Hitting the Pavement: Eugene Running Then and Now

By BRYAN T. ROBINSON

Todd Thompson, a Eugene resident, went down his list: running shoes, check; hydration pack, check; headlamp, check; boiled potatoes, check.

With everything in order, he and a few others drove to the starting area for the Waldo 100k, a grueling 62-mile race through the rugged Oregon Cascades.

It was dark out, almost three a.m. A group of 30 runners had already arrived and were warming up and stretching, others were making small talk trying to ignore the palpable nervous energy.

The closer it got to three, the more nervous Thompson became, what if he couldn’t finish? Then suddenly the race started and he was fast walking up the face of Willamette Pass.

Glow sticks and reflectors guided the flood of runners to the top of the peak, and then down the other side into thick forest.

The sun arose around seven, and waxed hot throughout the day. Soon Thompson was overheating, his heart rate around 160 beats per minute. Everything he ate he felt like throwing up. He was overexerting himself.

At the 45-mile rest point, Thompson collapsed into a chair, medics asked him how he was doing. They said to call it quits. He wasn’t going finish this year. Instead of continuing on the race route, he took a small access road down to a van, which bussed him back to the starting line.

He had failed.

Thompson doesn’t look like your typical runner. He is the first to point out that he doesn’t have a runner’s sleek physique. That hasn’t stopped him from running 26 marathons.

“There aren’t a lot of things that can challenge us anymore, so I like going out and not knowing if I can finish,” Thompson said.

Running has been a part of the Eugene culture for so long, but there was a time when running for exercise wasn’t a popular concept. Thanks to people like Bill Bowerman, running exploded in the U.S. during the mid 60s, and became a staple in people’s exercise routines. Now about 850 marathons a year are held in the U.S. alone according to runningusa.org.

Bowerman in Eugene

Bill Bowerman is harkened as the man who placed Eugene on the map as Track Town, USA. It was his training methods and methodology that gained the UO 24 NCAA individual titles, and four NCAA team crowns during his 24 years as head coach according to goducks.com.

In “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon,” author Kenny Moore writes that during a trip to New Zealand, Bowerman was introduced to the concept of jogging for exercise by Arthur Lydiard, a fellow running coach. He brought this concept to Eugene, and wrote a book entitled “Jogging” that introduced the sport to the U.S.

Bowerman also experimented and improved on prototype running shoes from Japan, which resulted in the Nike Cortez – Nike’s first and most iconic running shoe.

However, the most important role Bowerman played was coach. The UO Track and Field Team saw 33 Olympians, 38 conference champions and 64 All-Americans during his tenure. It was Bowerman’s hard/easy training method that revolutionized how athletes train.

Athletes who ran under Bowerman include Steve Prefontaine, Kenny Moore, Bill Dellinger, Mac Wilkins and Jack Hutchins. Bowerman tailored training programs for each of his athletes, so that they could reach their highest potential.

As Geoff Thurner, Athletic Director of Communications at the UO, pointed out Bowerman was restless to try new things. Bringing the Olympic Trials to Eugene is one more way Bowerman introduced people to the sport.

Olympic Trials and Eugene

The first Track and Field Olympic Trials to be held in Eugene was in 1972. The first of five such instances when Eugene is at the center of the track and field world. Most importantly, however, it applies to people’s interest in the sport.

“Each person can identify with some aspect of it,” Thurner said. “In track you can watch people run around in circles and its basic athleticism one can appreciate.”

In 2007, then newly hired Associate Athletic Director Vin Lananna petitioned for the Olympic Trials to return to Eugene. He was successful and in 2008 the first trials in 28 years were held at historic Hayward Field. The trials feature 40 different events including sprints, hurtles and distance runs.

This was also the case in 2012 when media outlets, fans and athletes again descended on Eugene for the 10-day event. Some people see Lananna’s contributions to UO’s Track and Field Program as having reignited Track Town, USA.

Eugene Running Experiences a Lull

Richard Maher, Founder and Race Director for the Eugene Marathon, says that from the 80s to the mid 2000s running in Eugene wasn’t the same as in Bowerman’s era.

