Friday, July 25, 2008

The road to Beijing, part III


For the next three days, Sarah, June and I putt around Oregon. We rack up several hundred more miles on the Volks with a trip over the rocky faces of the Cascade Mountains to Bend, where I run on wooded trails along the Deschutes River in the shadows of Mt. Bachelor.
With the leisurely passing of each day and surprisingly comfortable sleeping in the van, I can’t help but be tempted to steal the machine from my father-in-law and start a new life on the road. I’d apologize and tell him to sell our furniture and clothes. I’d make up the remainder when I found a job pumping gas (it’s against the law in Oregon to pump your own gas). Even Sarah likes the idea. She says sleeping in the van is more comfortable than our bed at home.

When I check my bank account balance at a nearby ATM, I realize paying rent in Santa Barbara County isn’t much more expensive than paying for gas, and abandon my dream.
Besides, we’ve got to get back to Eugene, where we have to meet another former track and field teammate of mine, Chris, who will be attending the July Fourth Olympic Track and Field Trials with us. (Chris’ last name has been withheld due to a minor brush with the law on this trip).
We leave Bend in the early evening and try to pace our arrival in Eugene with Chris, who is driving down from his home near the Washington State border.
As we near the summit of the Three Sisters Wilderness area, June begins yelping from the back seat. She’s tired, wants food. But I can’t stop here. The road is steep and the van is performing just as expected, slowly. I shift down into third gear, but the needle on the speedometer continues to drop. I grab another gear, 23 mph in a 55 zone. The cars, even some logging trucks, impatiently stack up behind us. Sarah climbs in the back seat to entertain June as a Chevy Camaro goes flying past, breaking a double-yellow line, nearly colliding with an oncoming station wagon. In a hurry to die all because of me. At first the chaos of these situations bothered me, but I now feel at peace, like a seasoned soldier might in the heat of a gun battle, tucked away in a trench as explosions rattle his brain – reserved and accepting of whatever might happen next.
A passing lane approaches near the summit and the traffic blows past. The van picks up speed on the long descent into Eugene along the McKenzie River. As the sun starts to set, I find a place to pull over along the highway. The pine trees are so tall, so thick, the road has the appearance of a narrow tunnel; the changing colors of the sky become a strip of blue and orange above the shadows of a billion trees stretching upward.
June falls asleep and the van starts. Good fortune.
The detour stunts our progress and Chris informs me he’s already sitting in the parking lot at Autzen Stadium waiting for our arrival. He’ll no doubt have already emptied an enormous number of beers before we arrive.
The van pushes through the early night and a sound, like rain hitting the windshield, pulls my focus away from driving. I quickly realize the funk forming on the window isn’t rain, but the carcasses of flying insects, hopefully mosquitoes.
By the time we roll into the stadium parking lot, the flat front of the van is covered with death.
I fold down the bed, pop the top of the van, and as June and Sarah fall asleep, Chris and I chugalug cans of Coors. When we kill the first six-pack, Chris goes on a beer run and makes it back in one piece. With the passing of each beer, we get louder and move our folding chairs away from the van. A security guard passes by slowly once, then again later. We introduce ourselves, avoid asking about overnight camping on university property, and let him move on.
The next morning, Chris and I pick up crushed beer cans and watch June while Sarah goes for a run along Pre’s Trail. When she returns, Chris and I log a few miles on the trails, dreaming of our faster, fitter days as a little blond girl breezes past us without saying a word.

