When runners sing of the meccas of America (O Walt Whitman!), they hail Eugene, Ore., of course, and Boulder, Colo. But why not two cheers at least for Gainesville, Fla. as a part-time training site. If only at that sweet moment when winter slides into spring—the two weeks when the year's formal competition starts with, say, a triangular meet among host University of Florida, Princeton and Iowa, moves on to the Lady Gator Relays and climaxes with the Florida Relays in late March.
During that time swarms of northern high school and college athletes, fleeing the cold and snow, lope along Gainesville's sandy loops and asphalt bicycle paths, its roadsides and sidewalks. With a flight of white ibis flapping and gliding overhead, they circle the still waters of Lake Alice: running past the bulgy eyes of alligators and past anhingas, high in a dead tree, hanging out their wings to dry; past palms, longleaf pines and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss; past ponies and sheep in a hillside field, the forest insect lab, the red-brick frat houses and the weed science building.
But the heart of this vernal mecca is the university's green nine-lane Percy M. Beard Chevron 440 track, where brigades of athletes congregate for speed work. Speed is the name of the game, and never more so than after a long harsh winter up north. The track is open to the tolerant multitudes—joggers in the outside lanes, hard runners on the inside—almost all day, from moist and misty dawn to well into the night, when the oval is illuminated by the so-called jogging lights from four tall concrete pylons. The Florida varsity takes over the track for practice for about an hour and a half in the afternoon, but the open-door policy permits jogging up to an hour before a big meet and even the use of the track when, say, a decathlon competition moves to the pole vault.
"You'd be surprised," says Mike Bozeman, an assistant coach, "or maybe you wouldn't, at the use the track gets."
The best example of this easy democracy of running comes around 6 p.m. at that time of year when there's perhaps an hour's daylight left and it has become refreshingly cool. More than 100 boys and girls, men and women, go through their calisthenics and whirl out of the turns, their spikes making a whispery patter, their flats slapping on the Chevron surface. All the world seems to be hurdling and doing intervals—220s, 440s and 880s—accelerating coveys of sprinters running with great etiquette, nobody overrunning anybody else. It's a seamless exercise in preparation for the first big meet of the spring.
There's just time to fiercely sprint 10 quarters, with a jog-lap recovery between each quarter, and then cool down as that electric Southern night arrives and one set of lights on each pylon is magically turned on. The track becomes an emerald wonderland, the runners part of a chiaroscuro display, hurtling out of the shadowy turns into pools of light, rounding off their final efforts with a satisfying weariness, which means they're ready for the spring track season back home.
How did this track nirvana come to be?
The main creator was Jimmy Carnes, perhaps the leading figure in track and field in America. He was the coach who brought the University of Florida out of the running doldrums and the founder of the Florida Track Club (FTC). He's president of The Athletics Congress, and co-founder with fellow Gainesville resident Marty Liquori of the Athletic Attic chain of running stores. He was head coach of the ill-fated 1980 U.S. Olympic track team.
Carnes was coach at Furman University and went to Gainesville in 1964 to replace Percy M. Beard, after whom today's track is named. Carnes was 28 years old.
"It was like a dream come true," he says. "That beautiful weather. It's fantastic to get up early in the morning and not worry about freezing to death. Eugene, Boulder and Gainesville all have a super climate for guys to get together and train."
Soon after he arrived in Gainesville he put up a big sign: FLORIDA TRACK IS ON THE MOVE. To form and sustain the FTC, over the years he recruited 55 graduate student-athletes by advertising in Track & Field News, offering help in getting them assistantships at the university. In the mid-1960s, Carnes says, "There was no such thing as a track club in the South. The top athletes went to the West Coast to run."
His most significant recruit was Jack Bacheler, a tall (6'6‚Öù"), talented and thoughtful distance runner from Miami of Ohio. He arrived in September 1966 and wound up taking his Ph.D. in entomology at the university. Bacheler also contributed to the birth and growth of Florida track. "He had to be the magnet," recalls Carnes. "He was winning and winning and winning. When he made the [Olympic] team in '68, others wanted to come down. 'There's some magic down there,' they thought."
"It became a self-perpetuating thing," says Bacheler, who was a 5,000-meter runner in the '68 Games although he couldn't compete in the finals because he got dysentery. " 'Hey, this skinny guy made the Olympic team! Maybe this is a good place to train.' For a year and a half, at the start of the '70s, we were almost giddy with the way things worked out. It was hard to lose."
The Florida Track Club, with its distinctive logo, an orange on a white singlet, designed by Bacheler, became a cross-country powerhouse, winning the national championship in 1971.
