We all have our favorite memories of Historic Hayward Field. Some of us also have our favorite seats. Only the latter will be obliterated when bulldozers arrive this summer, so now is a good time to begin sharing.
Many people prefer a seat in the west grandstand that lines up with the finish line. That’s where the announcer’s booth is, and it’s certainly where the most drama takes place. I’ve chosen those seats, but I found that view exhausting — especially when the triple jump competition coincides with the sprints.
How many west grandstand fans get whiplash, just trying to keep their eyes on the speedy humans racing past? I occasionally would seek relief by watching the high jumpers. It required less of me. The Hayward experience reminds me of a typical day at the airport — if you’re an air traffic controller.
Legendary track coach Bill Bowerman’s favorite perch was at the top of the east grandstand, because that’s where he could survey everything most easily. A track meet resembles a three-ring circus, but without the rings. Taking it all in certainly mattered to Bowerman, but I suspect he favored proximity to the backstretch for another reason.
The finish line is where you can see the accomplishments, but the backstretch gives you a better view of the effort involved. Our character shows most clearly when no one’s looking. The backstretch is the closest thing to anonymity in Hayward Field. That’s where runners search — the best ones find — an “extra gear” that kicks them to the finish. You can see that determination best from the east grandstand.
The east grandstand is also the most historic part of Historic Hayward Field. Somebody sitting near you remembers watching football games from those same bleachers.
Bowerman liked being at the tops of those stands, but I prefer the middle. Much has been written about the quality of Hayward Field fans. It’s a pleasure to be surrounded by them. I’ve never tried it, but I suspect I could close my eyes and know what’s happening, just by the gasps and cheers and clapping around me.
If you’re looking in the wrong place, the sound of the crowd can redirect your attention. Silence signals anticipation of a starting gun. Jumps have a specific rallying rhythm, sometimes requested by the athletes themselves. Victory laps produce a rolling cheer as the athlete jogs past.
Some aural overlap is inevitable, and sometimes unfortunate. Just as New Zealand pole vaulter and crowd favorite Eliza McCartney was making her final attempt on Saturday, a high jumper’s attempt failed. The crowd’s disappointment was so loud, McCartney slowed as if she had done something wrong, just as she was four strides away.
Hayward’s most distinctive soundtrack surrounds the pole vault. Fans clap as the athlete raises their pole and begins their approach. Then things go quiet for one small moment, as vaulters plant their pole. What happens next sounds like a collective slide whistle. The tone goes up — then stops for another small moment. The crowd’s “Aww!” or “Yay!” announces the outcome before the athlete has returned to earth. No one within blocks of Hayward Field could not know what’s happening with each pole vault attempt. The sound is that unmistakable.
I’ve become selfish with my Hayward experience. I want to be surrounded with that most distinctive soundtrack. I also want the best view to accompany what I hear. I can only now divulge what I believe is Hayward’s perfect seat: Section O, Row 14, Seat 14.
That seat lines me up perfectly with the top of the pole vaulter’s bar, when the bar is set around 16 feet up. I’m always amazed that seat isn’t reserved for a coach or a photographer. No one else can see quite so clearly what I saw last Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic.
Pole vaulters need superior strength, technique, and timing to succeed. Those three can be seen best from seat O-14-14. Somewhere in the new stadium, there will be a seat as perfect as that one. Two years from now, I’ll be looking for it. If I’m lucky, by then you will have forgotten all about it.
Don Kahle (email@example.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.