Running Revives a City
Roger on Running: Running Revives a City
Reflections from Christchurch's International Track Meet
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
|Will Leer leads Lee Emanuel and Nick Willis in the New Balance men's 2-mile handicap race on Feb. 4 in Christchurch.|
The shot rose, curved down, and plunked into the grass. A big one. Silence.No one moved. All eyes were on the official with the two flags, one red, one white. A long pause. Then he raised the white flag. And 3,000 people around him burst into a huge triumphant cheer, filling the arena with acclaim.
“In a lifetime in track and field,” I said over the public address, as the crowd chortled, “I have never heard an official get a cheer like that.”
What did it mean?
It simple terms, it meant that after three out of his first four attempts got the red flag for foot faults, the brilliant young Jacko Gill had hit one right. He's the fresh-faced, big-boned New Zealand teenager who exploded from nowhere at age 15 to win the 2010 world junior championship for the shot put, displacing Usain Bolt as the youngest ever junior world champ.
On this day in Christchurch he was putting against (kind of) the towering, genial women's multiple world and Olympic champion Valerie Adams. All New Zealanders hope Gill will join Adams in shot put royalty, and 3,000 of them were sitting in attentive circles, right there on the grass around the shot area (at the invitation of Adams and the meet organizers) to watch the two perform.
|Olympic champion Valerie Adams gave the Christchurch crowd exactly what it needed.|
In less simple terms, the ebullient cheers for Gill (and the judge) meant that the people of Christchurch were determined to have a good time. They clapped in unison for Gill and Adams, they screamed wildly for Olympic 1500m silver medallist Nick Willis and the American friend who beat him, Will Leer, they whooped for the school relays, they even cheered the officials.
It was testimony to the resilient spirit of that poor earthquake-battered city that the Feb. 4 International Track Meet (ITM) was being held at all. A year ago this week — on Feb. 22, 2011 — the city fell, its track and field stadium was wrecked, 186 people were killed, including one prominent running coach, and the ITM scheduled four days later was inevitably canceled. [See Roger on Running, The Silver Lining of the Christchurch Quake, March 2011]. Since then, there have been more than 10,000 measurable aftershocks (that's more than one an hour, 24 hours a day, non-stop for a year), some the force of quite major quakes.
They have further damaged buildings, squeezed fetid grey liquefaction up from the earth into houses and streets, disrupted life, and put reconstruction on hold. Many people have left, schools share buildings, stores work from shipping containers, roads are rubble, ruined historic churches and modern multi-story hotels are being demolished, the cruise ships anchor in smoother harbors. Sports have struggled on as sports do, but the 2011 Rugby World Cup games planned for Christchurch were moved elsewhere, the unkindest cut of all.
Don't ask me to write without emotion about Christchurch. Early in my career, I lived happily there for six years, returned many times to race or as track announcer or university speaker, and this was my first return to the central city since the destruction of so many places that I knew and loved.
The city's people have declined to be traumatized. “We just want to get on with life,” one runner, who is about to become a father, told me. Under orders to carry key documents and his laptop whenever he leaves the office, he can no longer train by running to and from work as he used to. Every one adapts.
But they are starved of top-level sport. So the three running and track enthusiasts who created the ITM resolved, in spite of everything, to provide quality track and field again, and to stage it in central Christchurch, defy the quakes, not join the retreat to better facilities in safer cities. They found an atmospheric tree-lined grass cricket field where they could fit in a 300-something meter lap, in the English-style grounds of Christ's College, a private school only a half mile from the cordoned-off debris of the downtown. It was a courageous and inspired decision.
The grass was mowed to croquet-lawn perfection. The track was expertly surveyed. The announcer (me) was installed overlooking the track from the window of a third-floor classroom with Japanese phrases all over the blackboard. A nearby classroom block was a semi-ruin. Results came up to me by a bulldog clip on a long cord dangling out the window. This was not London's Olympic Stadium. But once Adams and Gill confirmed, glossy new concrete shot and discus circles were laid, precisely to IAAF specification.
