My Track Fan Bucket List

Last Monday, two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds posted his “Running Bucket List”. It’s something he first formulated in 2005. Since then, others have offered up their own list of things to do before they die.

Just two days before Symmonds’ post, a friend of mine skated off the ice after his adult-league hockey game was over, sat down on the bench, and passed out. Two hours later he was pronounced dead. He was 47 and fit, and about the last person we expected to leave before his time.

So in the last week I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what I want to do before my earthly race is over. A “track fan bucket list” is a blog post I’ve often thought about but never started. I’m going to do it now.

The thing about a “bucket list” is that it’s written with the presumption that the writer will have time to complete the tasks. The passing of my friend Jeff is startling, because it proves that you just don’t know. I’ve always assumed that I’ll be around for a very long time, due to my relatively good health habits plus the unusual longevity of my relatives. I now believe in the uncertainty of it all.

Well, enough with the downers. Let’s talk about the fun stuff!

This is a personal list, but it’s also directed at the general fan. I’ll prioritize, so that you know what you need to do first because you might not get to all of them.

Already checked off

I actually haven’t been to that many different things. I only began traveling far and wide to track events about ten years ago, and only seriously got into it about five years ago. So this is a shorter list than I’s like it to be.

1. Your state high school championships
I don’t typically write about high school track in this blog, but I actually enjoy high school track the best. I believe high school sports are best enjoyed on a local level, which makes the state championship meet its pinnacle.

The Ohio high school championships are where I first fell in love with track. It was my end-of-the-school-year trip every June, after following the best in the state all season via the “Ohio Track and Field News” publication. In high school, I was already a track nerd.

Besides the authenticity of the participants and their fans, who are competing for nothing more than pure love of what they do, plus a devotion to team and community that’s rarely if ever reproduced at the sport’s higher levels, the fan experience is usually pretty good.

Here in Ohio, we fill up the 10,000-seat Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. (Way back when, we used to put 20,000 or more into Ohio Stadium.) The three divisions are held as three separate meets, each of which runs 22 races in a tightly-scheduled two and a half hours. Besides that, it’s an annual gathering of the clan. There are old friends I can always count on seeing when I go to Columbus for the state meet.

2. The Penn Relays
Of all the high-level meets I’ve ever been to, I think Penn is my favorite. There’s the history–it’s Philadelphia, it’s in the nation’s oldest college football stadium, and the traditions are long. The crowds are amazing, often the world’s biggest turnout for the year, and they’re really into it. Most of all, this is simply a track party.

In 2011 I wrote about my trip to Penn. Check it out.

3. U.S. Olympic Trials
4. Any meet at Hayward Field

I’ve been to the Trials in Eugene twice. Last summer, I wrote thatThe thing about the Olympic Trials, wherever it’s held, is that it’s a quadrennial gathering of everyone and everything in track and field in the United States. If you know someone from the internet, you’re going to meet them here.” The Trials meet is Track and Field News’ editor Garry Hill’s favorite track meet, even over the Worlds or Olympics. It gets more media attention than any other domestic track meet in any four-year period. It’s a great thing.

And then there’s Eugene and Hayward Field. This sums it up:

5. IAAF World Championships
I can’t believe that the Worlds are only #5 on the list, but here it is. I went when they were in Edmonton in 2001, the only time they have ever been held in the western hemisphere. This was long before I began blogging (I don’t think blogging software even existed at the time), so I can’t link to any of my previous posts.

First of all, it’s like the Olympics, but track-only. You’ll see the best of the best go head-to-head. The attention of the whole city is on a track meet, which is cool but almost unnerving, like you’ve slipped into an alternate universe. And you’ll meet people from all over the world. I drank with a German couple one night (note: very bad idea if you want to feel good in the morning). Just by chance, I met Kip Keino. Kip Keino! It was ten days of track and field and hanging out with track and field fans. Awesome.

6. NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships
My high school coach, Bob Hayton, has been to 52 of the last 53 Ohio high school championships, and we went to the Worlds together in 2001. We’ve been to Penn once and the NCAAs twice, and he says it’s his favorite track meet ever. Due to the strong team emphasis, it’s kind of like a state high school meet, but it also has very high level of competition.

7. NCAA Cross Country Championships
Like the Penn Relays, this tends to have a party atmosphere. Flotrack’s pre-meet tailgate parties have helped take that up a notch. It being cross country, people run around like maniacs during the race to see the action. Especially at a fan-friendly layout like Indiana State’s, the athletes are running through a tunnel of sound that constantly disassembles and reassembles itself on the course. Team competition is a big deal here, but it’s changing from moment to moment (unlike at a track meet, where scores only change after each event). And they’ll let you run the course before the meet–they won’t let you shoot baskets on the floor before the Final Four, but you get to be on the athletic playing surface at this meet.

D-I is fun. D-III is fun too; the crowds are smaller, but the fans are completely insane.

