Track is now my new obsession

Joe Harrington

Thirty minutes after walking into the 2008 Mid-American Conference Indoor Track Championships Friday, I knew I was dealing with a different animal. A Miami hurdler, who had just competed in the 60 meter hurdles, walked by me and looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away after Wilson floated away.

I have seen athletes, football players, cry in press conferences. I have seen basketball players crushed after games, but I have never seen someone so emotionally distraught after an athletic event in my life. She was sitting maybe five feet from me as she just let the tears roll out on to her hands that were covering her eyes. I’m assuming that she didn’t qualify for the finals on Saturday, but after 30 minutes she had convinced me that I was going to see the most grueling — physically and emotionally — Kent State sporting event I have seen this year.

It starts with the warm-ups. I walk around the 200 meter track and notice that every athlete does something different, almost all of them are quirky things that appear to be ridiculous. The Ball State runners kick their legs side to side like pendulums while a Bowling Green runner high-steps around the track. Runners and jumpers warm up for what seems like hours for a race that will take maybe five minutes depending on whether it’s a long-distance run or a sprint. These people are sprinting to warm up for a 200 meter sprint.

It’s at this point that I realize I have no athletic talent at all. I played three pick-up basketball games on Thursday and my legs ached, my feet had callouses and my chest was sore. Meanwhile, I talk to the fastest man in the MAC, Kent State sprinter Curtis Eaton, and he isn’t even sweating. The sophomore just ran the 400 meter dash in 48 seconds and a 200 meter dash in 21 seconds and he looks like he spent the afternoon watching “M*A*S*H” reruns. Amazing.

It sounds crazy, but I also realized why millions of people watch NASCAR in this country. It’s because track doesn’t have a TV deal with Fox and ESPN. Race strategy, drafting, restrictor plates- all of those words were flowing into my head as I watch sophomore Kelly Gephart run the anchor during the long distance medley relay Friday night. Gephart ran a personal record in the race, as she made her move for first place while turning the corner on the final straight-away of the track. I thought for sure she had won the race. I thought that she would be considered the “car of tomorrow” in the track world. I thought for sure she would get up on the podium and drink milk like the winner of the Indy 500 and a boa of flowers would be around her neck, but I was wrong. The team finished second to Ball State. Damn.

And then I realized that the past few semesters of journalism ethics and showing no bias toward Kent State went down the proverbial crapper. I was rooting privately for every Kent State runner. I failed every professor I have ever had. I had become a cheerleader.

But it wasn’t just Kent State that impressed me and who I cheered for. Ball State long distance runner Ali Bishel had an unofficial 100 meter lead on the second place runner, who had an unofficial 50 meter lead on the field, in the 3,000 meter run. She had run a 4:53.72 mile earlier that day. The fastest mile I have ever run was two minutes slower.

I liked the long distance events the most. The competitors, male or female, pace themselves and cunningly make their move to the top. It’s like “Survivor.” The runners outwit and outplay their opponents by pacing themselves and — whether it’s true or not — setting alliances with others to hold runners to the back of the pack. Then comes the dreaded stab in the back as the final lap comes and the quietest person votes the pack off the island and wins the race. Oh, the drama that comes with MAC Indoor Track Championships.

I entered the event wishing I was going to Bowling Green for the Kent State men’s basketball game. After all, it was just a week after I traveled to California and saw them beat St. Mary’s, which allowed them to be ranked. I knew track about as well as I know how to start a boy band and capture a record deal. But after I saw that Miami hurdler cry and the many random individuals vomit after running what seemed like 50 laps, I could care less about basketball.

I told sophomore Jessica Lhotsky to beat Bowling Green in her next event, and she gave me a ” I don’t know why, but you got it chief,” type of reaction from her. So I told her that the Falcons had beaten Kent State at basketball and she really didn’t care. We had something in common.

I went on to ask the reporter I was with, Josh Johnston, every track question I could think of:

Has anyone ever impaled themselves while pole-vaulting?

What’s the typical high jump number?

What’s the triple jump?

What does “hep” mean in the Heptathlon?

Finally, I asked: When is the next event, and who do I ask for press credentials, and does this team have a Facebook group, because if not, I’m starting one.

Contact trackoholic and assistant sports editor Joe Harrington at [email protected].