Tracktown USA: Improving for the Long Run

Let’s talk about running wild. Eugene is learning how to pride itself as Tracktown USA. Let’s be sure we get it right for the long run — 5K, 10K, even 26.2 miles.

Decades of longsuffering is shaping itself into an enduring legacy. It sounds like an oxymoron, but distance running requires patience. If you go too fast, you can’t go too long. Learning to run more requires learning not to rush more.

Eugene’s “Mount Run More” has four colossal faces looking down on us.

Famed track coach Bill Bowerman loved running. He loved it more than winning. Jogging, which he introduced to this continent, was running without a race. Elitism has its place in athletics, but Bowerman himself didn’t care for it. He detested trophies. He made it a point not to keep them. Whatever he accomplished, in his view, left memories and built character. That was reward enough for him.

Bowerman built his best track teams by developing undiscovered talents. He plucked Steve Prefontaine from a hardscrabble Oregon lumber town and taught him technique. Prefontaine electrified his followers. His charisma demanded your attention and his speed gave you no choice but to follow. Bowerman taught him patience. If you’re always improving, then winning may not come immediately, but it will come naturally.

In fact, if Bowerman had focused only on his very best athletes, he might have overlooked an ambitious middle-distance runner with only above-average potential. Luckily for Oregon, Bowerman took that kid under his wing, gave him a few hundred dollars and his waffle-iron shoe sole design, and the company that became Nike was born.

Finally, Vin Lananna is bringing a technocratic precision to assembling Tracktown USA. We now host some of the world’s most prestigious track meets, but we must not overlook last Sunday’s Eugene Marathon, considered by many to be the ideal race for first-time marathoners. The root of our pride has been and must remain Bowerman’s “all comers” invitation and his “always improving” attitude.

Thanks to the conviction of Bowerman, the passion of Prefontaine, the vision of Lananna, and the resources of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Eugene is learning to run wild. Their chiseled approval forms our Mount Run More.

There’s a hidden heroism in simply completing a marathon — especially in a culture where many of us consider it a triumph if we finish reading the day’s newspaper in a single sitting.

We can’t know how many marathon runners finished Sunday’s race with their best time ever. Conditions were near ideal, so chances are good that many returned home with that deep satisfaction of never having done better.

University of Oregon Head Football Coach Mark Helfrich puts it this way. When it’s “You versus Yesterday,” no one is rooting for Yesterday.

Thousands of Eugene residents lined the race route, cheering for strangers. Is there any other competitive sport where the connection between athlete and audience is more intimate? Where else could one spectator make eye contact with a thousand competitors in less than an hour?

Race organizers can be congratulated for a near-flawless plan to accompany the perfect weather. Traffic cones were set out in the dead of night. An army of volunteers knew their roles and performed them with joy.

I heard only one complaint, but it’s worth passing along. It concerns those finishing last. Shortly before the official course time limit of seven hours had passed, things were winding down. The chocolate milk was gone or getting warm. Volunteers were modeling efficiency by gathering up decorations, but racers were still finishing the course.

Let’s be sure the race’s last finishers see the same Hayward Field as the winners saw, hours earlier.

We cannot know what personal accomplishments were being recorded on Sunday at 1:59 PM in Hayward Field, but we’ll better ourselves if we show them as much respect as those who finished first. We want every racer to finish strong, as much as they are able.

Did they believe they could complete a marathon in less than seven hours? Maybe not, but once they allowed their imagination to run wild, amazing things could happen.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs