Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 2, 2010

Landing Pit

The Counselor and I were running around the track this weekend, getting in the weekly mileage. Although I’ve written previously here about the joys of running on California’s clay tracks, our usual clay track at the intermediate school in our neighborhood was occupied by The Soccerites, a brazen cult whose ceremonies occupy not only the green space in the middle of the track (why is that there, anyway?), but involve overly-mouthy moms and dads filling the track with lounge chairs and Starbucks cups while the practitioners of the Soccerite religion run around on the field. So we drove a little further to the brand-new artificial track at South High School a few miles away. It’s very spiffy. The high school put a lot of money into all new bleachers and an artificial turf field, as well as the new track. I will express a hope here that the good citizens of Torrance are also investing equivalent amounts in books and teachers and arts and music. In any case, they leave the gate to the track open on weekends.

These artificial tracks certainly are nifty; they’re especially kind to legs and feet that are getting conditioned to longer distances. For a kid who ran on black cinders in high school, it’s like moving into the Space Age. Granted, they’re not meant for the long, long miles as we climb toward 10, 12 and 13-mile runs: that cushy track eventually wears you down because it does suck out a little of the energy from each step. But, for now, it’s great. EVERYTHING in the new stadium is man-made with the exception of the sand in the long jump pits, and those have specially designed covers to keep the sand from getting debris in it or scattered around.

Even the shot-putters have tidy new surfaces. The extensive half-ovals that fill the space in the turns outside the goal posts are paved over with the same surface as the track, and that’s where the high jump and pole vault runs are.

It’s the pole-vaulting part that interests me. Long ago, when I practiced a primitive variety of that sport, we’d run down the long asphalt strip behind the bleachers and, with our bamboo poles, vault over the bar — or, more often, fall short — and land in a pile of sawdust.

As we circled the track this weekend, I recalled that old-time landing in sawdust and compared it with the way today’s South High Spartans land on big foam pads that rest on the prefab surface. When practice is over, they toss ’em on a golf cart or something and wheel ’em back into the equipment shed. The sawdust in our landing pit, on the other hand, sat out in the rain and sun and snow of an Ohio year, growing denser and more decayed and compacted as the year wore on. Early each Spring, the track coach borrowed a big truck, gathered a few of us vaulters and jumpers, and drove us ten miles or so to a sawmill operation out near Clarksville. Four teenagers with scoop shovels can load a big truck with sawdust pretty quickly. We rode back and shoveled the relatively fluffy new stuff into the high jump and pole vault pits. For a few weeks, at least, depending on how much rain and snow fell in March and April, landing in the pit was a little less of a shock. (Of course, given the heights we were clearing, it wouldn’t have been that terrible if we were just landing on bare ground.)

Today, I suppose there’d be a lot of concerns about putting four teenagers in the cab of a truck and driving them out into the countryside to serve as labor for loading and unloading a truck, but it certainly beat spending the time putting in the daily miles around the cinder track. Oh, and thank goodness I never got THAT detail: driving over to the Armco steel mill to load up cinders. Let the sprinters have that duty; it’s THEIR track!

Over the years, we became sawdust connoisseurs. “I say, Mr. Linebaugh. Don’t you think this year’s poplar and ash mix is far superior in both resiliency and aroma to last year’s pine-cedar amalgam?” “I beg to differ, Mr. Nixon. I stand by my endorsement of last year’s cedar component on both counts, and advocate a return to it as soon as possible.” “Perhaps, Mr. Linebaugh, but the inherent sappiness of the pine is matched only by the sappiness of your favorite band, The Association.” Like that.

This particular Saturday, the football team was running through drills on the plastic turf while we did our laps. They bore no resemblance to the guys I played with: big, fast, strong; the quarterback was the tallest, fastest guy there and could throw the ball 40 yards just over the outside shoulder of his receiver with accuracy every time. What amazed me was that their uniforms were dirty. Where did they get dirty? Is the artificial turf that grimy? Do they have special dirt they rub on before practice so they LOOK like they play in real conditions? It’s a mystery to me.

Thinking about pole vaulting, I’ve thought of a way to bring it new attention in our reality-oriented media world. I’m betting the Ultimate Fighting people will want to add this one to their events, maybe as a feature while they’re hosing off the front row spectators between bouts. Picture this: two vaulters run toward each from opposite directions of the ring, vault over a strand of barbed wire and collide in mid-air, exchanging kicks and blows, plummeting into the ring, which has been filled with broken glass and concrete. Now, that’s entertainment.

And, yes, I did vault with a bamboo pole, although I later used an early model of a fiberglass stick (described here). The main dude in pole vaulting back in my day was Bob Seagren, who won an Olympic gold and came close another time, but the new “banana pole” — a highly flexible one — was outlawed on the very eve of the Olympics, and he couldn’t adjust back to the old technology. Hah. Flexible poles, indeed. We scoff at them. Bob is one of the organizers of the Long Beach Half Marathon, and he’s always waving to the runners from the start line. I’ve never had a chance to tell him how SORRY I am that he didn’t get to use the bamboo pole.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016

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