TrackTown USA

Hayward Field and I go back a few years

When I moved to Eugene from Idaho in 1988 to be a photographer at The Register-Guard, I traded photographing three baseball games a week for a track meet every day. This is only a slight exaggeration.  
But jokes aside, Eugene truly is TrackTown USA. 
When you think of the history of Hayward Field, the first names that come to mind are Bill Bowerman, Phil Knight and Steve Prefontaine, but the roots of track and field here in Eugene run much deeper. 
Credit for the popularity of the physical fitness concept of jogging in the United States probably goes to Bowerman, the legendary running coach at the University of Oregon and a co-founder of Nike, who discovered people so engaged on a trip to New Zealand, brought the idea back with him and published a pamphlet on the topic in 1966, but he found fertile ground for his message in the people who live here in Eugene.   

My first week on the job I covered the Twilight Meet at Hayward Field. Olympic distance runner Mary Slaney ran the 1,500 meters that night, her first return to the track after an injury in 1987. I had never been to a meet with more than a few hundred spectators in attendance before that day. I knew track and field was a big deal in Eugene, but nothing prepared me for the electricity that crackled in the air as she and other athletes competed in front of thousands on a beautiful spring evening in the Willamette Valley.  

I have come to know that tingly feeling well in the thirty plus years since. I have photographed everything from toddlers racing in diapers to Olympic athletes breaking world records on that track. My own daughters ran there many times during the weekly all comers meet on Wednesdays for many summers. I left my own DNA there in sweat and scrapes as I ran the “fat man’s 100 meters” in search of just the right angle for a photograph. Watching athletes give everything they have on the track inspired me to do the same as a photographer.  
There was a magic to the old rusty, dilapidated place that is hard to quantify. The beauty of the light spilling across the track as the setting sun peeked around the West Grandstands. The sound of enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans offering encouragement to distance runners passing by the East Grandstands by pounding on the loose sheet metal in front of them. The excitement — felt as much as heard — as the crowd rose to their feet in recognition of a fierce battle between competitors on the track. The sound — beginning as a distant rumble near turn four before growing into a deafening roar — as the pack of runners spread out across the lanes on the straightaway in their final all out kicks to the finish line. 

So, it was with sadness that I watched machines tear down the old grandstands in 2018. I realized then that I do not have what it takes to make such weighty decisions. Even with the knowledge that much of the hundred-year-old place was falling apart, if given the opportunity, I would have pleaded for some compromise that preserved part of it.  
All of that is behind us now of course. The old place is gone, replaced by a state-of-the-art facility that dominates the skyline near the University of Oregon. It is a truly amazing facility to behold. A marvel of human cleverness and engineering. Walking through the place offers a TrackTown USA history lesson. It is sobering to think that I have witnessed a big chunk of it with my own eyes.  
As I write, I have been making photographs in the new Hayward Field for two seasons now. I have made peace with the changes. The Oregon 22 World Athletic Championships helped me turn the page. I had fun exploring the new photo angles that the stands allow and noting how the light falls at different times of the day. But most importantly, I was reminded that the best part of the place has always been the relationship forged between the athletes and their fans. 

As I looked through my lens during the Oregon 22 last summer, I felt that tingle in my spine again. If the future of TrackTown USA is anything like the last 100 years, it will be an amazing story indeed and one worth telling. 

The magic of Hayward Field lives on.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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