Eugene had long been a place that was a fragment of my imagination. I saw bits and pieces of the town in Without Limits and heard the stories of those who attended the ’08 Olympic Trials of regularly bumping into elite athletes while on a morning stroll on Pre’s Trail. For years I’ve drooled over the Hayward Field track meets I’ve witnessed on TV and admired the phenomenal enthusiasm of the crowd.
Last month, Eugene became a reality as I made by first visit to Tracktown USA for the Prefontaine Classic. And from the moment we drove across the Coburg Road bridge, just like Pre did to enter town, it definitely lived up to my expectations. Unlike any other town, Eugene is invested in running. Its multitude of wood-chipped trails are the best I’ve seen in a city. Just on my one run on Amazon and Pre’s trails, I bumped into Vin Lananna in his car, 5k Olympian and current OTC athlete Ian Dobson walking his dog, and the eccentric Gabe Jennings taking a barefoot stroll near Amazon Park, plus talking to coach Brad Hudson in the snack aisle at Safeway.
The meet atmosphere at Hayward was unlike anything I’ve seen before, even having attended track and field events at the Beijing Olympics. The massive Bird Nest Stadium was superior in size, but could not make up for the tremendous knowledge of the Eugene crowd. Seemingly every one of the high school athletes participating in the Nike Track Nationals event on the eve of the big meet expressed their awe and excitement for competing at such a historic location.
The Pre Classic the next day exemplified everything I expected of Oregon track and field. The 12,834 in attendance, which was the meet’s 15th consecutive sellout, cheered loud and hard for every athlete, especially for those with Oregon ties. The crowd roared when AJ Acosta made his massive surge to place second in the International Mile and when double NCAA champ Andrew Wheating was announced to the Hayward fans for the final time in a Duck jersey. The signature rhythmic clap was present in all the distance races and helped spur such great performances as Takiru Bekele‘s first sub-13 minute 5k on U.S. soil and Phoebe Wright‘s breakthrough race that resulted in a massive PR in the women’s 800. Additionally, the fans were awed by Walter Dix‘s upset of Tyson Gay in the 200 and David Oliver‘s blazing 110 hurdles race that tied the American Record of 12.90.
The weekend made me realize that the passion of the people of Eugene is truly what makes it Tracktown USA. America is a place where it is common to find football or baseball fans on the street, but not track fans. Speaking with a gentleman at the NTN meet, I found that he was one of many individuals who not only went to the meets, but actually were track fans and knew and followed the sport just like I did. This was a welcome surprise to someone accustomed to having to explain to the ordinary person how the steeplechase works or to guess how many javelin-related deaths have ever taken place.
This extraordinary experience has left me wanting more. I hope I will have the opportunity to return in two years for the 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon: Tracktown USA.