And for the first time for many a decade, I saw crowds lining up for a track meet an hour before the gates opened.
|Nick Willis (center) chases Will Leer after passing Alex Parlane on the makeshift grass track in Christchurch.|
They came to cheer the new generation of New Zealand track and field heroes, who generously made their contribution to the city's recovery. They came to welcome the Americans, training in New Zealand with Willis, who made the meet “international.” And they came to celebrate an earlier achievement, the 50th anniversary of the day Peter Snell broke the world record for the 800m and 880 yards (1:44.3/1:45.1), in February 1962, on grass, on Christchurch's historic rugby and cricket ground, Lancaster Park — also now in ruins.
Snell could not make the journey from his home in Dallas, but sent a video, and others from that era were there. Bruce Tulloh ran the 3 miles against Murray Halberg in Christchurch in 1962, but a week earlier in a mile race in Wanganui (pronounced Fwonga-noo-ee) the impudent little Englishman, a distance man with no fast mile to his name, had rushed past Snell at the bell (350 to go) and provoked that mighty locomotive to full piston-power for maybe the first time. That world record went, too (3:54.4).
Tulloh spoke warmly to the crowds in Christchurch, describing those races in New Zealand 50 years ago as among the best moments of his life. His wife Sue recalls the simple telegram she received from an unlikely post office called Wanganui: “Broke 4.”
In Wanganui's jubilee celebration, five men broke 4 minutes: Will Leer (U.S.) 3:58.49, Nick Willis 3:58.81, Hamish Carson 3:59.11, Lee Emanuel (UK) 3:59.69, Malcolm Hicks 3:59.87. Leer was a four-time NCAA DIII champion while at Pomona College and the fourth-place finisher in the 1500m at the 2008 Olympic trials, while Emanuel was a two-time NCAA DI indoor mile champion while at New Mexico. Both have a handful of sub-4:00 efforts to their name. For Carson and Hicks, it was their first time under 4:00. They were as ecstatic as Tulloh 50 years before, although they sent texts, not telegrams. For Leer, Willis and Emanuel, training partners with coach Ron Warhurst in Ann Arbor, Mich., it was a hard work-out early in a long Olympic year, and a gesture to help the sport in Willis's home country.
They repeated the gesture in Christchurch, where they delighted the crowd again as they wove through the field in the New Balance Handicap 2 miles, starting 32 seconds behind the front markers (who included another American, the semi-retired Pat Tarpy). As Leer finally edged Willis and an intrusive local, Andrew Davidson (off 5 seconds), the crowd's response was a zestful reminder that true track is about racing.
Then the friends headed for hard training at Lake Wanaka, among the Southern Alps.
“The trails there make it the ultimate training destination, and the views are just unbelievable,” Willis reported.
“They had a fantastic week's training there,” said Leyton Tremain for the forward-looking ITM organizers. “In future years, we aim to attract good overseas runners to the ITM by co-ordinating competitive track racing with the opportunity of an outstanding summer-weather training location.”
Another hard-fought race, the Brian Taylor Memorial Women's 3,000m, did full honor to the coach who died in the quake. And I was reminded that by putting on a running event to affirm life in the face of death and destruction, we were following a very ancient tradition that goes back even beyond the funeral games of the ancient Greeks. It includes San Francisco's Bay to Breakers, which originated as a morale-booster after that city's disastrous 1906 quake, and the 1948 Olympic Games, which asserted London's survival and the world's recovery from World War II. (See the May 2012 issue Running Times for more on that.)
But our sport is never solemn. One local runner, Jim Macdonald, who ran in the 800/880 in 1962, remembered that he hoped to run a good time behind the pace of Snell and the two guest Americans, Jim Dupree and John Bork, so he gave his wife his stopwatch to time his finish, since only the first three would be officially recorded. Snell was magnificent, breaking the world 880 record by 1.7 seconds. Near the back, Macdonald reckoned he had run a PR, possibly even a break-through sub-1:50, and was eager for news when he saw his wife rushing over to him holding up the watch.
“Look!” she cried, excitedly showing him where she had stopped the time. “Snell ran 1:44!”
Roger Robinson has done many things in a lifetime in running, including racing for England and New Zealand, setting masters records at Boston and New York, being stadium announcer at two Commonwealth Games and serving on a national governing body (“but that was like Alcatraz,” he says). Most of his jobs involve finding words to describe or analyze running; he’s a TV and radio commentator, author of three successful books and senior writer for Running Times, for which he has won two U.S. journalism awards. “Roger on Running” appears monthly on runningtimes.com. Read all of Roger's articles here.