In February, USA Track & Field and Walt Disney Pictures invited a handful of elite runners to the world premiere of McFarland, USA — a film starring Kevin Costner and inspired by the true story of a Latino high school cross country team’s transformation in an economically challenged California town. While the movie met with mixed reviews for its clichéd portrayal of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, 2014 Boston Marathon champion and Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi said McFarland, USA also illustrates running’s inspirational spirit.
“Running is not an individual sport,” he said. “It is a team sport. Better yet, it is a community sport.”
Indeed, running has the potential to unite and strengthen communities — a phenomenon that officials at an increasing number of convention and visitors bureaus have realized in recent years. By partnering with local and regional coaches and running clubs, as well as operators of public and private facilities, more major cities are pursuing high-profile track and field meets.
“We’ve got a great running community,” says Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission, which teams up with local high school coaches to host the track and field portion of the annual Meijer State Games of Michigan at East Kentwood High School Stadium. “With track and field, we get ages ranging from 4 to 84; it’s one of the few sports that allow for that kind of age diversity.”
“Sometimes it takes having the right people in the right spot at the right time,” adds Janis Ross, executive director of Eugene, Cascades & Coast Sports in Oregon. That explains why the city known as “TrackTown USA” has hosted the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field so many times — including in 2008 and 2012, following an absence of almost three decades. The 2016 trials will be held there next July.
Ross attributes Eugene’s long run as one of track and field’s most elite destinations to Vin Lananna, former head track and field coach at the University of Oregon and now an associate athletic director for the Ducks. In addition to landing the U.S. Olympic Trials for three consecutive Olympiads, he helped Eugene secure the 2010, 2013 and 2014 NCAA Track & Field Championships and the 2009 and 2011 USATF Championships. “Vin came along and sparked a revitalization of our legacy,” Ross says. “He reminded everybody what we are about in TrackTown USA.”
While destinations such as Eugene and western Michigan (which includes the greater Grand Rapids area) are off to the races with long-established facilities and partnerships, others are rapidly evolving into track and field Meccas, thanks to new or renovated venues and a community-driven desire to compete in the rapidly expanding world of track and field. They include Birmingham, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida and the Fresno/Clovis, California, area.
“There’s a buzz around here about track and field,” says Andrew Smith, sports sales manager for the Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan
For Guswiler, the buzz has been building for six years, which is how long East Kentwood High School has hosted the track and field portion of the Meijer State Games. Some of the credit goes to Dave Emeott, boys’ track coach at the school, who has led a group of trained track professionals from other high schools and area colleges and universities; this group has the technical expertise and negotiating skills to successfully win bids for multiple high-profile events.
Those events include NCAA Division I and II track and field meets, plus state high school meets. In addition to East Kentwood’s stadium, which can seat about 10,000 spectators, Grand Valley State University’s Lacrosse/Track & Field Stadium in Allendale (with its snazzy blue surface) also hosts events, including the 2015 NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track and Field meet, slated for May. Built-in bleacher seating for 800 was expected to be supplemented with portable seating for another 2,500 spectators. “Certainly, we want to put on a good show and give the NCAA reasons to come back,” Guswiler says about the event, which Grand Valley State hosted for the first time.
Houseman Field, owned and operated by Grand Rapids Public Schools, is another popular track and field destination that has hosted some Meijer State Games events. Additionally, the Grand Haven Beach Vault on the shores of Lake Michigan has emerged as “a carnival of vaulting,” according to its website. Held every July, the event attracts vaulters of all ages and skill levels.
Organizers, which (again) include high school coaches from the area, also sponsor multiple vaulting events around western Michigan throughout the summer — including the “Street Vault” in Grand Rapids and the “Super Hero Vault” in Rockford.
Several years ago, a new track surface at Buchanan High School’s Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis drew comparisons to tracks at small colleges in California and helped convince the California Interscholastic Federation in 2009 to host the state track and field championship meet at a high school for the first time in more than 35 years.
The event, which attracts 16,000 attendees, has been held at Buchanan High ever since. In the process, it has become the largest sporting event held in the Fresno/Clovis area — itself a destination city for all kinds of sports because of its location in the middle of the state.
With seating for 10,000 and an all-grass field for non-running events, Veterans Memorial Stadium also has been approached by USATF to host even larger-scale events. “That says a lot about this facility,” Smith says, adding that Fresno State University bids on track and field events that, if secured, are hosted at Buchanan, too.