Track and Field Tailgating

Tailgating at a track meet isn’t something that happens very often. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s never happened.
While families across America are celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks and parades, my family is in the parking lot at the football stadium waiting for a track meet.
We replenished the beer supply, bought sausages, condiments, chips, salsa, soda, etc. Chris fires up his camp stove and begins cooking. Torin Koos, another of our college track teammates, arrives with two friends. We crack open some oversized bottles of beer. The bottles have a picture of a track spike on the label. We make a loud, boisterous toast as passersby look on with curious envy at our feast, wondering if they’re at the correct sporting event.
A perimeter is set up around the barbecue to corral June, who senses our excitement and acts as though she snuck a shot of espresso. Chris, Koos and I talk track. The 10,000 meter is the last event of the night and it will feature a number of runners we’re familiar with, including my high school rival, Josh Rohatinsky, who has a good shot at making the team. During high school, Rohatinsky and I were in the same region and had to race each other a couple of times each week. Though he was my rival, I wasn’t his. He was consistently better than me, a fact I was reminded of anytime I looked at my shelf of dusty awards. Nearly all of them were for 2nd place.
So we’d be pulling for Rohatinsky in the 10,000. The semifinals of the 1,500 meter, my event in college, were also on the schedule. This was an easy decision. We’d root for former Stanford runner Gabe Jennings, who in a recent 6,000-plus word story in Runner’s World, was called “The heir to the royal line of rebel athletes.”
Jennings had a brilliant collegiate career, but after a disappointing appearance in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, had fizzled from the track and field scene, only to reappear over the last two years, notching solid performances one week and rather mediocre ones the next.
But today, Jennings is our man. After reading the Runner’s World article on the drive to Eugene, Sarah became a believer as well. Even June, in her pre-sentence language phase of mama and dada, responds to the words “Go Gabe,” by putting her fist in the air and smiling.
We begin our one-mile trek to Hayward Field. Chris and Koos grab a beer for the road. As we pass the shuttle stop, which is lined with anxious track fans, we hear the order, barked loud over the buzz of the crowd.
“Hey, you. Put those beers down, now!”
Chris’s natural reaction, a reflex left over from his cocky college days, was to finish off the bottle before throwing it away.
Just as Chris’s head fell back, the bottle quickly approaching his lips, the Eugene city cop, said: “If you take one more sip of that beer, I’m writing you a ticket.”
Chris, a pharmacist by trade, tried to stop, but it was too late. The liquid was flowing down his throat and the policeman, red in the face, marched toward us with one of his sidekicks.
Chris realized what he’d done and quickly threw the beer away.
“Why’d you have to do that?” the cop asked.
“Do what,” Chris asked.
“Take another taste of that beer. Why’d you have to do that?” the cop said again as he removed his ticket pad from a back pocket.
Chris tried to explain that he didn’t hear the last order until it was too late. My wife, who would rat me out in a second if the alternative was to tell a lie, vouched for Chris and attempted to argue with the fuming officer.
The protest was useless. Chris stood by as the cop analyzed his driver’s license, taking down every detail on the ticket pad.
We walked away slightly humbled and humiliated by the show of force, cursing the lawman under our breath, wishing we had more beer stashed away in my backpack. As Koos and his friend tossed a Frisbee, Chris joked that Hayward Field security would confiscate it, insisting it could be used as a deadly weapon.
We approached the line at security. It was longer today and as Sarah emptied June’s water bottle, a cop asked if it was made of metal. Sarah had bought a new water bottle in Bend, which was made of aluminum. She told the cop of the bottle’s chemical composition, and he informed her she wouldn’t be allowed to take it any further.
We checked the water bottle at a building nearby. The girl running the checking station looked at the water bottle with horror, placed a number on it, and set it on a table with hundreds of similar looking bottles.
As we passed through the metal detector, a security agent spotted the Frisbee.
“Are you kidding me? You actually thought you could bring that in?” the security guard asked.
We rushed to the beer tent and wondered what former University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman would think of the spectacle.
We took our seats in the packed east grandstand. The track stretched out below us. We watched the women’s high jump and clapped in steady unison as each jumper soared over the bar.
During the women’s 5,000 meter final, Chris – who once lost several hundred dollars in a bowling match – proposed we place a bet on the top three finishers. As the women athletes warmed up, we poured over the start list and each settled on slightly different picks. Chris won, as usual. Koos and I would be buying the first round of beers.
As the 1,500 runners came onto the track, Chris and Koos decided to find a spot at track level to watch the race from. They invited me, but I’d just dragged my wife and baby nearly 1,000 miles to view a sporting event they could probably care less about. I stuck with Sarah and sleeping June in the stands.
When they announced Gabe Jennings, Sarah and I rose to our feet and yelled for our man. All Jennings had to do was be in the top five or so to make the final round. With a lap remaining in the race, he surged to the lead, his choppy, trademark stride looking strong and fresh. We roared for Gabe. June woke up from her nap and did the same, smiling with her little fists punching the air. With 100 meters remaining, the pack moved up on Jennings. As he sensed this, he effortlessly sped up and won the heat, easily making the final. Our hands were raw from applause, and our voices were hoarse. Jennings’ success in the semifinal made us feel like the underdog had stolen the show, like a rebel athlete, similar to Steve Prefontaine, was alive and well.
As darkness fell on the stadium, the 10,000 meter runners flooded the track. The field was impressive. It included three-time U.S. Champion Abdi Abdirahman, Olympic Marathoner Meb Keflezighi, University of Oregon runner Galen Rupp and a number of former collegians like Rohatinsky.
The starting pistol snapped, and on the first lap, Abdirahman took the lead. Through the first couple of miles, the pace was brisk, but not blistering. The pack remained large and together. As the halfway point passed, Abdirahman picked up the pace and the pack began to sever. Rupp went with him, as did former University of Colorado runner Jorge Torres.
For the next three miles, the crowd was on its feet as the young Rupp challenged Abdirahman. Each time the runners passed the east grandstand, the crowd clapped a beat consistent with that of the runner’s legs. Spectators seated elsewhere did the same, creating a constant funnel of noise, drastically different from the usual silence of a smaller crowd during the 25-lap race.
With two laps remaining, Rupp surged to the lead. He held Abdirahman off until the bell lap, when the older, more experienced runner took over for good and crossed the finish line followed by Rupp, then Torres.
June managed to sleep through the madness. Sarah and I were tired and satisfied. I had gotten to see what I’d set out to, and the long road between Eugene and Santa Barbara waited.
We walked the mile back to the van, fireworks popping in the night sky.
In the morning, I went on a run and took a dip in the Willamette River.
As we neared the freeway, I knew we needed to head south, but a wild instinct told me to pull over, not return to Santa Barbara and send my father-in-law that check for his beloved van.
Maybe next time, I thought, as we rolled out of Track Town, USA, engine running cool and smooth over a steady stream of high-pitched baby screams coming from the back seat.

Editor's Note: This is the last of a three-part series on a road trip Daily Sound reporter Colby Frazier took with his family to see the Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore.

1 comment:

Jack Williams said...

I am in Santa Barbara four to five times a year on business and each time I'm here I read the Daily Sound. I have been fascinated with the Daily Sound's winning battle for readers with the News-Suppress. Each time I'm here I am increasing more impressed with the quality of the paper and it's writers. I was fortunate enough to have been in town for the past three weeks and was able to catch Mr. Frazier's series on his family road trip. Kudos to Fraizer for keeping the dying "family road trip" alive and Kudos to the Daily Sound for printing such a well-written, heartfelt series. Keep up the good works guys, I'm rooting for you.

Jack Williams
Atlanta, Georgia