The Race at Jesuit
SQUALLS of rain hammered against the windshield of my truck as I raced southeast down I-5 by the small town of Kalama along the Columbia River. The weather didn’t bode well. But off to the south, across the river toward where I imagined Beaverton to be positioned there was a large clear opening in the storm and what even looked like a sun break.
I was hurrying to Jesuit High School to see a large regional invitational track meet that promised to host some of the best high school athletes of Oregon and Washington, including runners from South Eugene. The Girl’s Elite 1500 Meters was the item on the evening’s schedule I most wanted to see. I knew I wasn’t going to make the start of the meet, but now after five hours of driving there was also the issue, besides the questionable conditions, of whether I would be able to negotiate Portland’s cross-town traffic in time to even make the girl’s race. And I still had to pick up my brother along the way.
THE trip to Jesuit was the latest in a series of excursions I had been making back to Oregon. Earlier in the winter I had traveled back to Eugene to visit with Jeff Hess. Hess is the fifth generation distance coach for South Eugene – fifth, that is, in a lineage of former Harry Johnson athletes to lead the team, forming an almost unbroken link from 1970 to the present day. Jeff is also still the national high school record holder in the 3000 meter steeplechase, a performance that has not been bettered since 1979. And Jeff and I are also close friends, having been teammates throughout almost our entire running carriers – first at Roosevelt Junior High, then at South, and then, after my two years at the University of Oregon, in Tucson when I transferred to join him at the University of Arizona.
I had traveled to Eugene to look at old records and files, and get a chance to see some of Jeff’s new crop of very notable distance runners. It was a chance for me to see my friend working within his element, get a feeling for the obviously close relationship he had with his athletes, and meet some of them in person. And an interesting part of it for me was that I would get to watch them do one of our old workouts – 4 x stepdown miles followed by 6 x cutdown 300 meters. This was a workout that, in our day, Harry had termed “VH” – meaning “Very Hard”. According to Jeff many elements of the old training system had been eclipsed over the years by new approaches and techniques, but a few of the traditional workouts remained.
Jeff was in the old glass windowed coach’s office just inside the entry to the boy’s locker room, sitting at a laptop near the door. While he compiled splits from the last workout and scanned emails he kept up a conversation with me and at the same time answered a string of inquiries coming from kids popping their heads in the door prior to the workout. This appeared to be a normal multi-task moment.
Erin Clark, the previous spring’s surprise sophomore 3000 meter state champion in track, stopped by. Although her victory at the state meet had been an upset win over the previous champion it was not actually a surprise to those who know her. It was more like following a family tradition - her aunt, Kathy Hayes, was a multiple state champion in cross country and track in the early ‘80’s, and was still the University of Oregon record holder at a number of distances. With long blond hair held back in a ponytail, engaging eyes and a quick, wide smile, she has become a solid leader in Jeff’s program. We chatted for a minute and I found that apparently she also spends time – probably significant time – participating during the winter on the ski team. I was a bit amazed Jeff allowed this, but his policy, quite different than Johnson’s back in our day, is to express his preference (he would prefer she didn’t) while allowing the athlete to decide for themselves. Since she is an excellent skier who is among the top echelon of competitors in the state she has chosen to stick with both sports.
A runner came in because someone had no shorts. I amused myself imagining what Harry’s response to such a situation would have been – likely a burst of amicable derision. But Jeff, seemingly accepting the scatterbrained and over-scheduled life of the modern teenager as a given, quickly searched around and found a pair of what looked like oversized basketball shorts and handed them over without a hint of retribution.
We hurried up to gather items and jogged off to the track to catch the runners as they were finishing their warm-up. They were doing strides up and down along the front straight, mostly stripped down and just about ready to go. As we approached the group coalesced around Jeff like a small flock of birds settling, suddenly taking form. I hung back while he very briefly explained the workout.
As would be customary with the program the athletes already knew what they are being tasked with, each having been provided with personalized workout sheets laying out their entire program in approximately two week increments, and only needed a few words of clarification about what was expected in the execution of the intervals. There were a few final strides. One of the boys, Joe Holvey, asked Jeff, “What’s the cut down?” Jeff replied “10”, and without hesitation Holvey, along with the whole group, turned and stepped to the line, the chatter settled and all of a sudden a tense inner focus was palpable. There was a slight pause and Jeff simply said “go”, and they took off.
