Thursday, July 17, 2008

The road to Beijing, part II


The Volkswagen van cuts through the suffocating smoke of the hundreds of wildfires burning throughout California with ease.
For 50 straight miles the smell of campfire fills the air, adding to the oppressive heat. And since the van doesn’t have air conditioning, June’s hate of being enslaved in the pink baby seat grows fiercer by the minute.

I step on the gas and try to tune out the screams from the backseat. Sarah sprays June with a squirt bottle to keep her cool. But for some reason, the only thing that makes June happy is when Sarah adjusts the sprayer to shoot a straight, intense stream, and zeros in on the back of my head. Mile after mile I hear June let out a giggle every time a new douse of water hits the bulls-eye.
It’s early afternoon on Monday, June 30 and we’re cutting across a narrow, zigzagging highway that connects Crescent City, Calif. with Grants Pass, Ore. I told Sarah to pick a route that looked like the most direct line between Highway 101 and Interstate 5. I didn’t look at the map, but with the passing of each 20 mph zone, I wonder how this could be it.
By the time we make Grants Pass, stop at an Albertsons for some ice (the beer cooler was full of warm water) and a bathroom break, it’s nearly 3 p.m. About 150 miles of pine forest separate us from Eugene, Hayward Field, our goal.
We have to be in Eugene by 6 p.m. to meet my college roommate and track and field teammate, Torin Koos, now a two-time Olympian for the U.S. Nordic Ski Team. Koos managed to snag two tickets for tonight’s Olympic Track and Field Trials events, which include the men’s 800-meter final and the 5,000 final – an event near and dear to the hearts of anyone familiar with Eugene’s storied running history. It was the 5,000 that Steve Prefontaine, in 1972 at Hayward Field’s first Olympic Trials, won in stunning fashion. During his victory lap, with the roar of the crowd behind him, Prefontaine was handed a T-shirt by a won-over fan that read, “Stop Pre” inside a red octagon. Pre put the shirt on and finished his victory lap, bound for the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
So there’s little surprise that as I muscle the van up the road in the 100 plus degree heat with a periodic stream of water smacking my head, I’m a little worried we won’t make it.
We stop about 15 miles outside Grants Pass to feed June and the gas tank. I buy a copy of The Oregonian and read about sprinter Tyson Gay running the fastest 100 meters ever recorded with a wind-aided time of 9.68 seconds. His time won’t count as an official world record because of the blustery conditions, but that didn’t seem to bother the crowd – all 21,000 of them.
As we get back on the freeway, I sip my coffee and can’t get over the attendance, which according to the paper had been around 20,000 each day so far. All of those people watching track and field. Poor performing Major League Baseball teams likely had far less.
There is little denying Track Town, USA is burning on all cylinders.
The van motors on, somehow staying cool. Sarah and June sweat in the backseat. Dirty clothes, empty food containers, water bottles, torn maps, filthy running shoes and tattered newspapers are piled on the van’s floor. The unique, but familiar smell of road trip is finally making itself known.
At 5 p.m. we’re 45 miles outside Eugene. June starts acting up, but we can’t stop. I won’t stop. Sarah’s nerves are starting to wrinkle under the screaming. I crank up the music and it’s the soundtrack from the film, “The Darjeeling Limited.” Mostly Indian tunes. The one June and I like best is a duet between a squeaky lady and manly sounding man. It goes like this: “Type writer tip, tip, tip, tip, tiptiptiptiptiptiptiptip …” followed by a bunch of words I can’t understand. We all sing along with the typewriter parts. First the man, then the woman. June kicks her legs with the “tiptiptip” part of the song and Sarah does the same. I get hit in the head with a stream of water. We sing louder, yelling “tiptiptiptiptiptiptiptip” out the windows as we cruise through Springfield. The sign says: “Eugene next five [or so] exits.”


