Commentary

Why did we have to wait so long for the trials to return to Pre Country?

Updated: July 4, 2008, 12:18 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- That Eugene has hosted the U.S. Olympic track and field trials more times than any other city is not surprising. What is shocking is that this year's trials are the first held here since 1980, more than a quarter-century ago.

Not to demean any other city, but where would you want to hold America's most important track meet, other than the city that calls itself "Track Town, USA" and gave rise to Steve Prefontaine and Nike?

[+] EnlargeSteve Fontaine
AP PhotoYou can't escape Pre's spirit during a visit to "Track Town, USA."

Holding the trials anywhere else would be like holding the World Series of Poker in Disneyland ("Goofy has a 39 percent chance of a straight") or the Tour de France in Kansas ("Today's mountain stage features a demanding climb of 38 feet").

More than 20,000 fans have packed historic Hayward Field each night of the trials, even though the stadium officially holds about 16,000. They have baked in the sun in up to 98-degree heat to watch the finest runners in the country compete for spots on the Olympic team. These are hard-core fans, so passionate they probably still are debating who was at fault when Mary Decker and Zola Budd collided during the 1984 Olympics.

How crazy is Eugene for track? The Eugene Orchestra played a 23-minute symphonic "biography" of late Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman this week, while the Prefontaine movie "Without Limits" plays on continuous loop at the airport gift shop.

Of course, "Pre" is everywhere in Eugene. He died 33 years ago, but as the ubiquitous T-shirts proclaim, "Pre Lives" in this town. There is the Pre Classic, the annual meet held at Hayward Field. And there is Pre's Trail, the running track that winds near the Willamette River. And there is Pre's Rock, the spot where he crashed his car one night in 1975 and died.

A third of a century has passed, and people still pay tribute to the spot of the crash. The day I was there, five other fans were paying their respects. The monument commemorating Pre ("For your dedication and loyalty to your principles and beliefs … you will never be forgotten") was adorned with flowers, photos, valentines, training shoes, participation medals from marathons and a varsity letter from a Louisiana high school state championship.

If Princess Di had set a record in the 5,000 meters, this is what her memorial would look like.

Eugene also is where Nike originated and Bowerman developed the Nike trainer on his wife's waffle iron, spurring not only an international athletics behemoth, but also terrific T-shirt slogans. "Eugene," the T-shirt reads over an image of an early waffle trainer, "Famous Waffles Since 1972."

Thus, there is no more appropriate way to appreciate Eugene than on a run and no better spot than the four-mile Pre's Trail, which threads through Alton Baker Park near Autzen Stadium. The kind folks at Nike loaned me a pair of their new Lunaracer, a running shoe that will go on sale in August and couldn't be lighter if it were made of helium. Actually, it could be lighter -- Nike has developed racing shoes for Bernard Lagat that weigh just more than three ounces, but I doubt the extra ounces of the Lunaracer will affect my splits.

[+] EnlargeHayward Field
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesHayward Field will host the U.S. Olympic track and field trials again in 2012.

A couple of my friends recently ran Pre's Trail for the first time and spoke of the experience in almost heavenly tones. Now I know why. The path has a thick surface layer of wood chips and bark that provides the effect of running on a soft cushion. I didn't know whether to run or lie down and take a nap.

Do you ever wonder whether the people with six-pack abs on the covers of running and fitness magazines really exist? Yes, they do. And they're all running on Pre's Trail, the sweat rolling down their impossibly fat-free abdomens. By contrast, I felt like the Michelin Man. Maybe I shouldn't have done so much carbo-loading before the run.

After an afternoon of running and cycling the city's trails, I sat along the Willamette River, sipping a microbrew and spooning marionberry cobbler. My editor and fellow University of Washington alum will hate me for this, but I love Eugene. And, fortunately, I won't have to wait another quarter-century before the trials return here. U.S. Track and Field already has awarded the 2012 trials to "Track Town, USA."

Which brings up the question: Where is "Field Town, USA"?

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com