After the first mile, without any organizational or even verbal effort, the runners broke into groups according to their assignments to complete the remainder of the workout. As in most all South Eugene interval workouts the rest periods are precisely timed just as are the running segments, so it’s necessary to group up with others of similar ability. Erin Clark’s first mile was 6:10, exactly on her prescribed pace to the second. Working off two stopwatches and using a progressive layout of times pre-written out on a recording sheet to aid in the process of quickly marking down results, Jeff called out and recorded splits for half a dozen groups spread around the whole track. Carson, one of the boys, had a second mile at 5:00 after starting off at 5:29 – far too big of a cut-down. “That was too fast – I told you guys that”, said another runner as the boys monitored their effort themselves without Jeff seeming to feel the need to exert control.
As the second mile finished most of the team seemed to be just getting winded. The first mile in these workouts is gauged to be a fully manageable effort, and the second should achieve a strong tempo that might be a few ticks bit swifter than assigned for a threshold level multi-mile control run. But now, as each mile was stepped down by another ten seconds, the workout’s design began to tighten the screw.
Erin came across the line, lithe and buoyant after the second mile, and immediately stopped to bend and stretch a tight calf without a hint of fatigue. Recognizing that I was witnessing a performance by one of the nation’s best girl distance runners I said to Jeff, “She’s remarkable”. “You should she her when she’s with the other two”, he replied. The other two he referred too, both not present on that day, were senior Kouba, a tall and powerful runner who was the previous year’s state meet 800 meter runner up by only a half a meter, and freshman sensation Sara Tsai. Despite her youth, and the fact that she was still fully involved with soccer, the diminutive Tsai had challenged for the state championship in cross country, missing the title by only one second down the home straight. Clark had been just a few strides behind in third.
A runner took off for the third interval with a determined sprint. Jeff immediately yelled, “Finish hard, start off smart – not too fast”. Without notes, he remembered each off-the-cuff directive he had given earlier to runners who had passed by the office, and reinforced the instructions. “That’s two, you’re done”, he said to one runner who had previously been told to limit his workout just as he was about to try to get off the line for a third interval. If it could be said that Jeff had a theme to his training philosophy it might be “control”. Training an athlete to understand his or her limits and abilities, and be able to exercise full control in executing the desired effort is Jeff’s way to prepare that athlete to know confidently then how to lay the full measure of their ability on the line at the moment it truly counts. It is a philosophy born from years of experience, and constitutes what could be seen as a cornerstone of the Axemen training tradition. After the final mile they all walked or staggered in small groups, hands on hips, to the start of the opposite straight.
The six 300 cut-downs, each two seconds faster than the last, finished up the workout, with runners streaming across the line calling out their own splits in rapid succession and Jeff recording them as fast as he could write. Afterwards back in the office Jeff compiled all the results on the computer while runners again wandered in and out getting post workout feedback. Niki Jin, a team captain and the number seven girl on the cross country squad had hit every interval, and every lap split, of her entire workout exactly to the second and seemed especially pleased. In fact, executing the challenge presented by the workout, a higher level of effort than almost any other exercise she would receive over the next two weeks, yet completely within her prescribed capabilities seemed to have left her with a centered and joyful calm. She stood in the doorway, briefly a bit speechless. “How did that feel”, Jeff asked. With fatigue and endorphins mixed to a level that didn’t allow words to form rapidly she simply stuttered out, “I’m happy to be good”, smiling broadly with obvious satisfaction.
WE were driving slowly in a suburban neighborhood of Beaverton heading to Jesuit High School, guided by what felt like just a gut feeling about direction. My brother Bill insisted though that this was a short cut. By the time I had reached his house in Lake Oswego I had passed through the worst of the rain storm, but the cross town traffic at rush hour had been painfully slow, and at this point we weren’t sure we would make it on time.
