Sensory Overload at the Indoor Track Championships
“Excuse me sir, but before I can let you in, I need to know that you possess the multi-tasking capacity necessary to fully assimilate this meet.”
Then again, I’m glad they don’t test. Because based upon my early performance at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, I would flunk.
Walking in the door at the Albuquerque Convention Center, I was reminded of opening weekend of the fantasy football season, when each year without fail, I would freeze immediately upon entering my local sports bar – and then meander around aimlessly in search of the ideal seat for simultaneous viewing of every game in which one of “my guys” was playing. An aerial shot of me would look like one of those Family Circus cartoons with the big dotted line showing where Jeffy or P.J. had scampered off to that day, bless their annoying little hearts.
I’m not ashamed to admit it – the Indoor Championships overwhelmed me. What to look at…what to look at…what to look at? Everywhere there were people running, jumping over bars, throwing things. And that was just the event production team.
Fortunately I had purchased a ticket in advance. And thankfully it was one with a specified section, row and seat number on it, because left to my own devices I’d probably still be wandering around. I quieted my synapses just long enough to locate my assigned seat, and spent the next several minutes hoping that my head wouldn’t involuntarily start doing an Exorcist 360 degree thing.
Then, out of nowhere, SHE appeared: The Angel of Programs. Little did the girl working the grandstand that day know that she could have charged me $4,780 for the simple 18-page viewer’s guide. Or that she saved my brain from exploding. Because now I had coherent information on what, where and when.
Which dovetailed nicely with my other secret weapon.
I highly recommend that everyone with either a genuine love of sports or a neurotic need to see 50 different sports in one year go out and get themselves a track and field consultant. Mine is the RV Goddess, who has been on the IGTS “payroll” (I use the term loosely here) since the Pac-10 Combineds, aka Event # 11. In the days leading up to these Indoor Championships, she fed me a steady stream of informational tidbits – one of which was that the legendary Bernard Lagat would be competing. A few days later, another missive clued me in that Lagat would be joined and challenged by young Olympian distance-running sensation (and Oregon Duck alum) Galen Rupp. “Expect a new US 3000m by Lagat,” came the advisory.
Now I knew what to look for, and where to find it. And as luck would have it, it would play out right in front of me.
Lo and behold, I had arrived in town just in time for a stretch of prime events. And I was seated in the heart of the home stretch of the track, just 50 yards from the finish line. Warming up just in front of me were the athletes about to compete in the Women’s 3,000 Meter race – the first “final” of the Championships.
So despite multiple events being contested all over the venue, I managed to focus exclusively on what was expected to be a spirited duel between Sara Hall and Jenny Barringer Simpson. At the Boston Indoors earlier in the month, both women had posted times that were within the top ten of American performances thus far this year. The reality of the race matched the expectation, as Simpson called on a strong closing kick to win by just 1.7 seconds over Hall.
That just warmed up the track though, as the next event was the much-anticipated Men’s 3000 Meter race – and my first exposure to American track royalty.
Originally from Kenya, but now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Bernard Lagat holds somewhere between 6 and 1,238 indoor and outdoor American distance running records. That’s in addition to a record eight victories in the legendary Wanamaker Mile. And he had come to Albuquerque specifically to be a part of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. At least that’s what the RV Goddess told me.
Even if I had no prior idea of who Lagat was, I would’ve known that something big was about to happen, because the buzz in the building ratcheted itself up a couple dozen notches when the large field for the Men’s 3000 appeared and began loosening up. By the time the starting gun went off, everyone was on their feet – and nothing else in the building mattered.
As expected, Lagat and Rupp went out strong, joined by Aaron Braun from neighboring Colorado. Before long it was a three-man race, which it remained for several laps, as the noise level mounted. Here’s how it ended…
It wasn’t the new U.S. record that everyone had hoped for, but it was great theatre – as was the manner in which Lagat greeted and interacted with his fans and the media following the race. After an engaging interview on the awards platform (which appeared to charm even runner-up Rupp), Lagat gave an autograph and a few words to each and every person who asked.
As for me, I was all revved up and ready for more action. But there was just one little thing. From where I sat there wasn’t a whole lot of action to be readily had. For the first time since my arrival, I sat back and took a long look at my surroundings.