However, during this time the track team continued to flourish under head coach Bill Dellinger, who coached the likes of Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa, and Matt Centrowitz.

According to the UO Athletic Department website, Dellinger coached his runners to 18 American records and 17 Olympic appearances. His Ducks won four NCAA team titles, five runner-up honors and 12 individual titles.

Also important during this time was the women’s team. During his 27 years as the women’s coach, Tom Heinonen lead the Ducks to 15 NCAA titles, 108 All-American honors and 55 Pac10/NorPac Conference titles.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, university outreach flagged. According to Maher, there were fewer athletes in the communities and the spirit of Track Town diminished during that time.

“There was a period where, I don’t want to name names but one of the coaches tended to put two or three athletes in the drink or down in Texas or wherever and I think people lost that connection with the athletes,” Maher said.

He stressed that what made Bowerman’s era great was community involvement. People knew the athletes; they had their favorites they liked to watch, and when a meet was held at Hayward, everyone went. He also said Eugene is getting that fever back now.

“Back then it was more like it is now, with the job that Vin’s done where they’re in the community, they’re part of the fabric of Track Town,” Maher said.

Eugene Marathon

Maher points to Lananna’s vision for running events in Eugene as having an impact on starting Eugene’s own marathon in 2007.

“We have OTC Elites at our Expos speaking, we’re involved with the Oregon Track Club, and now that Vin has taken over Track Town, USA, he wants it all connected,” Maher said.

The first step Maher had to do was find someone who could OK the project. He found this to be difficult, as the local governments didn’t have how-to guides on starting a marathon. The route goes through two cities and requires eight permits.

Maher says the real work began when he had a meeting with everyone representing the various governments involved. They all sat in a room and discussed the event and what it would accomplish. Today Maher estimates the marathon itself is worth $5 million to the city of Eugene.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Maher says it’s a scramble trying to get all the last minute details in place. The rest of the year, however, his job is pretty laid back. He says he’ll look at surveys to see what people like and don’t like about the marathon and the expo and make changes regarding feedback from fellow runners.

One of the best things about the marathon people say is the finish, and Eugene’s is a special one. Marathoners cross the line at Hayward Field to the roar of a crowd, the energy electric and inspired. Maher says it’s great to see runner’s faces light up when they enter the historic field.

That’s not to say the marathon goes off without a hitch. Maher says the weather is always out of their control, but so far they’ve been lucky every year. Another problem is that because the route goes along city roads, which are blocked off for race day – a Sunday, some people complain about the races intrusion.

According to Maher the marathon has grown by 10-12% each year since 2007. Between the first and second years alone the race grew by 30%. He likens this to the great first year, which attracted 4,800 runners.

“We came out of the gate really strong, which basically set the tone for everything,” Maher said. “Communication now is so widespread that if you’re screwing up people are not going to come.”

With this comes the challenge of keeping up with that growth. Some online forums feature posts by past participants complaining about a lack of portable toilets and the crowded starts.

To these claims Maher says marathoners are picky. Since only three percent of the population can run a marathon, that three percent will complain about aspects of the course that weren’t perfect.

This year Maher is partnering with SportsOne, the same company that helped organize the Olympic Trials in 2012. Maher says with their help the expo and fan experience will be much more spectacular.

One of his favorite things about the marathon is its effect on the community. He notes the increase in runners groups as a direct result of the marathon.

“In the last 10 years there’s been an increase in running groups and coaches, we’re a big part of that because they’re training for the marathon,” he said.

Running Groups in Eugene

One of these groups meets weekly at the Eugene Running Company store on Coburg Road. Head trainers Jill Mestler and Anna Heintz lead local runners on training programs that will get them conditioned to run a marathon.

“I’m just a runner who wants to give back,” Heintz said. “I wanted to coach runners and write up personal training programs for them.”

Their business, Happy Running, LLC, a Eugene company, is based on the idea that running is a lifestyle not just an exercise. They hope to teach and inspire people to reach their running goals based on their individual views of success.