About when I had begun to assume we were lost we suddenly arrived at the school. Entering the stadium I was met with the sight of what could be accomplished by a track and field powerhouse high school set down in a very affluent neighborhood, and in the same town as Nike’s flagship headquarters. The track and field facilities at Jesuit High School would be the envy of any small college. A huge open-air concrete grandstand with multiple bathrooms and large concession booths overlooked a state of the art all-weather track, just resurfaced the summer prior in bright blue, with the infield boasting a full complement of jump pits, runways, and trainer’s tents, and the whole scene teaming with hundreds of athletes. This was a far better set up than Jeff and I had available to us even back at the University of Arizona, and it was light years beyond the simple set of bleachers set by the finish line of a curbless black rubberized asphalt oval and one small metal equipment shed that we had back in the 1970’s at South Eugene.
Everything was wet from the passing storm, but the rain had let off completely now, the clouds had rolled back, the field lights were on, and in the east a large moon was rising in the early twilight in a clear sky. After the trepidation I had felt about the weather it turned out that the timing seemed perfect, with the atmosphere cleared and the evening air lightened in that way that promises a fast effort. Having just missed the earlier 1500 meter heat, where we found out later South’s Phacelia Cramer had just completed a very solid PR (personal record) performance, we settled into some seats, wet metal benches so typical of the spectator’s experience at an Oregon spring track meet. After all the rush we had found our spots directly above the finish line just as the competitors for the Girls Elite 1500 were being called from the clerk’s tent.
Northwest prep distance running had been going through a sea change of improvement over the previous couple years and assembled that evening were almost all the very best athletes from the whole region. The girls were introduced one by one on the loudspeaker as they emerged from the tent, each jogging to the finish line, then taking one final stride around to the 1500 start on the opposite straight. They were quickly formed, perhaps twenty competitors, into two flights along a curved waterfall start line and then promptly sent off with the gun. By the first home straight the field had coalesced behind the aggressive early pace set down by Amy-Eloise Neale, Washington State’s cross country runner-up from Glacier Peak High School, followed closely by Alexa Efraimson, the astounding freshman from Camas High School who had blazed a 2:08 800 meters the previous weekend at the Centennial Invitational. The first lap flashed by in an extremely swift 68 seconds before the field settled in for two more laps at 72 pace.
But these two were certainly not running away with the race. Collected together behind in the tight pack was a “who’s who” of the best high school distance runners in the region. The close competition belied the swiftness that all the girls were running. Tsai, Clark, and Kouba for the Axemen moved up smartly from the mid-pack, getting into good position as the bell lap approached. Jeff jogged along the back straight shouting instructions as they passed.
At the bell there was only four seconds separating the top ten runners. Then Efraimson charged past Neale with 200 meters to go, and although the senior was kicking hard the precocious freshman swiftly left her behind and strung out the finishers to the line. Paige Rice, the Oregon cross country champion from Portland’s St. Mary’s Academy, and just a sophmore, moved strongly past Neale into second place at the top of the straight as Neale began to suffer from her pace leading efforts. Down the stretch Tsai and Clark kicked hard, passing two runners and crossing the line in 6th and 7th place while Kouba was close behind.
The South girls joyously collected around Jeff near the finish line basking in what they had accomplished. There were huge improvements in PR’s in the six to eight second range for all the South girls. As an indicator of just how fast the race had been Kouba, who had finished in 9th place, had run 4:31.15, a quicker time than any Oregon high school girl had achieved for a decade. The race had produced what would end up being four of the national top-ten high school performances for the year. But the day was not over for the South runners.
Within the hour the three girls, with the addition of Cramer, stepped to the line again for the Distance Medley, a combined relay of 1300, 800, 400, and 1600 meters. Right from the gun on the first turn Tsai convincingly took the lead over the large field, for a freshman showing strong tactical instincts by wisely getting out of the fray as the large field of girls made the move out of their staggered lanes to the curb at the cut line. Although a few of the schools at the meet may have had one runner such as a Neale, Efraimson, or Rice who could have challenged to be in the same position, there were clearly no schools who had the depth of the Axemen girls. Most teams had put their best runners in the Elite 1500 and then saved them out from doubling back in a relay. But it was very much in the Axemen tradition to be tasked with a full exercise at a meet of this importance and opportunity, and as the laps ticked off the South girls left all the other teams far behind, lapping most of them in the later stages of the long ten lap relay.
