For two years, distance runner Josh DoBell has posed the question to Minnesota’s men’s track and field coaches like a 6-year-old pleading for a trip to Disney World:
When would the Gophers finally get to make a trip to Oregon’s Hayward Field?
To the casual observer, Minnesota’s trip to Eugene, Ore., on Saturday for the Pepsi Team Invitational with the Ducks, Washington and Colorado poses no special significance – it is just another line of type on a schedule full of faceless Relays, Classics and Opens.
But for DoBell, it’s a pilgrimage.
“Everybody’s talking about running there,” DoBell said. “It’s Tracktown, U.S.A. I went to a camp there in high school, and just going to Hayward Field is like visiting a temple.”
What Yankee Stadium is to baseball, the Ducks’ 84-year-old complex is to track and field.
The 10,000-seat stadium has hosted eight NCAA championships and three Olympic trials. It is commonly referred to as the “Carnegie Hall of track and field” – perhaps because Steve Prefontaine, possibly the
closest thing to a virtuoso in the history of American distance running, gave his greatest performances there.
Prefontaine, a seven-time NCAA track and cross country champion at Oregon from 1970-73, was the first man ever to win his event (the three-mile run) at the NCAA championships four consecutive years.
Since his death in a 1975 car accident, Prefontaine has become a cult hero for a generation of American distance runners.
And 28 years after Prefontaine’s last race, Minnesota’s distance crew still knows the stories:
ïPrefontaine’s first NCAA track championship, which came with 12 stitches in his foot.
ïHis ownership of every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters at the time of his death.
ïHis status as Nike’s first-ever signature athlete, running on shoes with soles that Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine’s coach at Oregon, fashioned with a waffle iron.
For the Gophers, motivation for Saturday is so easy to come by you might think they were lining up next to the legend himself.
“Prefontaine’s story has been told a gazillion times,” distance coach Steve Plasencia said. “I don’t have to say too much to them.”
The meet carries some extra significance for Plasencia, as well; Minnesota’s seventh-year coach earned a master’s degree from Oregon in 1987, and trained in Eugene for his berths in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.
“I still know a lot of people out there, so to take the guys out there is a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s some personal vanity for me.”
The Gophers, who finished eighth in the NCAA indoor championships, see Saturday’s meet as their first chance to prove themselves outdoors.
The meet will be scored – Minnesota’s first such competition of the outdoor campaign – and will give the Gophers stiff competition against the Ducks, who finished second in the Pac-10 last year, and Colorado, who placed ninth in the NCAA outdoor championships last year.
At least for one weekend, however, team success won’t be the only thing putting fuel in Minnesota’s engine.
“When I saw this meet on the schedule, I knew what it meant right away,” junior Will McComb said. “I’m really pumped to be out on that track.”
Ben Goessling covers track and field and welcomes comments at