Track Town U.S.A. is slightly scruffy, out of the mainstream and hard-edged–much like the runners who come here to compete.
At any given time in Eugene, Oregon, someone is pattering through down a wood chip trail on sharply angled legs, while another is sitting on her back porch banging away on a homemade drum, and yet a third resident is rounding a bend on a tree-shaded county road at immoderate speeds in his beat-up pickup truck, blasting politically charged tunes of a past generation.
Small enough that no one much minds rules and regulations, and blessed with a heaping helping of college town liberalism, Eugene is fertile ground for hard-working, rugged individuals with a bit of a rebellious edge. People like Steve Prefontaine, and long before him, William “Colonel Bill” Hayward.
Hayward began his career as track and field coach at the University of Oregon in 1904, presiding over a student-built dirt track. By charm, threats and force of will, Hayward built the Ducks into a national powerhouse over his 44-year tenure. In his honor, the track was named Hayward Field in 1919, and refinished with state-of-the-art cinders in 1921.
Retiring in 1947, Hayward passed the baton to Bill Bowerman, who also had success as a coach. He was handy with a waffle iron, which eventually led to the start of a little footwear company whose logo is no recognizable around the world. Bowerman lasted 24 years at Oregon, stacking up enough NCAA titles and national championships to create an enduring track and field monument that stands today.
In 1967, the football program moved out and Hayward Field became a track-only facility. The cinder track was replaced with an all-weather surface in 1970, in time to host the Olympic Trials in 1972. This was the first time all events were held over a 10-day period in the same locale, following the Olympic format. As modern and pragmatic as this was, the 1972 Trials was a men’s-only event: the women’s Olympic Trials were held that year on a high school track in Maryland and took just two days to complete.
That was the year a brash, ‘stached 21-year-old Man of Oregon electrified the crowd by running away with the 5,000 meters, easing up in the final straight and still managing to set what was then the American record of 13:22.8. Steve Prefontaine’s bring-it style, pulsing potential, blazing talent and tragic early demise baptized Eugene as sacred ground to anyone who’d ever dry heaved on their trainers.
Nineteen seventy two was a huge year for the hometown crowd, as local boy Kenny Moore came into the Hayward Field alongside Frank Shorter in the Olympic Trials Marathon, finishing together in 2:15:58.
Reeling from the tragic loss of Prefontaine a year earlier, Eugene nonetheless hosted a stellar 1976 Olympic Trials, the first to include both men’s and women’s events. The 1500 meters was the longest women’s event to be contested. Hayward Field in 1976 also marked the start of Edwin Moses’ 122-race winning streak in the 400-meter hurdles. Moses reportedly learned the fundamentals of hurdling from a Boy Scouts publication.
Running guru Bowerman’s slim volume entitled simply Jogging, together with the ascendance to world class prominence of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, ignited the running boom, with Eugene as its epicenter. Mild temperatures and ready availability of trails (including iconic Pre’s Trail) through woods and along the meandering Willamette River set the scene for what jogging was supposed to look like — a contemplative respite from the cacophony of modern life, where a person could run wild and Pre, err, free.
Eugene again hosted the 1980 “Olympic Trials,” a lame duck (no pun intended) affair since the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics had already been announced. Rain throughout the five-day event seemed apt. While some athletes took a pass on the experience, Alberto Salazar (then running for Greater Boston Track Club) and Mary Decker gave their usual 110%.
As one of only four class-1 internationally certified tracks in the U.S., the Olympic Trials returned to Hayward Field in 2008 with fresh faces like the boy wonder and hometown hero, Galen Rupp, who ran collegiately for the Ducks. Eugene has also hosted seven USATF Championships, ten NCAA Championships and the Prefontaine Classic, one of the country’s premier track meets. These events might get lost in the shuffle in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but they’re big news in Track Town USA, population 157,100.
Slightly scruffy, out of the mainstream and hard-edged–much like the runners who come here to compete–Eugene is indeed the spiritual home of the sport.
About The Author:
Sarah Barker runs and writes in St. Paul, MN.