I park the van in the sprawling gravel lot next to Autzen Stadium, home of the University of Oregon football team. It’s a mile walk across the Willamette River to Hayward Field. We follow the crowd to the shuttle bus line, and get stuck about 10 people back from boarding as the bus pulls away, leaving the stragglers in a cloud of exhaust.
The volunteer in charge of the shuttle station tells us another bus will arrive in five minutes. Four minutes pass. Sarah goes to the bathroom. The line behind us piles up. When Sarah gets back, she asks a burly policeman how far it is to the track. He estimates about a mile. The reality that I’m with a unique breed of American sports fans sinks in as dozens of people begin breaking from the line, ready and willing to walk the distance without complaint. We do the same.
As we near the river, we cross Pre’s Trail, several miles of wood chip running heaven that cuts through open grass land and runs parallel to the river. The place is teeming with runners, joggers, walkers and bikers.
Hayward Field comes into view as we approached Agate Street. Seeing the wooden east grandstand that lines the backstretch sends chills up my back. We join droves of track fans stacked in line to pass through security. Yeah, security. For a track meet. The volunteer security guard made me pour out the water in June’s sippy cup. I realized, with panic, I’d left a pocket knife in my back pack. Before handing my bag over to the search and seize lady, I rolled it up into June’s jacket and hid it at the bottom of the bag. I refrained from making any smart comments. But if they had made us remove our shoes, I’d probably still be in Lane County Jail.
Once through security, we were inside a festival area with beer tents, food tents, promotional booths and activities for children. These will come in handy since Sarah and June won’t be accompanying me inside the shaking walls of the stadium.
I meet Koos next to the Budweiser tent. We down a cold one and I part ways with Sarah and June. They will watch the night’s events from a large screen set up next to the stadium.
Koos hands me my ticket. We give each other a rough handshake and hug and enter the stadium, the home of our childhood dreams, to watch history be made.
I’d found out several days before that longtime Santa Barbara sports writer John Zant would be attending the trials.
Zant and I know each other from my brief tenure at the Santa Barbara News-Press. He persuaded then Sports Editor Gerry Spratt to let me cover Santa Ynez High School football games in 2005.
Zant and I kept in touch. We have a common love, we discovered, for running. Of all the people sitting on the wood bleachers at Hayward Field, I’d be willing to bet very few could say they’d been present at all four of the Olympic Track and Field Trials held at Hayward Field. Except Zant, who was a sportswriter at the News-Press for 38 years. He was at Hayward Field when Prefontaine stormed around the track in 1972. He was in Munich when Pre placed fourth in the 5,000 final. And when Finland’s Lasse Viren, the eventual winner of the 5,000 in 1972, fell down in the 10,000, got back up, and went on to win gold and set a world record, Zant was there. He was in Montreal, Canada four years later. He covered the track and field trials in 1980 despite a boycott of the Olympic Games by the U.S. on account of them being held in Moscow. Four years later in Los Angeles, Zant was there. Since 1972, he has covered every Summer Olympic Games, with the exception of the 1980 boycott and the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea. Impressive statistics that seem impossibly tragic when stacked up against his unceremonious, slap-in-the-face firing by the Wendy McCaw owned News-Press.
I give Zant a call. He tells me he’s in the west grandstand and is standing up waving his notebook. I spot him, near the press box. I stand and wave my arms. Two rabid track fans from Santa Barbara who made the pilgrimage to Hayward Field for the trials. The first of many, I hope.
When the competitors in the men’s 800 step onto the track, it’s clear something special is in store. The field is undeniably strong, but as the names of three Oregon-based runners are announced, the cheers are so deafening, it’s difficult to hear the snap of the starting pistol.
The runners dart off the starting line. Oregon boys, Nick Symmonds of the Oregon Track Club, Andrew Wheating, a sophomore at the University of Oregon and Christian Smith, one of the last entries allowed into the race, who also runs for the Oregon Track Club, hang out at the back of the pack.
They pass the 400-meter mark in a blistering 50.33 seconds. Wheating and Symmonds hang out at the back end through 500 meters. Wheating begins to make up ground on the outside. Just as they reach the 600-meter mark, Symmonds, who appeared to be boxed in on the inside of lane one, sneaks through the heart of the pack, and with 100 meters remaining, blasts into the lead with Wheating following on the outside. The crowd is on its feet, stamping wildly on the ancient bleachers, screaming themselves hoarse as Symmonds finishes first in 1 minute, 44.10 seconds with the 6-foot-5 Wheating a close second in 1:45.03.
Some might ask what could be better than a 1-2 Oregon finish. Well, that’s easy. As Hayward Field was ready to crumble beneath the mad crowd, Smith dove head first and skidded across the finish line, barely edging out four-time U.S. Champion Khadevis Robinson for the third and final spot on the Olympic team.
A 1-2-3 sweep for Oregon.
I wasn’t around to see Pre, and those who were wouldn’t likely want to compare. But there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind the Oregon sweep will go down as one of the greatest races ever held on American soil.
And there I was, just like one of the people in the poster on my kitchen wall watching Pre, a face in the crowd with my hands together, witnessing history unfold one lap at a time in Track Town, USA.

This is the second story in a three-part series. The first was published in the Daily Sound on July 11.


chris said...

What a great race that was!!

Anonymous said...

oh colby I can't wait 'til part III. then you'll have to load up Westie again and regale us with more stories.

Anonymous said...

You capture that trip and race very well. Anyone who has gone on a long hot road trip with a fussy kid in the back can feel your pain. I wish I could have been at Hayward Field with you guys.