8. Boston Marathon
To truly appreciate the Boston Marathon, you cannot go as a spectator. You must actually do it. Only then can you understand how Boston loves this race, as you get to move through the historic course and the throngs that come out year after year to watch it. I can’t recall any stretch of the race in which people weren’t lined up to watch on at least one side of the road, and the vast majority of the distance has them lined up on both sides. As you get closer to Boston, the crowds get bigger and bigger. The estimate is that 500,000 come out to watch.

Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sports Guy”, is a Boston native and once wrote an idiot’s guide to the Boston Marathon, a typically honest, guffaw-producing and illuminating piece. The thing I got about Boston as being different from any other road race out there is this: people treat the marathoners like real athletes. All 20,000+ runners are celebrities of some kind for a weekend, which is nice.

But what’s even better is that the spectators expect as much out of you as they do of the Red Sox or Bruins: they’ll tell you how great you are if they think you’re doing well, and are brutal if they think you suck. It was kind of nice to be berated for running like crap in the last couple of miles instead of getting a polite golf clap and “c’mon, you can do it, you’re almost there”.

Left on the list

This is the stuff I have yet to do.

1. Jamaican “Champs”
The Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships, aka “the Champs”, is considered by some to be the greatest track and field fan experience in the world. It’s been described as a cross between the Super Bowl (for its complete dominance of media attention) and the NCAA Tournament (in that everyone has “their” team, even those who never went to high school). Throughout the whole island, it’s all anyone will talk about for a week. Jamaica’s Kulcha Tours actually runs a five-day Track Attack Tour for foreigners who want to take it all in.

2. Stawell Gift
The Stawell Gift is a professional handicap sprint race held every year on Easter weekend in the Australian town of Stawell (pop. 6,035). The race is 120 meters, on grass and up a slight incline. Runners get handicaps of 0 to 10 meters based on recent race results, with qualifying heats on Saturday and semifinals and finals on Monday. It’s all about the gambling at this meet.

The sprint is not the only thing, though. There are more than sixty events over the three days; there is a women’s sprint (on the same format), plus men’s and women’s and age-group races ranging from 70 meters to 3200 meters. All handicapped, and gambling on all of them.

3. Weltklasse Zürich
The meet is the best one-day invitational in the world, and sometimes called “the Olympics in one night”. Track’s own Swiss/American blogger, Martin Bingisser, did a guest post here on why Zurich is awesome.

4. Millrose Games
There was a time when this would have been near the top of any track fan’s list, but that was back when it sold out its 18,000 tickets more than a month ahead of time. The last ten or so editions in Madison Square Garden weren’t very good meets and didn’t have that electric atmosphere. Moving the meet to the Armory Track and Field Center paid off, as the meet’s quality has drastically improved and the great fan experience appears to have returned.

5. New York City Marathon
Like the Boston Marathon, the New York City race is something to see from the inside. What I’m most hoping to get out of this is to see The Greatest City In The World in a way that you simply couldn’t on the other 364 days of the year.

5. Drake Relays
Penn and Drake are both American classics, albeit each with a different style. Both are must-see events.

6. Kenyan Cross Country Championships
Like Jamaica’s “Champs”, this meet oozes talent like nothing else, and brings in a throng of local fans.

7. Prefontaine Classic
I hope I don’t have to explain this one.

8. Fränkisch-Crumbach Hammermeeting
Martin Bingisser calls this the greatest little meeting in the world. Why? “A bunch of Germans sit around, drink beer, and watch hammer throwing”. What could be more fun than that?

9. A meet at Dublin’s Morton Stadium
A pint, in Ireland, at a track meet. Gotta do it.

10. The Great Court and the Iffley Road Track
These are not track meets per se, but they are among the most important historical landmarks in track and field. The Great Court Run and the first four-minute mile are at Cambridge and Oxford, respectively.

This, of course, is only the top ten. There are almost innumerable other things I’d like to see and do at some time in my life. I’d better get cracking.

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“Record-setting athlete and NASA project manager” are only the smaller ways to describe Jeff, the single most amazing man any of us have ever met.

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3 Responses to My Track Fan Bucket List

  1. runbei says:

    Jesse, if you like HS track best you’re sure to enjoy this 39.5-year-old SI article by Bil (correct sp.) Gilbert: “Gleanings From a Troubled Time.” Hm, did I mention it before? It ends with a wonderful description of a local track meet and why it’s wonderful.

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1086903/index.htm

    Enjoy.

  2. Quarter Sticks says:

    Jesse, like the article. Would like to add (1) Commonwealth Games – where the competition is still intense and allows athletes from many smaller nations to be prominent on the world stage, and (2) European Championships – although with many more IAAF-santioned meets in Europe now, this meet doesn’t always live up to previous expectations.

    Have been to the Stawell Gift on a number of occasions, and the intrigue of athletes trying to win the “big one” and have their supporters reap the wagering dollars is legendary. Athletes are know to run poorly for a couple of years in the hope of gaining a good mark and getting under the handicapper’s and bookies nose !

    Cheers,

  3. admin says:

    I’ve been told to add the NCAA Indoor Championships to the list as well.