Jacksonville has hosted major track and field meets in the past, but previous successes don’t compare to what the city has lined up this year. “We are calling it the ‘Year of Track,’” says Patty Jimenez, leisure communications specialist for Visit Jacksonville.
The dark-blue track at Hodges Stadium at the University of North Florida will serve as host of four major events between April and July — beginning with the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Track & Field State Championships. Next comes the preliminary round of the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships in late May, followed by USATF’s USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships and the National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships, both in July.
With nine lanes and a lighted field with four horizontal jump pits, eight pole vault locations and multiple areas for each throwing event, Hodges Stadium is one of only a handful of facilities in the United States to be certified by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF).
On a more grassroots level, Jacksonville’s Raines High School remains the longtime home of the Bob Hayes Invitational Track and Field Meet. The annual event has become a tradition and is one of the largest one-day track meets in the country — attracting high school participants from all over the Southeast. Its namesake is the former Olympic sprinter and NFL wide receiver who grew up in Jacksonville and died there in 2002.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
JDL Fast Track, a private facility that opened in Winston-Salem in 2012, is forging new traditions. Already established as one of the Southeast’s premier indoor track and field facilities, JDL Fast Track features an eight-lane track, two pole-vault runways, two long/triple-jump runways, one high-jump area and one throw area.
As one of only two indoor track and field facilities in North Carolina, the award-winning facility is booked nearly every weekend between November and March. In February alone, JDL Fast Track hosted the North Carolina High School Athletic Association State Championships, the USATF Southeast Region Masters Indoor Championships and the indoor championships for at least three college conferences.
“JDL Fast Track has opened the door for new track and field business,” says Bonny Bernat, sports sales manager at Visit Winston-Salem. “It is a fantastic asset for bringing in new business to the destination and a great partner.”
Area track clubs help, too, providing a large local base of volunteers who are passionate about the sport.
“Winston-Salem’s solid volunteer base and strong community support are certainly key components in propelling us into an attractive destination for national track and field events,” Bernat says.
Birmingham officials can tell a similar success story. The multipurpose CrossPlex opened in 2011 with facilities designed for swimming, volleyball and track and field. The indoor 200-meter track is one of only six hydraulically banked tracks in the United States (and eight in the world). The banks can be raised or lowered in 10 minutes; the higher the banks, the faster the track. Elevated seating includes VIP suites.
“I don’t want to be boastful, but I really think it is one of the best facilities in the nation,” says David Galbaugh, director of sports and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The track has hosted more than 100 events, including the NCAA Division II Indoor Track & Field Championships earlier this year. The NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships are slated for 2016, with the Division III championships on tap for 2018. “Through our relationships with colleges and universities, we’re sending a message that we can host large meets,” Galbaugh says.
The CrossPlex also has welcomed college conference championships and invitationals, regional and national club-level championships, high school state championships and youth meets. The facility will be involved in activities when Birmingham hosts the National Senior Games in 2017 and the World Games in 2021, too.
Despite new facilities built with emerging cutting-edge technology like the hydraulic track in Birmingham, officials in Eugene will always consider 96-year-old Hayward Field to be the granddaddy of all tracks. After all, the 10,000-seat facility with a giant video screen was the site of the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships last July — the first time that event was held on U.S. soil.
The calendar of events for 2015 includes the annual Prefontaine Classic (part of the IAAF Diamond League circuit), the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships (which will stay in Eugene through at least 2021) and the USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
A healthy relationship with the Oregon Track Club is “super critical,” Ross says, adding that members serve in numerous volunteer capacities (including certified track and field officials, who otherwise would be hard to find). Last fall, Eugene, Cascades & Coast Sports also added a full-time group-housing manager, a position Ross says was driven by the region’s track and field livelihood.
Even locales that remain relatively unknown to track and field enthusiasts are making forays into the sports. Take Huntsville, Texas, the longtime home of politician and soldier Sam Houston.
Sam Houston State University’s York Track Complex at Bowers Stadium has hosted the 2014 and 2015 University Interscholastic League’s Conference 4A Region III track and field high school meet. The facility seats between 12,000 and 14,000 fans, and Kimm Thomas, director of tourism for the Huntsville Visitors Bureau, says she hopes the UIL events will help SHSU attract even larger track and field meets in the future.
After all, as demand for capable facilities increases, so too do the opportunities.