The event’s production was much different than I had envisioned when I first put an indoor track & field event on the IGTS schedule. Had I stopped to think about it previously, I would have reached the obvious conclusion that no sports arena in existence would enable organizers to stage an event of this complexity without a heavily customized build-out. And the fact that it was being conducted in a convention center hall meant that virtually everything had to be specially configured – including the seating. There were no bleachers to pull out – no permanent or semi-permanent seating in place upon which to build.
So they started from scratch, and for reasons that I’m sure were germane to this particular facility, the main grandstand consisted of bleachers that were more “deep” than “steep”. This low-rise angle put more seats at or very near ground level, which doesn’t translate well into bird’s eye or distance viewing. As I sat there contemplating this, I was looking out beyond the track’s home stretch at – in successive order of distance from me – the awards ceremony platform, the high jump pit, the sprint race lanes, the triple jump lane and pit, and the pole vault area. All of which were at just about the same viewing angle.
It was time to go mobile.
I abandoned my cushy reserved seat and went exploring. And in doing so found a remote area that had been set up to facilitate competition in the shot put and the “weight throw” – the women’s version of which just happened to be taking place when I came by.
I could swear that what they were calling the weight throw used to be called the “hammer throw”, and if so, it’s really too bad that they changed the name. For had they not done so, I could’ve made at least one bad joke about “hammer” rhyming with “glamour”, given the Superwoman-esque costume worn by Loree Smith of the New York Athletic Club.
After watching this event to its completion, I took in some of the Men’s Triple Jump as a nightcap. But I left the building thinking that I had missed something – like I had had “clicker control” of the television remote all evening and had been constantly on the wrong channel at the wrong time.
I vowed to do better during the next day’s festivities.
Even the best of Sports Fans struggle at times. We can’t always bring our “A” spectating game, and when presented with a complex multi-faceted event like the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships…well let’s just say I wasn’t proud of my Day One performance.
Over breakfast the next day, I called a Sports Fans-only meeting with myself to hash it out. After some clearing of the air, I/we embraced the difficult realization that no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to see everything at a track and field meet. The entire “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour crew agreed to put the previous day behind us, and to arrive at the Albuquerque Convention Center committed to a New Plan.
The New Plan had two key components. One, my reserved seat ticket had to be traded in for what I like to call a Custom VIP SRO Package. This essentially meant that I would spend the day pretty much anywhere in the venue other than in the reserved seat I had purchased in advance. And if that meant loitering in areas otherwise designated for coaches, friends and families, well so be it. I was willing to make that sacrifice.
The second component was a sincere vow to not get distracted. I would immerse myself in a select group of particularly compelling, accessible events, and intersperse drive-by’s or look-ins at other events only when opportunities presented themselves.
The New Plan was easy at first. One of the first fans to arrive, I staked out a comfortable, if not exactly sanctioned position along the far rail of the track. This afforded me a great view of the Men’s Long Jump competition. While unfortunately most of the country’s top male long jumpers, including LSU’s Damar Forbes (of the as-yet-undiscovered Jamaican branch of the Sports Fan family tree), were not present at the Indoor Nationals, the event did have one undeniable spectating advantage – it was the only one going on at the time.
And in all seriousness, I find the long jump compelling for the almost mystical place that it occupies in sports history. I had vague recollections as a kid of the utter amazement that accompanied delivery of the news that Bob Beamon had long-jumped 29’ 2 ½” at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
In a sport of inches, he had shattered the world record by nearly two feet, out jumping even the limits of the optical measurement device in place at the Games. One of my earliest enduring memories of the Olympics is the replay of Beamon collapsing to his knees when an official translated meters to feet for him and he realized the enormity of his achievement. That memory ran through my head as I gazed out to the landing pit and realized just how far 29’ 2 ½” is.
I became hypnotized by the rhythm of the long jump competition, as I often do at track and field events. Watching one superbly trained athlete after another effortlessly do things that would put me in traction is fascinating by itself, but what is mesmerizing is watching them in turn strain for that extra inch or two that becomes the difference between winning and losing. It’s a little like watching successive waves crest on the beach.
JaRod Tobler was the first wave to break, at 24’ 8”, followed by Chaz Thomas at 24’ 9”. No sooner did that wave recede, then Jeremy Hicks set a new high-water mark of 24’ 9 ¾”. Into the fifth round we went, where Tobler became the first to jump 25’, only to see that distance eclipsed again by Hicks’ winning jump of 25’ 2”.
