Sunday, May 31, 2015

Distance Night

The trip to Eugene proved a bit challenging.  Delta did its best to keep me from getting there.  Instead of landing in Portland on Thursday, I hit the ground Friday at Noon, just in time for my partner in crime Chris, to pick me up at the airport for the drive to Eugene.

The Prefontaine Classic, a world class track and field extravaganza, has been serving up appetizers the last half dozen years with a handful of races on Friday night.  Along with a couple of hot high school miles and a world class women's long jump field, U.S. distance god Galen Rupp was running the 5000 meters and his British training partner, Mo Farah, was going for his country's record in the 10000 meter.  It promised to be a night to remember.

Chris had lured me with 2nd row, finish line tickets, for Saturday's main event.  He also thoughtfully booked a hotel room within walking distance of historic Hayward Field.  When we arrived in Eugene, the first thing he wanted to do was visit Pre's Rock.  It's the rock face where 40 years before, Steve Prefontaine, flipped his MG and died.  We had made the same pilgrimage 11 years before when we attended the 2004 meet together.

I knew it was up a major hill, which didn't bode well for the run, but I had managed it then and I figured I could manage it now.  My 59 year old legs said otherwise.  I made it about 200 yards up the half mile climb to the spot and told Chris I had to walk.  I felt like I had sprinted a 400 as hard as I could.  I managed another short jog before finally walking to the crash site, were five other people had gathered.  I was a sophomore to be in college when Pre died.  I remember that day just as I remember the assassination of JFK. 

We managed to finish the climb off of Skyline Drive and meandered very slowly over to Hayward Field.  The place was decked out and swarming with people, even four hours before the start of that evening's festivities.  This massive NIKE poster greeted us as we made our way back to our hotel.  It was on the side of the three story student-athlete study facility that didn't exist the last time I was in Eugene.  In fact, the number of new buildings at the University of Oregon that have gone up in the last 11 years caught me off guard.

We made it back to the track about 45 minutes before the start of Distance Night.  In an incredibly classy gesture we were handed a special program, free, and a special race bib with the number 40, also free.  It then dawned on us that this very night marked the last time Steve Prefontaine had raced at Hayward Field 40 years ago.  It came with a touching video tribute on the big board that overlooks the track.

The competition was incredible.  Both the boys and girls high school miles were special.  All 10 girls in the mile raced step for step the entire race.  Ryen Frazier managed to nip Danielle Jones by 4/10ths of a second running 4:39.84.  The boys race was even better as Carlos Villareal flew over the last 150 meters to run down Mikey Brannigan with a 4:05.25.  Villareal made up at least 30 meters over that last 150 with an amazing kick.

Tianna Bartoletta, in the midst of the on track mayhem, powered to a 23' 4" long jump, which isn't bad for a woman known more for her 100 meter dash abilities.  In a matter of moments, the crowd favorite, Galen Rupp appeared and the stage was set for what was supposed to be a super fast 50el00 meters.  Unfortunately, the stellar field of distance aces couldn't deliver.

The group of world class runners refused to follow the pace setters, which meant it was going to come down to a kickers race.  That's bad news for Rupp, who has great wheels, but not as good as a handful of Africans.  Rupp charged to the front with 600 meters to go but it wasn't enough to Kenyan and an Ethiopian who went on to win the race.  Rupp settled for 3rd, but the real story was the man in 4th, Bernard Lagat.  The 40-year-old wonder set a master's world record in 13:14.97.

With the crowd still buzzing Mo Farah and a host of more super African distance runners took to the track for the 10000.  Again the pacing was suspect, leaving Farah and Paul Tanui from Kenya to trade surge and counter surge.  The real story developed far back in the track.  Canada's great distance hope Cam Levins, had let the main pack go due to the super fast racing going on from the get go.  Levins found himself trapped in the 2nd pack some 80 meters done. 

Levins started slowly pulling away from that group with about 12 laps to go, slowly picking off those destroyed by the early, punishing pace.  He managed to go from 12th place to 4th place with a lap to go to run a Canadian record in 27:07.51.  Farah showed his amazing kick to win the shootout in 26:50.97, falling short of the British record.  It's still the fastest 10000 I've ever seen in person by a good 15 seconds.

It had been amazing evening and we hadn't even gotten into the good stuff promised for Saturday.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eugene Bound

Two weeks from today for the first time in 11 years I will hop aboard a jet and fly west to Oregon for one of the best track meets the world has to offer.  The Prefontaine Classic is always a distance running stud-fest.  It's a meet I first attended back in 1985 on a rainy Saturday evening where I watched Mary Slaney take down the American Record for 5,000 meters.
The second time I made it to the meet was in 1994. The star was pole vaulter Sergei Bubka.  I sat right in front of Bubka's family that evening.  Down on the infield NIKE's John Capriotti spotted me sitting with the Bubka's and invited me down on the infield to meet the great vaulter.  I had gotten to know Capriotti when he was the head track and field coach at Kansas State a couple of years before.  It was thrilling to meet the world's greatest pole vaulter.

The third Prefontaine meet, in 2004, featured a fearless mile run by Alan Webb, who dipped just under 3:51 in a solo effort.  That's probably my favorite moment and my favorite year for attending this track and field classic.  I went the meet that year with a good friend, Chris Ronan.  He wanted Webb's autograph, so we made our way down to the media area where Chris stalked his quarry.

