Big draws to a blazing track

This past weekend, the USATF Outdoor Championships came to Sacramento. The championships—always fun to watch—also served as the trials to select the US team going to London for the World Championships later this summer.

My husband and I were looking forward to the event until the weather forecast began promising triple digits three of the four days, including a high on Thursday of 110. (Sunday’s high was a relatively cool 97 degrees. Ugh.)

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you know my husband and I love watching track, and I especially love capturing photos of great moments in the competition. But because of the heat, even in the evenings, I left my good camera at home and had to rely on my cell phone’s not-so-great camera. Saturday’s and Sunday’s races took place mid-day, and my phone stayed in my bag. My hands were full of sno-cones, water, and a little misting fan. The relentless sun might have fried my phone anyway. It almost fried me.

Several races were almost as hot as the track, including the men’s 5,000 meters where Paul Chelimo (who runs for the US Army World Class Athlete Program and went to college in North Carolina) took the lead from the gun and won in convincing fashion. One of my favorite runners, Ryan Hill (below, right) of the Bowerman Track Club and a North Carolina native, took third in the men’s 5,000.

The winners of the 5,000 meters men’s race

I love seeing athletes cheer for and support other athletes. Evan Jager, the silver medalist in Rio last year in the men’s steeplechase, stood a few rows down from me to cheer for Hill. He gave him a thumb’s up and then clapped as Hill received his medal.

Evan Jager cheers on teammate Ryan Hill

Perhaps the most poignant story of the weekend focused on Gabe Grunewald, who is fighting cancer for the fourth time in eight years. She ran Thursday night in the women’s 1,500 meters. At the end of the race, the competitors gathered around Grunewald in a huddle (not your typical post-race activity where the winners give interviews trackside and do a victory lap, and the non-winners head off to change). You can see Grunewald here in pictures 3 and 4, and she’s in the huddle in photo 5.

As happens at just about any national track meet, this year held its share of retirements. It gets a little harder for me each year, because more and more of the athletes are ones I’ve cheered for years.

This year’s retirement announcements included 400-meter hurdler Bershawn “Batman” Jackson, who strode out onto the track to wave goodbye to his fans one last time. He’s had a long career in terms of track, winning a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. Maybe it was sweat he was wiping from his eyes as he waved to us. But I think it was probably tears. It was hard to tell from my own blurry eyes.

Here’s Batman in happier times, after he made the 2015 World Championship team:

Bershawn “Batman” Jackson in 2015

A track snob is born?
I didn’t realize until this weekend I’m a track snob. I mean, the actual track and surrounding stands. The majority of my track experiences have been in Eugene, Ore., at Hayward Field. The track is beautiful, as is the field. There are always flowers at the water jump for the steeplechase. Officials are organized. Fans are knowledgeable, loud, and fun.

The weather isn’t always great in Eugene. It can be humid. I’ve sat through torrential downpours there and blazing heat, too. But the permanent stands have covers, and so there’s shade for many of the spectators at some point during each day’s events.

The blazing heat in Sacramento contributed to a sad, sad sight Thursday night. By the final event of the night (the men’s 10,000 meters), here’s how the east stands looked:

Too-empty stands at the USATF Outdoor Championships this year

But I don’t think the heat can take the full blame for lackluster attendance. And I probably shouldn’t blame the surly sno-cone sellers, either. (I might be surly, too, if I had to shave blocks of ice in the heat all day.)

There was little buzz in the Sacramento community leading up to the championships. The Sacramento Bee gave almost no coverage to the event in Thursday’s or Friday’s papers, amping up only a little more each day through Monday, when its main article talked about why Sacramento would make a great place for the 2020 Olympic Trials. It felt like too little, too late.

USATF’s board of directors had been actively weighing three host options for 2020: Sacramento (who most recently hosted the trials in 2000 and 2004), Eugene (2008, 2012, 2016), and Mt. Sac in Walnut, CA (1968). Each location gave a final pitch to the board in Sacramento on Sunday. The board’s announcement came today: Mt. Sac.

I know the Sacramento organizers will be bitterly disappointed by this news, but while they can’t do anything about the weather, they can take a page from Eugene’s playbook and look at their operations, their organization, how important the event is to the community, and how inviting they can be to the athletes, their families, and the fans.

I don’t know how Mt. Sac will stack up against Eugene. (I’ll let you know in 2020.) But I confess I’m a bit relieved it’s not coming back to Sacramento yet. There’s work still to do to make Sacramento a more welcoming place for such an important track and field event.

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