mechanical act it appears to be from far away. You appreciate in these close-ups the great distance that separates the best of runners from the rest of us.

I donít need to be at the finish line at track meets and donít even care very much who reaches it first. Anyone who qualifies to race here has already won. Every lap for every runner is a victory lap.

UPDATE FROM 2013

Since this writing, track meets have grown larger and more frequent in Eugene. Rarely is there a summer when this midsized city doesnít host a USA or NCAA Championships. The World Junior meet will pay a visit here next year.

Eugene has become a semi-permanent site for the Olympic Trials. I watched that meet in 2008 and again in 2012 from my preferred spot on the backstretch, far from the finish line but close enough to see the countryís best runners sweat.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joeís Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehartís book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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