Both Mestler and Heintz have similar stories about how they started running. Each cites a fun run in middle school that was organized by an older family member, and each mention the prizes involved. For Mestler it was a pair of sweatpants with a frog logo, for Heintz it was a pumpkin.

Both went on to run for high school teams and eventually found they enjoyed running distance more than anything. They trained and registered for multiple marathons, Mestler has done nine, Heintz seven.

Both mention they love the social aspect of running. Heintz says she used to get terrible side aches until she started talking with her running partners. Talking got her mind off the running and she was able to push herself farther on each run.

Similarly, Mestler uses it as a chance to catch up with friends.

“My friends will be like, ‘oh do you want to go get coffee or do you want to go for a run?’ [and I say] Let’s just go for a run,” she said. “We use it as our social time.

Together they have over 35 years experience running. They use this experience to coach others. The main point they mention is that people need to listen to their bodies. Heintz says you’ll be amazed at what you can do if you fight through reasonable pain, but too much and it could be dangerous.

Aside from the obvious physical benefits to running, both coaches highlight that running is a great way to see a new city. Mestler says before she started running there were neighborhoods she never visited and sights she never saw.

Among the challenges they face is motivating themselves to get out of bed during the cold, dark winter months to run and train others.

“The hardest thing is when it’s pouring rain and cold in the morning and I have to stand out there, everything else is awesome,” Heintz said.

However, they keep doing it year after year because as Mestler puts it, “I’m happy 100% of the time I run.” So although it may be difficult to get going, once on the road their passion kicks in, with some help from coffee says Heintz.

Both say they will continue to run and train. Mestler says one way she stays motivated is by registering for races as they crop up. Heintz wants to run a sub three-hour marathon, and make the transition to Pilate’s instruction focused on core workouts for runners.

With the marathon fast approaching both are busy coaching their running group. Todd Thompson is a part of that group as he is actively training for the Eugene Marathon.

A New Generation

Thompson returned to the Waldo 100k the following year. He started just as he had the year before, by going through his checklist.

This time he’d done his research and talked to other ultra-marathoners  The common theme he found was there comes a time when your body is telling you to stop, but you just have to push past it because really it’s just a mental block.

He ran the first 45 miles and came upon the same rest area as the year before. He sat in the same chair, his body tired from the day’s abuse.

He says he ate some chicken noodle soup and three watermelon wedges, and when the medic asked him how he was doing he responded, “a lot better than last year!”

Surprised at how good he felt he continued on with the race route, which was changed from the year before due to a fire. He was running on the same access road that he’d taken last year to leave the race.

“I remember running through there and thinking, ‘I conquered this’ and it really made me feel good,” he said.

He finished that year, and the sense of accomplishment he says was intense.

“It’s an adrenaline-fed emotion. It’s almost like euphoric in a way, you know, the runners high. Sometimes your extremities will kind of tingle, tingling in my legs, like you can jump up and down and be happy,” he said.

This is one of the best feelings in the world to him, but another thing he enjoys is getting others interested and involved with running. His wife took up running, he says, when she realized it was the only way they could spend time together.

Thompson has three daughters, two of whom have run half or full marathons. The youngest has run shorter races but hasn’t considered a marathon, yet.

“I joke and say, someday you’ll run a marathon with me, and she’s like, ‘no way dad!’ But I know she will,” he said.

When asked if he feels the same sense of accomplishment when he sees other people succeeding Thompson said, “Yeah, I know how they feel with it, and it’s just a proud moment.”

Running Resources in Eugene – Sidebar #1

By BRYAN T. ROBINSON

Are you interested in taking up running, but don’t know where to start? Below are some resources aimed at getting you on the road.

The Eugene Running Company hosts training runs and fun runs every week at their store on Coburg Road. Check out their Running Groups page for more information on beginners groups and the rewards system they use.

Ready to take it to the next level? Contact Jill Mestler or Anna Heintz at Happy Running, LLC, to develop a training program tailor fitted to your goals. They also coach marathon-training groups at the Eugene Running Company every week.  

