By Jamie Kempton

This time, the encore outdid the original production.

I recently returned from the June 21-July 1 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon – better known as TrackTown USA. It was a repeat engagement for the Trials in Eugene, coming on the heels of the very successful 2008 edition. In my humble opinion, this year’s extravaganza was even more compelling than the ’08 rendition.

I’ve attended six Olympic Trials: 1988 in Indianapolis, 1992 in New Orleans, 1996 in Atlanta, 2004 in Sacramento, and the past two in Eugene. This was easily the coolest and wettest Trials I’ve been to. Temperatures topped out in the mid-70s and it rained each of the first four days and part of the fifth. But athletes’ performances didn’t seem to be affected too much during the eight days of competition (there were two days off in the middle). Fortunately, I sat in covered seats along the backstretch grandstand – with a large group of fellow Bucknell alumni and friends – and didn’t have to purchase the Oregon yellow poncho that was selling briskly the first few days.

Some people consider the Trials to be the best track meet on the planet, even better than the Olympics themselves. That point is debatable, but there’s no denying that the Trials, by virtue of being held only once every four years, are eagerly anticipated and deliver a host of suspenseful storylines. The most sublime performance of the meet unquestionably was the world-record 9,039 points in the decathlon by hometown hero Ashton Eaton. The title “world’s greatest athlete” is traditionally bestowed upon the Olympic decathlon gold medalist, and Eaton will wear the favorite’s mantle in London when the track portion of the Summer Games commences Aug. 3. He won seven of the 10 decathlon events, set decathlon world records in the first two events, the 100 meters (10.21) and long jump (27 feet), and would’ve made the Olympic team in the long jump with that mark, just four inches shy of the winner.

The most controversial event of the meet was the women’s 100 meters, where mega-star Allyson Felix and relative unknown Jeneba Tarmoh tied for the third and final Olympic berth. USA Track & Field, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., wasn’t prepared for this scenario and came up with three options to break the tie – a coin clip, match-race runoff, or allowing the two athletes to decide among themselves. They initially chose to have a runoff, two days after both had competed in the 200-meter final and the day after the meet ended. The match race would’ve been televised live and generated a buzz among non-track audiences, but ultimately Tarmoh declined to run the race, knowing she was going to London anyway as part of the sprint relay team. (Felix’s status as media darling and TV-ratings booster might have had something to do with Tarmoh’s withdrawal.) Felix, by the way, authored the second-best performance of the meet when she blew away a world-class 200-meter field in 21.69 seconds, making her the fourth-fastest woman in history.

As you would expect in the land of Steve Prefontaine, distance fans were treated to a cornucopia of riveting races. Galen Rupp, another homegrown product from nearby Portland, scored a pair of victories in the 10K and 5K and stamped himself as a legitimate Olympic medal threat in both. In the 10K, contested in heavy rain for much of the race, he unleashed a 52-second last lap and 4:18 last mile to splash away from multiple Olympians Matt Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein and lock up berth No. 1 with an outstanding time of 27:25.33. (Ritz had been fourth in the Olympic Trials marathon back in January and gained a measure of redemption with his third place). Rupp came back in the 5K to outkick 2011 World Championships silver medalist Bernard Lagat – his first victory ever over Lagat, spanning 13 races – and break Pre’s 40-year-old Hayward Field record with a 13:22.67.

Like Ritzenhein, Amy Hastings rebounded from an agonizing fourth-place finish at the Trials marathon to secure an Olympic spot. She outran none other than Trials marathon champion Shalane Flanagan to capture the 10K in 31:58.36. The women’s 5K produced drama aplenty as Kim Conley passed a rigging Julia Lucas in the last stride to nab the third qualifying berth and also dip under the all-important Olympic “A” standard time, 15:20. New Jersey-New York Track Club’s Julie Culley and Elmira, N.Y. native Molly Huddle nailed down first and second place ahead of Conley.