At the finish Clark broke the tape with over a half lap lead on the distant Jesuit runner-up team. It was a meet record of 12:11.41, breaking South’s own mark set a decade before. But as impressive as the performance was it wasn’t their best time in the event that season. Running fresh a few weeks before at the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field they had clocked 12:03.79, which was also a record for that meet. Yet this time they had not only approached the earlier performance, in the process impressively breaking one of the most long standing meet records at Oregon’s most prestigious relay invitational, they had also done it just an hour after each setting huge new PR’s in the open race.
By the time the meet was over the results of the Girls Elite 1500 race at Jesuit had completely reordered expectations and Jeff had already made arrangements. What had been considered briefly in a meeting on the infield a few weeks prior at the Oregon Relays was now clearly within their grasp. In a few more weeks’ time, after the state meet, they would make an attempt to do what the Axemen had not done for 30 years – break a national relay record, the girls 4x1500. The possibility of what could be accomplished in that effort was staggering. The PR’s the four girls had set that day at Jesuit, if accomplished in a relay, would add up to an amazing 30 seconds under the existing mark.
THE old manager’s room was cluttered, disorganized, and virtually a time capsule of how I remembered it to be. I was back in Eugene again, just after the Jesuit meet, getting another load of materials to use for research, and the manager’s room was where anything of value to the program had always been kept behind a locked door. Even so I had felt a momentary hesitation about entering. Back when I was in high school athletes were not easily granted full entrance, guarded as it was by a team manager who dispensed uniforms, athletic tape, and supplies – and was tasked by Harry to keep us out.
While habitually keeping a relentless focus on the here and now Jeff also cannot be accused of performing unnecessary organizational efforts - or being much interested in posterity. Any available horizontal surface was beset with a clutter equal parts made up of items seemingly used frequently and left ready at hand, and items over a third of a century old and placed so incongruously as to engender a bit of wonder. Next to current paperwork in process was a state cross country trophy from 1968 caste precariously amongst the clutter of a desktop. In the secondary back room currently used racks of uniforms hung over boxes stuffed with magazines dating back forty years. Shoved back on a high shelf we came across a shoebox full of small film reels from the early ‘80’s and a Super-8 projector.
“I’ve never opened this one up before”, Jeff said as he slid open the bottom drawer of a huge purple wooden file cabinet. There we were suddenly staring at files stuffed with hand-written race results from 1967, state meet programs from 1975, and all manner of data salted away by past coaches that had just been sitting there for a few decades. “Just take the whole drawer”, he said and we carried it out to my truck.
On the way back in we encountered a teacher who engaged Jeff for a while, talking about the race. “I wonder if those girls know about the tradition the school has in track”, he said. “Oh, they know”, Jeff said. But I wondered if they really knew much beyond a basic outline. I was just at the beginning of digging further into the files, and was only starting to talk to former coaches and athletes. I had already had my eyes opened a few times to things I had never known about the program. For a four year (or in our day, three year) high school program to have continuity it must extend forward through time by virtue of one person teaching another. For over forty years, despite many changes of leadership, a consistent spirit of success had been passed down, coach to athlete, and athlete to athlete. And the program had now many times over also seen an athlete become the coach. Jeff’s presence at South was living proof that the tradition of Axemen track has deep and enduring roots.
Back in the room I plunged my hands into the large box of magazines. It felt literally like diving into the past as I shuffled through a sea of “Track and Field News”, “Modern Gymnast’, and “Runners World” issues, their covers – some in black and white, like from an older world that had not yet known color – slipping through my hands. What sort of stories might be waiting back in the distant past, stories that would find themselves becoming connected together into a larger tale? How far back would the story I was trying to tell want to go?
I was searching for a “Track and Field News” from a particular month and year, and by some miracle a deep grab under several hundred magazines fished up exactly that one. I figured this would be the issue that most likely would have an article I was looking for, a small piece I remembered written by John Gillespie about the South boys national 4x1500 record effort. Just as Jeff walked in I saw in the table of contents something that seemed right and flipped to the page. But as I began to read the article out loud to him I realized that this was actually a story about the girls 4x1500, the very record breaking effort from 1982 that Jeff’s girls now had in their sights.
The record was thirty years old, and set the same year that South had set the still existing boys mark. To pull off this feat would be a full circle accomplishment spanning back almost a third of a century, and would finally bring home both the boys and girls national records in the same event to the South Eugene Axemen. I handed the magazine to him and said, “Show that to them. They need to see this.”