Throughout all of this I had remained rooted to my quasi-legal viewing spot, even though action had started to pick up all over the venue. “This is The New Plan,” I had reminded myself. “You’re enjoying this immensely, so why get distracted?”
Then of course, came word came over the P.A. system that Jillian Camarena-Williams had just broken a 24-year old American record in the Women’s Shot Put. This slice of history happened just 100 yards from me, but out of my line of sight. Doh! Stupid “New Plan”.
Despite that disappointment, I reminded myself that my current position offered a double bonus – an unobstructed view of the entire runway and pit for the Women’s Pole Vault event. This was important because in crafting The New Plan, I had vowed to see as much as possible of track and field’s marquee names. And warming up less than 20 feet away from me was American record-holder and undisputed pole vault queen, Jenn Suhr.
Of all of the sports that I’ve witnessed that I couldn’t possibly succeed at, pole-vaulting is way up there on the list. The more you watch, the more you realize how many individual discrete actions there are in the performance of a vault – and how easily the whole thing can come apart in the absence of perfect execution of each. But the payoff! That feeling of knowing that you just pulled off a successful vault has got to be one of the big adrenaline rushes in sports.
Early in the competition, there were no adrenaline rushes for Jenn Suhr. Because to get the thrill of clearing the bar, she would’ve had to have taken off her warm-ups and given it a try.
The first height of the competition was 13’ 7 ¼”. Like several others, Suhr passed at that level. No use wasting your efforts at a height you know you’ll clear with ease. She liked that strategy so much, she used it when the bar was set at 13’ 11 ¼”. And 14’ 3 ¼”. And 14’ 5 ¼”. Etc, etc, etc.
By the time Suhr made her first attempt, half the field had been eliminated. She took her first vault at 14’ 11”, and cleared it easily. The warm-ups went back on. Her next jump was at 15’ 3”, which she made look easy. And in doing so, she won the event. Every other competitor had failed to clear that height in their allotted three attempts. In sum, Suhr’s day to that point consisted of two vaults, two easy clears and a victory – over an elite American field that included 2010 champion Lacy Janson.
But now the fun was just getting started.
Suhr requested that the bar be nudged up to 15’ 7”. And at that height the unthinkable happened. She actually knocked the bar down. Twice. I think she was just toying with us at that point though, because on her third and final attempt at that height, it looked like there was a whole lot of air between her and the bar. What do you think?
The next height increment was 15’ 9”. Suhr passed. She was thinking about her own American record of 15’ 10”. She asked for the bar to be set at 15’ 11 ¼”, which appeared to cause the meet officials some considerable indigestion. They talked it over. They set the bar. They talked it over again. And finally they cleared Suhr to jump…and miss.
At this point in the story another unthinkable likelihood was beginning to emerge – namely, that I was going to miss my plane. The drama of this competition had gone on for quite some time. Enough time in fact, for me to have wandered around and grazed a bit on other events.
From the one small section of bleachers which was actually well-oriented for bird’s eye viewing, I saw Kellie Wells run the year’s 8th fastest Women’s 60 Meter Hurdles time in the world – much to her own amazement and delight.
I witnessed at ground level the blazing speed of the Men’s 60 Meter Dash and the effortless grace of the runners in the Women’s 400 Meter Run as they glided by.
Unfortunately, I also witnessed my watch, telling me that I had to go – because Southwest Airlines doesn’t care much if you’re enthralled by track and field. They were going wheels-up in just about an hour, and I was still inside the Albuquerque Convention Center, unable to pull myself away from Suhr’s drama.
I shouldn’t have even stayed to see her first attempt and miss, but now I was contemplating hanging around for another try. The officials were convening again, and I really, really had to get going. But this I had to see.
By the time the bar hit the pit on Suhr’s second attempt, I was already jogging toward the exit. I turned that into a full sprint up the street to my car. Fortunately I’d picked up some tips on maximizing automotive speed at the NHRA Winternationals, which I employed on the way to the airport. No time to gas up the rental…I paid Budget’s quite reasonable $78.94 per gallon refueling charge. I made my flight.
And wouldn’t you know it…after I had waited as long as I possibly could, sometime shortly after I left the building, Jenn Suhr cleared 5’11 ¼”, setting a new American record and winning the event by over a foot. Which pretty well sums up my relationship with track and field – no matter what I get a chance to see, I’m always left wanting more.