The men’s 1,500 – the metric mile – was fraught with intriguing plot lines. World Champs bronze medalist Matthew Centrowitz was trying to join his dad, Matt Sr., as an Olympian – the elder Centro having made two Olympic teams (1976, ’80) after starring at Power Memorial High School in New York City and later at Oregon. Former schoolboy phenom Robbie Andrews of New Jersey was bidding to make his first Olympic squad after turning pro as a sophomore at Virginia. Erstwhile Oregon stalwart Andrew Wheating was shooting for his second Olympic team after placing second in the 800 four years ago. And Leo Manzano, a Texan by way of Mexico, wanted an outright victory after finishing second or third at the last six U.S. championships. As it turned out, Manzano had the last laugh, edging past Centrowitz in the last 20 meters as Wheating kicked for third and Andrews’ stretch run came up two places out of the money in fifth.

The loaded women’s 1,500 went pretty much according to form as the three favorites pulled away in the last lap. Morgan Uceny, a Cornell grad and world-ranked No. 1 last year, controlled the race from the front and confidently outlegged 2009 World Champs bronze medalist Shannon Rowbury and 2011 world champion Jenny Simpson. All three of these talented ladies can challenge for gold in London.

If you weren’t an aficionado of the field events going into the meet, you surely were a convert afterward. The men’s discus and women’s javelin were won in the last attempt of the competition and both athletes – Lance Brook and Brittany Borman – achieved the A standard marks on those final flings to ensure their London-bound positions. The women’s long jump was one for the history books as three competitors surpassed 23 feet – a first – and Brittney Reese’s winning final jump was initially ruled a foul but overturned upon appeal. And the women’s high jump was a showcase for a trio of crowd-pleasing leapers – Trials record-setter Chaunte Lowe, runner-up and ex-New Yorker Brigitta Barrett, who set two personal bests en route to matching Lowe’s 6-foot-7 clearance, and 36-year-old evergreen Amy Acuff, who qualified for her fifth Olympic team.

The knowledgeable Hayward Field crowd came out 20,000-plus strong each day to support the athletes. Thousands more congregated outside the stadium at TrackTown Plaza, a festive gathering space where fans with or without tickets could watch the action on jumbo video screens, enjoy continuous live musical acts, shop till their hearts’ content at the Nike “Camp Victory” store, let their kids try scaled-down running, jumping, hurdling and throwing events in the “Starting Block” kids zone, check out new running gear and technology, and experience lots of other fun activities and displays.

No trip to Eugene is complete without a visit to Pre’s Rock, the memorial to Steve Prefontaine located on a bluff overlooking the city. The shrine is situated along a steep, winding road at the spot where Pre crashed his sports car and died May 30, 1975, after winning an international race at Hayward Field hours earlier. When I paid a visit to the Rock one evening with buddies Bob Wanamaker and Dan Beauley, we encountered the Eugene Hash Harriers, a running group whose members each wore fake moustaches in honor of Pre and whose beverage of choice was oldie but goodie Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The arduous ascent to the rock was equally as memorable for seeing these Pre acolytes as for viewing the shrine itself.

Naturally, the running venues in a track-crazed city like Eugene are bound to be first-class. Pre’s Trail is a soft wood-chip gem that loops around for four-plus miles. Each morning, organized group runs set off from different locations but often gravitated toward Pre’s Trail, the linear Amazon Trail, the paved bike path along the Willamette River, or other footpaths. These trails are conveniently located near Oregon’s track and football stadiums and are used year-round and round the clock by the thriving local community of runners. I was happy to join this lively tribe of trail-lovers for nearly a fortnight of running bliss.

Another popular trail is the Ridgeline, which rises to a 2,000-foot elevation topping out at Spencer Butte, which commands panoramic vistas of the Willamette Valley. To get to the top, though, you have to scale a rocky outcropping near the summit that lets you know you’ve earned that view from the peak.

There may be no better place in America to share your passion for running than Eugene, Oregon. Here’s hoping you can get there at least once in your lifetime to relish the Eugene experience!

1. At Pre’s Rock (site of Steve Prefontaine memorial) with running
friends Bob & Dan

2. At TrackTown Pizza with Bob. The walls of TrackTown Pizza are
adorned with photos of Oregon legends such as Pre, Alberto Salazar,
Mary Decker Slaney and Bill Bowerman.

3. A doubledecker London Bus carrying some of the newly minted
Olympians for a victory lap around the track.

4. Eugene Hash Harriers at Pre’s Rock. Note the Pre tribute moustaches.

5. Jamie, Bob and Dan at Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S. at
1,943 feet.

6. Jamie atop 2,000-foot Spencer Butte, overlooking the Willamette
Valley.

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