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When runners sing of the meccas of America (O Walt Whitman!), they hail Eugene, Ore., of course, and Boulder, Colo. But why not two cheers at least for Gainesville, Fla. as a part-time training site. If only at that sweet moment when winter slides into spring—the two weeks when the year's formal competition starts with, say, a triangular meet among host University of Florida, Princeton and Iowa, moves on to the Lady Gator Relays and climaxes with the Florida Relays in late March.
During that time swarms of northern high school and college athletes, fleeing the cold and snow, lope along Gainesville's sandy loops and asphalt bicycle paths, its roadsides and sidewalks. With a flight of white ibis flapping and gliding overhead, they circle the still waters of Lake Alice: running past the bulgy eyes of alligators and past anhingas, high in a dead tree, hanging out their wings to dry; past palms, longleaf pines and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss; past ponies and sheep in a hillside field, the forest insect lab, the red-brick frat houses and the weed science building.
But the heart of this vernal mecca is the university's green nine-lane Percy M. Beard Chevron 440 track, where brigades of athletes congregate for speed work. Speed is the name of the game, and never more so than after a long harsh winter up north. The track is open to the tolerant multitudes—joggers in the outside lanes, hard runners on the inside—almost all day, from moist and misty dawn to well into the night, when the oval is illuminated by the so-called jogging lights from four tall concrete pylons. The Florida varsity takes over the track for practice for about an hour and a half in the afternoon, but the open-door policy permits jogging up to an hour before a big meet and even the use of the track when, say, a decathlon competition moves to the pole vault.
"You'd be surprised," says Mike Bozeman, an assistant coach, "or maybe you wouldn't, at the use the track gets."
The best example of this easy democracy of running comes around 6 p.m. at that time of year when there's perhaps an hour's daylight left and it has become refreshingly cool. More than 100 boys and girls, men and women, go through their calisthenics and whirl out of the turns, their spikes making a whispery patter, their flats slapping on the Chevron surface. All the world seems to be hurdling and doing intervals—220s, 440s and 880s—accelerating coveys of sprinters running with great etiquette, nobody overrunning anybody else. It's a seamless exercise in preparation for the first big meet of the spring.
There's just time to fiercely sprint 10 quarters, with a jog-lap recovery between each quarter, and then cool down as that electric Southern night arrives and one set of lights on each pylon is magically turned on. The track becomes an emerald wonderland, the runners part of a chiaroscuro display, hurtling out of the shadowy turns into pools of light, rounding off their final efforts with a satisfying weariness, which means they're ready for the spring track season back home.
How did this track nirvana come to be?
The main creator was Jimmy Carnes, perhaps the leading figure in track and field in America. He was the coach who brought the University of Florida out of the running doldrums and the founder of the Florida Track Club ( FTC). He's president of The Athletics Congress, and co-founder with fellow Gainesville resident Marty Liquori of the Athletic Attic chain of running stores. He was head coach of the ill-fated 1980 U.S. Olympic track team.
Carnes was coach at Furman University and went to Gainesville in 1964 to replace Percy M. Beard, after whom today's track is named. Carnes was 28 years old.
"It was like a dream come true," he says. "That beautiful weather. It's fantastic to get up early in the morning and not worry about freezing to death. Eugene, Boulder and Gainesville all have a super climate for guys to get together and train."