Frank Shorter had arrived in Gainesville by then, looking for a suitable training site to see how good he really was at running, and also to attend law school. This was before Munich, the marathon gold and the days of glory; Shorter was living in a tacky trailer littered with running shoes and weights. Ken Misner and Jeff Galloway ran for the FTC from their base at Florida State, and other runners came from all over the country. Liquori also moved to Gainesville, but he kept running for the New York Athletic Club. In 1971, Carnes had the old all-weather track refurbished with the Chevron surface.
Still, even a super Gainesville booster like Carnes concedes that Florida summers, even its autumns, can be pretty warm.
Bacheler was instantly "kind of appalled at the heat. The advantages of the Gainesville scene were overstated for distance running. Julys in Gainesville, you jog two miles and you don't feel so good. For the first two years, I worked out essentially alone.
"It developed into a hotbed of distance running," Bacheler continues, but at times it was simply hot. "Frank [Shorter] used to bolt to altitude [in Colorado], the smartest thing," as soon as the weather turned really warm.
Bacheler and Shorter became friends, creating a minor controversy by intentionally tying for first place in some races. All the runners, though, provided what Bacheler recalls as "the chemistry of it." Both Bacheler and Shorter made the 1972 Olympic team in the marathon; Shorter also made it in the 10,000 meters, along with Galloway. Shorter won the marathon and Bacheler finished ninth. In the 10,000, Shorter finished fifth but Galloway didn't make the finals.
The '72 Olympics signaled the beginning of the end of the golden era of Gainesville running. Bacheler got his degree and now recalls, "It was time to get on." He moved to North Carolina State, where he's an associate professor and coach of Julie and Mary Shea, the longdistance runners. Shorter graduated from law school in 1974 and now lives in Boulder.
Roy Benson, a half-miler at Dartmouth who was attracted by Carnes's ads, arrived in 1970 as an assistant coach and succeeded Carnes as head coach in 1976. Of the big-name runners that once populated the track, Benson says, "They all grew up and went to work for a living." Benson has watched the FTC change from an elite organization into a broad-based runners' club.
Gainesville's easy-running ambience still flourishes. Indeed, there has been a quantum leap in the number of joggers around town in recent years. Even the Hare Krishnas, chanting, cymbaling, drumming and hopping around in their little dance at the corner of West University and Northwest 13th, are wearing running shoes.
And then there are the "seasonal" runners. The northern winters and what a high school coach calls the "temperamental" early springs have driven many competitors South. For example, Coach Frank (Stretch) Longstreth, 61, of Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, has taken his boys' track teams to train at Gainesville during spring vacations for no fewer than 30 years. A tall, exuberant, white-haired former Princeton half-miler, Longstreth, who is also a Latin teacher, used to drive the 945 miles from Ohio in 17 hours straight, taking his team in two vans. But lately he has stopped overnight in Charlotte, N.C., so the boys could be in shape to run the second day.
Longstreth's kids not only get a wonderful chance to train—working out on the often fog-shrouded track at 7 a.m., with a distance run in the afternoon—but are officially listed as the "hurdle crew," helping during the relay meets.
After years of scrounging free sleeping space from the university—for about five years the Western Reserve boys spread out their sleeping bags under the press box at the football stadium—Longstreth was forced to pay for lodging last spring. Not much, though, as he wangled a deal from a nearby motel—seven kids to a room, a total of 20 students for a princely $51 a night. One morning Longstreth gathered his team on the sidelines before running time trials. He sweetly growled at them, as is his wont, in a rhetorical question-and-answer session.
"What's the point of the time trials?" he asked.
"To learn how to handle pressure," he answered himself.
Then he yelled in their faces: "That's what life's all about!" Lesson for the morning.
Longstreth enthusiastically trotted around the track, overseeing practice, letting all his runners know their splits.
"More arms!" he shouted as a sprinter whirled around the turn. Then he pointed out to me a gutsy little distance runner who was also in his Vergil class.
I've been to Gainesville three times in the past 11 years, the last two with my son Frankie. When he was a high school freshman and ran a 4:58 mile, breaking five minutes for the first time, he had said with a naive dreamer's confidence, "Only 58 seconds to go."
Last spring, when he was a senior in high school, he tried a hard 440-yard repeat workout in Gainesville with three runners from St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, D.C. and was blown away. He never gave up, though eventually he lagged far behind. At the weary end, he said he was determined to beat them someday.
On another morning, he was doing 880-yard repeats, his head high, his eyes staring intently straight ahead at some distant vision of the future.
I don't know if he saw that he would run a 4:20 mile in the last meet of the spring, but that was his goal. For Frankie and all the other runners, that green track in Gainesville was part of a profound conspiracy of effort and dreams.