            When you’re ready take the plunge, register for the Eugene Marathon on their website. Held every year, this marathon was voted “Best New Marathon” by Runner’s World Magazine, and is a great starter for anyone interested in upping his or her distance.

If you’re looking for longer distances and prefer trail runs check out the Waldo 100k. It’s a grueling 62-mile race through the Oregon Cascades, and not for the inexperienced. However, if you’re a veteran runner this race is sure to test your mettle.

Have kids and want to experience the electricity of Hayward Field? Register for the Oregon Track Club All-Comers Meet in July. Anyone can participate and place ribbons are given who finish 1st-5th.

Want to watch instead? The Prefontaine Classic is scheduled for May 31st and June 1st. Considered one of the premier track and field meets in the U.S., the Prefontaine Classic honors Steve Prefontaine’s legacy by hosting the best athleteds from around the country for a two day meet at Hayward Field.

Eugene also has many running trails around town. If you’re looking for a weekend jog Pre’s Trail and Amazon Park are two popular options.

No matter what your experience level is, there’s always something happening in Track Town, USA!

Bowerman and the Fans of Oregon – Sidebar #2

By BRYAN T. ROBINSON

The name is synonymous with innovation.

Bill Bowerman is harkened as the man who placed Eugene on the map as Track Town, USA. It was his training methods and methodology that gained the UO 24 NCAA individual titles, and four NCAA team crowns during his 24 years as head coach.

In “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon,” author Kenny Moore writes that during a trip to New Zealand, Bowerman was introduced to the concept of jogging for exercise by Arthur Lydiard. After spending six weeks running every day, Bowerman returned and wrote a book entitled “Jogging.” The book sold millions of copies as it showed jogging can be for everyone.

In addition was Bowerman’s innovative approach to shoemaking. In a handshake agreement between Bowerman and Phil Knight, (then a runner under Bowerman at Oregon), they began importing Tiger shoes from Japan. This agreement led to the founding of Blue Ribbon Sports, the precursor to NIKE, Inc.

Bowerman then began experimenting and improving on these prototype running shoes by using his wife’s waffle iron to melt rubber into patterns. The result was the Nike Cortez – Nike’s first and most iconic running shoe.

However, most important is the role Bowerman played in coaching 33 Olympians, 38 conference champions and 64 All-Americans at Oregon. Known as the “Men of Oregon,” the time between the Mid 50s up until the mid 70s UO’s Track Team was unstoppable, which had much to do with Bowerman’s coaching methods.

His now famous hard/easy method, gave athletes easy days to let their bodies recover. This was contrary to other coaches’ methods, which centered on the belief that the harder athletes trained the more they progressed. Many scoffed at the idea of giving athletes recovery time until Oregon began to win individual and team titles.

A few athletes who ran under Bowerman include Steve Prefontaine, Kenny Moore, Bill Dellinger, Mac Wilkins and Jack Hutchins. Bowerman tailored training programs for each of his athletes, so that they could reach their highest potential.

As Geoff Thurner, Athletic Director of Communications at the UO, pointed out Bowerman was restless to try new things.

“Bowerman was innovative and always trying new things,” he said. “Not just with his shoes, but his training methods, and how he introduced people to the sport.”

One of the ways he generated enthusiasm for the sport was by holding All-Comers Meets at Hayward Field every year. People of all ages could experience the electricity of the stadium as they ran the same track as the greats.

This generated the community passion for the sport; a passion Thurner says has always been there. It’s been passed from coach to coach, all of whom have kept the sport vibrant and active.

“But the core,” said Thurner, “is the local people and fans. They keep the ember going throughout the ages.”

About brobinsob

Hi, I'm a journalism student at the University of Oregon. I like writing, playing the piano, and continually improving myself. Everyday I ask myself, "How can I do better? How can I do more?" When you look to serve others selflessly amazing things are possible. Check out my Twitter @AllenSpoonsberg !
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