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Originally published June 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 11, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Ron Judd

Unearthing a new track-and-field tradition in Eugene

It's hallowed ground. The late Steve Prefontaine, rock-star distance runner, consecrated it back in the early 1970s, burning up the track...

Seattle Times staff columnist

EUGENE, Ore. — It's hallowed ground.

The late Steve Prefontaine, rock-star distance runner, consecrated it back in the early 1970s, burning up the track at Hayward Field on the way to owning the American record at every distance from 2 kilometers to 10.

In the decade that followed, Hayward Field, oft described as the Carnegie Hall of track and field, regularly welcomed the world's greatest athletes, hosting the sport's marquee event, the U.S. Olympic Trials, from 1972 through 1980.

Hallowed, pure and simple.

So what did they start doing to that fabled Hayward infield the moment the famous Bowerman Mile wrapped up Sunday's annual Prefontaine Classic, the nation's grandest invitational track meet?

Ripping it up.

Big time. With a scoop loader, to the cheers of a thousand or so fans who stayed around after — this tells you something about Eugene — to watch history made by a large piece of excavating equipment.

Not 10 minutes after Kenya's Daniel Komen finished the Bowerman Mile at 3 minutes, 48.28 seconds — the fastest mile ever run on U.S. soil — a refrigerator-sized shovel full of dirt was upturned at midfield.

Calm down, singlet-wearers of the world. They're not trying to bury Eugene's storied track-and-field tradition here. Just unearthing a new one.

A group of Eugene boosters, led by Vin Lananna — a coach/promoter who carries the curious title of "director of track and field/cross country," and who two years ago replaced a coach who found out what happens if you fail to sufficiently suck up to Oregon Director of Sugar-Daddery Phil Knight — is out to reclaim the riverside city's glorious track past.

Their goal: Make the title "Track Town" more meaningful than just the name of the pizza joint on Franklin Boulevard.

So far, so good. Eugene, in what can only qualify as an upset, stole track's big event — next summer's Olympic Trials for the 2008 Beijing Games — away from Sacramento, Calif., where it has resided for the past two Olympics. From next June 27 to July 6, Eugene will resume its former perch as Track Town, USA.

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And it plans to stay there, partially through cash on the barrelhead — Knight and Nike provided the $1 million rights fee needed to get in the bidding game for the Olympic Trials, organizers say — and partially through capital improvements to track and field's most storied venue.

With the completion of Sunday's Pre Classic, named in honor of the legendary Coos Bay native who died in a 1975 car crash on a hillside that lies within sight of Hayward Field's west grandstand, the 88-year-old, oft-improved track stadium will undergo a major, $7.39 million overhaul. Included will be a new, rearranged infield and track surface, and, notably, new lights that will allow television coverage of events late into the warm Eugene night.

The city also has landed the NCAA championships in 2010, and plans to be at the front of the line for other major events. Oregon track and field, in other words, is undergoing the same sort of big-bucks, high-profile metamorphosis its football program enjoyed over the past decade, mostly at the direction of Knight, the former Oregon miler and Nike CEO.

It's easy for the average person to scoff, even chafe, at the Nike influence, and the mind-numbing Swooshing of an otherwise pleasant track facility.

But it's also easy to just fuggedaboutit, at least for a few, glorious minutes, when the gun fires and world's greatest athletes turn Hayward from a monument to those long gone to a dream playground for its greatest current stars.

On Sunday, Eugene's track faithful again watched history unfold in heart-stopping fashion.

They stood for the last four laps as Paul Koech ran away with the grueling 3,000-meter steeplechase, riding a wave of sound that seemed to carry the Kenyan on the way to a track-record 8:08.08.

They went berserk as hometown underdog Nick Symmonds pulled the upset of the day, winning the men's 800 meters in 1:44.54.

They held their breath as Liu Xiang, Chinese gold medalist and world-record holder, beat America's Anwar Moore by an eyelash — a hundredth of a second — to win the 110 hurdles in 13.23 as America's Allen Johnson tripped his way out of the lead.

But they saved their biggest cheers of the day for longtime Eugene-area resident Maria Mutola of Mozambique, who continued one of the most amazing streaks in sports by winning the Pre Classic 800 for the 15th straight year.

"I hope to come back next year," she said, breathing hard at the finish. "And then I'm retiring."

After her deserved victory lap, all that remained was the Bowerman Mile, which saw Komen beat Kenyan-turned-American Bernard Lagat, the Washington State grad, by more than two seconds, with Kenyan Alex Kipchirchir finishing third.

The mile, replaced by the 1,500 meters, is rarely run at high-profile track meets anymore. But it's worth noting that Sunday's race made history in its own, fitting way, especially in a place built by distance runners: Nine of the 10 runners finished the mile in less than four minutes, a feat first accomplished in America 50 years ago this month by Californian Don Bowden, who cheered from the stands.

A lot of American towns would scarcely notice this. Eugene gave it a bear hug.

"This stadium, it's not exactly state of the art," said Dathan Ritzenhein, who moved here from Colorado recently to compete in the milder climate and lower elevation. "But it's just runner-friendly. It's the fans, the noise, the weather, all of it. "

The city's great running tradition is built on the backs of legendary coach Bill Bowerman, Pre and others, yes, but it's also because "in Eugene, you're not next to a lot of other distractions ... like pro sports teams," Ritzenhein said. "The closest thing to here is Portland or Seattle. And as you can see, people are still out here packing the stands. It's really something special."

Ritzenhein finished fourth in the 2-mile, with a far-and-away personal-best 8:11.74. For years, Hayward Field has been a favorite stop for him.

Now it's home.

Can Eugene really handle being Track Town, USA, once more?

He smiles.

"If they can do it anywhere," he says, "it's here."

Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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