This year's meet promises a great men's mile and unbelievably deep fields in the women's and men's 800 meters.  Again I will attend the meet with Chris.  This year I plan to make sure we take plenty of pictures and gather a lot of mementos.

The best part of the meet is Eugene.  The city has a feel to it that is impossible to describe unless you've been there.  The air is fresh and full of pine.  The running routes are numerous and nothing beats heading across the footbridge that spans the beautiful McKenzie River for a quick run along Pre's Trail.

And then there's Hayward Field.  It has changed so much since my first visit in 1976 when I covered the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.  The track back then was rock hard with a sandpaper type substance covering the surface.  A cinder lane circled the inside part of the track and the grandstands were old and weathered.  Just to the west of the newer, bigger grandstands, a cinder track used to sit where the athletes would warm up and where I watched in wonderment a workout one day which featured Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa and Bill McChesney.

Now the facilities are fresh and modern.  The track features a state of the art mondo track.  The cinders are long gone and the modern warmup track sits just to the south of Hayward Field itself.  Two more weeks and I get to go to running heaven.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Looking to the Future

The tragic events surrounding this weekend's Florida State Track and Field Championships overshadowed the legacy that lies at the feet of Coach Jeff Sommer.  His shocking death dimmed the incredible performances turned in by a handful of young women who will shape the next few years of high school distance running in Southwest Florida.  Not surprisingly, their achievements are directly and indirectly the result of Sommer and the standards he set for his athletes.

First, there's Sarah Candiano, who graduates from Evangelical Christian added two state titles at 1,600 and 3,200 to go with the championship she won in cross country.  She also anchored a 2nd place finish for her team's 4 x 800 team.  On that squad are two extremely young, but incredibly talented girls.  Sierra Oliveira, a mere 7th grader, finished 2nd in the 1A 800 meter in 2:15.62, a national class time.  Her twin sister Moriah was 2nd in the 400 meter in 57.65 to go along with a 2:18 split on that 4 x 800 relay.

It is impossible to speculate on how good the Oliveira sisters could be, especially given their youth.  This dynamic duo has the potential to re-write all of the records ever set in Lee County.  They could be a twin version of the prep prodigy, Mary Cain.

Estero's cupboard is hardly bare.  Back for another year of high school cross country and track are Daley Cline and Breeana Salcedo.  Those two will team with junior to be Megan Giovanniello to carry on Sommer's legacy.  This trio should help make next fall's cross country battles with Fort Myers High School epic.

That brings us to the Green Wave's Krissy Gear.  How many national class distance runners do you know who scored at their state meet in the pole vault?  Gear is an incredible athlete who has only begun to harness her ability as a distance runner.  She ran a sub-5 1,600 earlier in the season before claiming the 3A title on Saturday.  She followed her that race with her best 800 of the season, finishing 2nd in 2:16.32.

Gear could be the best distance runner in Lee County since Sommer coached Footlocker finalist Bona Jones.  Her ability to run off of a fast pace with a powerful kick could bring some out of this world times, before Krissy graduates from Fort Myers.

Next spring there could be as many as a half dozen Lee County girl's under 2:15 in the 800.  Nationally, most state's don't produce even one girl under 2:15 in a given year.  I don't believe we'd be seeing any of this without years of groundwork done by Jeff Sommer.  Think about it.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Coach Jeff Sommer
The news came in the form of a phone call from a trusted running friend.  What she told me literally took my breath away.  Jeff Sommer had died at the Florida State High School Track and Field Championships.  My mind went blank and a sinking feeling hit my chest hard.

I always called him coach.  Calling someone coach is the ultimate sign of respect to me.  I met him when I first came to Fort Myers in 2003.  Our paths first crossed at one of the local road races where he routinely whipped my ass.  Then as fate would have it, I moved into his neighborhood, his house just a block over from mine.

Coach Jeff Sommer had spent years building Estero High School into a distance running powerhouse.  I've known a lot of great high school coaches.  Coaches you've probably never heard of, Verlyn Schmidt, Van Rose and Joe Schrag.  They set the standard in the state of Kansas.  But what Coach Sommer did stands out when compared from the trio of greats I mentioned from my home state of Kansas. 

Sommer's had no hills to train his runners on.  He trained his athletes in the humid, pre-dawn hours during the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Southwest Florida.  His 3D approach of discipline, desire and determination, produced some amazing distance runners.  Sommer was cheering on his talented squad of 4 X 800 girls to a championship when he collapsed.

I can't explain why I feel such a sense of loss.  Coach and I spoke to each other less than 2 dozen times in the 12 years that we knew each other.  Our conversations always left me feeling that I was taking to a man in a hurry, a man on a mission, a man touching lives. 

And that's where the hurt comes from for me.  I know that Coach Sommer touched and changed hundreds upon hundreds of lives.  His good work spread across the community and he raised the bar for coaches across Southwest Florida and the entire state of Florida.  He did what my late coach did.

It was almost exactly ago, the coach that changed my life, Tom Dowling, died suddenly from a heart related incident.  Like Coach Sommer, the works of Coach Dowling lifted high school distance running across the Kansas City metro area.  The two men were opposites.  Coach Sommer was an intense, rolling bundle of energy.  Coach Dowling was a zen figure.  But both men trained champions on the track and champions in life.

My heart hurts for Coach Sommer, his family, his athletes, but most of all my heart hurts for our community.

Editors note:  The Fort Myers News-Press asked me to share these links: