For almost as long as I have been a distance runner, I have wanted to visit Eugene. There are several reasons: Eugene is the place where legendary runner and US Olympian Steve Prefontaine came to prominence; it is home to Hayward Field, the hallowed track stadium at the University of Oregon that has hosted numerous U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials and other significant track meets; and it is the birth place of Nike. Beginning in the Fall of 1990, the great Kiza Brunner, friend, former college teammate, dorm room neighbor and Eugene native, has been inviting me, encouraging me, haranguing me, and imploring me to visit. In fact, a few years ago Kiza sent me a large poster advertising the Prefontaine Track Classic; another year she sent me a very cool t-shirt with Pre’s picture on it. Her persistence paid off last year. We planned on visiting the Redwoods National Forest and planned to fly into Portland and drive south to California. Our return trip provided us the opportunity to visit Eugene and I looked forward to that part of the trip.
We arrived in Eugene on a Saturday in early September. When we checked into the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Downtown University, I knew things were different in this town: every member of the hotel staff was wearing Oregon football shirts in celebration of the team’s win earlier that day over Fresno State. Our hotel was just a block or two away from the University of Oregon campus and it became clear to me immediately that this town LOVES sports and its teams. In virtually every store or restaurant we went into, there were posters advertising various U of O sports teams. Having attended a Division 1 college where, outside the athletic department, sports were in large part ignored and marginalized, it was a very different atmosphere than what I experienced.
After checking into our room we headed out to grab a quick bite to eat. We settled on the Wild Duck Café on Villard Street, a sports bar across the street from campus that was festooned with a large picture of Pre and had yummy burgers and fries and was kid-friendly. Next we strolled around the campus, which is what I was really excited to do. Within minutes we reached Hayward Field. Sitting in the middle of campus, surrounded by academic buildings, dorms and other campus buildings, it was obvious to me that the University embraces Hayward Field and its long and storied track & field program (in contrast, the track/football stadium at my college was over a mile away from campus, in a residential area, with no other campus buildings in sight – emblematic of the insignificant status sports teams occupied). Although the stadium was locked and empty, it was exciting just peering in and seeing the famous grandstand, in front of which so many great athletes had competed. There was a plaque adorning the entrance to the stadium, which chronicled the legendary U of O track coaches over the years: Bill Hayward, Bill Bowerman, Bill Dillinger. Adjacent to Hayward field is a large practice field where Finnegan and Declan decided to do strides, possibly preparing for a future Pre Classic in 20 years or so.
Our tour of the university continued as we strolled through other parts of the campus. For some reason Jennifer and I still both enjoy touring college campuses, even though we have been out of school for many years. There is an energy that you only get on a college campus and we both enjoy seeing different colleges (in fact, on this trip we also visited Oregon State in Corvallis). By the time our boys are ready to look at colleges, there is a good chance we’ll have already visited many schools on their lists. Finnegan loved touring the University of Oregon and at various intervals he declared, “I want to go here!” or “I want to live here!” While I do not think his statements can be construed as an official declaration of intent, nor did he sign any thing to that effect while in Eugene, I shared his enthusiasm for the school. While it can be argued that there are older and more historic schools with better academic reputations, I was very impressed with the campus and the overall vibe of the town, and that is coming from someone who has been on many college campuses.
While we planned to do even more exploring the next day, it rained so we decided to head back to Portland where we had an evening flight to catch. We did a little sight-seeing by car, but that is not the same. Sadly we missed out on further exploration of Eugene (because walking around in the rain with two children was not an option). Ironically, twenty-three years after putting the bug in my ear that my life would not be complete without a trip to Eugene, my friend Kiza had a medical emergency that rendered her unavailable for a visit. Perhaps with her giving me a guided tour of her hometown I would have been even more impressed, but I doubt it because the city had me from the moment we arrived. Put simply Eugene is my kind of town: progressive, fitness-conscious and with a very cool love of track & field. What more could you want?