Thursday, July 10, 2008

The road to Beijing, part I


I used to be a runner. And as anyone who’s ever been anything before, and is now not that thing knows, part of you, if not all of you, will always be that thing.

For me, it’s running. But to call myself a runner wouldn’t be fair to those who really are runners. My title is: a former runner who runs.
This being the case, I decided to pack my young family into my father-in-law’s 1986 Volkswagen bus for a nine-day road trip to Eugene, Oregon for the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, which concluded July 6.
By taking this trip, I would join the ranks of a car dealer who drags his protesting family to the Detroit headquarters of General Motors, a beer nut who takes a multi-state trip, stopping off in each town in search of the best local beer or a rabid baseball fan who makes a pilgrimage to Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
I’d like to think there are many differences between these men and myself. But when you think about it, we’re all the same, searching for a captivating adventure along the highways, trails, deserts, scenic byways and smog-infested cities of America.
But this vacation was going to be different.
For the first time since 1980 — two years before I was born — the track and field trials would be held at Hayward Field on the lush University of Oregon campus. Eugene, Oregon, with its rivers, trails and endless forests was aptly dubbed Track Town, USA more than four decades ago. This befitting title came about in large part through the swarms of great runners, jumpers and throwers who trained and competed under the reign of Nike co-founder and former University of Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman.
As a former collegiate runner, I once had the heart-stopping thrill of racing at Hayward Field. Growing up, I’d emulated Oregon legends like Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar. The largest wall in my childhood bedroom was a massive mural of Prefontaine. In my kitchen, a poster of Prefontaine crossing the finish line at the 1972 Olympic Trials, also held in Eugene, hangs. In the poster, Pre’s head is cocked slightly to the left, no doubt looking at his time on the scoreboard while thousands of Eugene faithful are on their feet, awarding their native son with raucous applause.
At least that’s what it looks like to me. And, though Pre won’t be in Eugene and hasn’t been since his untimely death in 1975, I believe myself and thousands of others feel the electricity of Track Town coursing through our veins, calling us home, quite possibly for the first time in decades.

I have the van loaded, gassed and ready to hit the road by late evening, Saturday, June 28. We’ll drive through the night while our daughter sleeps. She’s not fond of being strapped into anything. A car, stroller, you name it. My wife and I came to the conclusion that driving through the night, high on coffee and Red Bull, is better than hearing June scream.
We roll out of Los Olivos just after 9 p.m. The California dusk is still settling into darkness to the West, towards Lompoc as I shift down and leave Highway 154 for Highway 101.
I go through the checklist in my head again, something I learned too well during my track and field days at the university. Coach used to make us pack our uniform and track spikes in our carry-on luggage. Every once in a while some poor sucker, usually a girl, would have her baggage lost. She’d be stuck in the same dress the entire trip, using borrowed T-shirts and shorts to train in. But when race day rolled around, everyone always had their uniforms. The only problem with coach’s fool-proof plan came after Sept. 11, 2001, when security would no longer allow us on the plane with our spiked shoes.
Now my checklist sounds like this: wife, baby, running shoes, tickets, water, wallet, sleeping bags, socks, beer. Check.
We roll into Santa Maria, not far from where we began, with June already awake for the first time. From the distant backseat, over the whine of a soft bluegrass tune, I can hear her well, screeching and screaming for the first of many, many times throughout our trip.
It’s about 25 degrees cooler in Santa Maria than in Los Olivos. The wind howls while I stand at the gas pump. I shiver in my shorts and sandals contemplating the price of airline tickets as the numbers next to the dollar sign on the gas pump spin upward and outward, far outpacing the number of gallons flowing into the tank.
Our driving goal for the evening is modest: make it to Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. It sounds innocent enough, but making it here before daylight and getting a couple of hours of sleep fuels my selfish intentions of visiting another great track.
I tell my wife, as I have in the past, that campus police won’t hassle us if we camp out in the parking lot next to the track. It’s worked before and it should this time too.
By the time Sarah gets June back to sleep, I’ve checked the oil, water and tire pressure on the bus. So far, so good.
I fire the engine, she starts (with a Volkswagen camper van, you never can know for certain when, how or why it does or does not start), so it’s important to mention the good times).
We roll through San Luis Obispo, pass the always well lighted and overdone Madonna Inn and push onward toward Monterey County, King City, Soledad, Salinas — the vast agricultural fields that are the backdrop of so many John Steinbeck novels.
The author is impossible not to bring up. As we fly through Salinas at a top speed of 62 MPH, I pass John Street and a sign for the National John Steinbeck Center. For some reason, I’ve never stopped to check it out.
We roll on, all four cylinders firing, somehow keeping cool.
My wife asks if I’m tired. I say no, wondering silently why I’ve never answered this question truthfully.
“It’s like a race,” I tell her. “Or a sick kind of gamble. I know I can make it without my eyelids slamming shut as long as time doesn’t run out.”
This response alone should tell her I need to stop, but we don’t.
As the freeway begins to widen and the lights of San Jose flood the inside of the van, I start to lose the race. I hang my head out of the window, but the air isn’t cool enough to keep me awake. I slap each of my cheeks a couple of times. As the exit for Palo Alto approaches, I’m prying my right eyeball open in order to keep up the pace.
We glide into the nearly vacant parking lot near Stanford’s track stadium just before 2 a.m. I park beneath a massive eucalyptus tree, pull the curtains over the windows, lay out the sleeping bags and sleep.
I wake early, about 6 a.m., to the sound of a couple next to the van talking about how great their morning swim is going to be. June follows suit, squirms out of the sleeping bag and hops on my stomach, then steps on her mother’s arm.
We’re all up. I throw on a pair of neon orange shorts and a yellow, “Go Pre” T-shirt for my run. Sarah and June head to a nearby coffee shop.
Then it’s just me. I run the wood-chip trail next to the track that thousands of other runners and myself used to trot around before races. I daydream of my teammates. I remember well the sickening excitement of pre-race thoughts and can see the lights from the stadium on a late, warm night — a modest crowd watching 10,000 meter runners toil anonymously for 25 laps.
With each footstep, I get closer to Eugene.


Anonymous said...

Life's all about the journey! I hope the bus keeps starting for a long time to come!!

Anonymous said...

Writing like this should be celebrated. Mr. Frazier has out-done himself with this feature. I can only look forward with great anticipation to the second part of "The Road to Beijing."z

Anonymous said...

splendid. more accounts like this should appear. people like reading such.