The Mystique of the Bowerman Curve
I was lucky enough to attend the thirty-sixth annual Prefontaine Classic at Eugene’s Hayward Field on July 3, 2010. For the fifteenth consecutive year the meet played out before a sell-out crowd (12,834). There was one American record (David Oliver, 12.90 in the 110 hurdles), three American soil records, and thirteen Prefontaine Classic and Hayward Field records.
It was an amazing three hour period with non-stop action and almost no time to take a breath (or go to the bathroom). Meet director Tom Jordan said, “I think the fans who came today witnessed certainly the best one-day track meet ever held at Hayward Field, and possibly the greatest we’ll have for who-knows how many years.” There were two reasons for the good marks. First, the meet was one month later in the season than previous years, so the athletes were closer to their peak performances than when the meet was in early June. Second, this year the meet was affiliated with the IAAF Diamond League, which brought international stars to Eugene and raised the level of competition to record-setting levels.
But, what really captured my attention at this year’s Prefontaine Classic, was the mystique of the Bowerman curve. This curve, named for the iconic University of Oregon Coach and Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman, is in the northwest corner of Hayward Field, directly in front of the Bowerman Building and Bill Bowerman’s statue. It’s the final turn on the track as athletes approach the straightaway in front of the west grandstand leading to the finish line. Often a University of Oregon athlete or Eugene based runner has found an extraordinary finishing kick as they came around this storied curve. It has happened enough times that I can’t help but wonder if Bill Bowerman himself is reaching down and giving Oregon athletes a little push towards the finish line.
In the men’s 800 meter final at the 2008 Olympic Trials there were three Oregonians hoping to qualify for Beijing. But with 200 meters to go, they were only in fourth, fifth, and eighth place. Nick Symmonds swung wide and kicked past four runners to win the race. Around the final curve Andrew Wheating, then only a University of Oregon sophomore, stormed past the pack to grab an unexpected second place. At the same time in lane one Oregon Track Club runner Christian Smith dove for the finish line to grab the third and final Olympic team spot, completing an Oregon/Eugene sweep.
In the women’s 1500 meter semi-final at the 2008 Olympic Trials the runners were battling to place in the top six to qualify for the final. As the runners came into the Bowerman curve, Jordan Hasay, then only a 16-year old high school junior, found herself in seventh place. But she somehow found another gear over the final 150 meters, passing two runners to qualify for the final in fifth place and set a new high school record of 4:14.50. As Hasay took her picture by the clock showing her new record, the Oregon crowd began to recruit Hasay, chanting “Come to Oregon! Come to Oregon!” Less than seven months later, Hasay would sign a letter of intent to attend the University of Oregon. (Reports that current University of Oregon coach Vin Lananna sent Bowerman a thank you note after this took place are unsubstantiated.)
At the 2009 Pac-10 Championships in the 1500 meters Bowerman waited until the very last second to work his magic. Coming around the Bowerman curve Oregon’s Matthew Centrowitz was in the lead but Stanford’s Garrett Heath was solidly in second place. However as they came down the final homestretch Oregon’s Galen Rupp surged by Heath to get second place and almost out of nowhere one step before the finish line Oregon’s Wheating (now a junior) passed Heath to claim third place. Another Oregon 1-2-3 sweep!
At the 2009 USA Championships in the 5,000 meters another Oregon sweep took place. With one lap to go a pack of seven runners were still together. Included in that pack were Oregon Track Club teammates Matt Tegenkamp, Chris Solinsky, and Evan Jager as well as Bolota Asmeron and German Fernandez. I remember watching this race unfold and thinking, “Here comes another one of those Oregon sweeps!” Deep inside I was hoping that Asmeron (a local runner from McAteer High School and Cal-Berkeley) could place in the top three to qualify for the World Championships and break up the sweep. Asmeron tried to hold off the Oregon trio but one by one they passed him. As the runners came off the Bowerman curve Asmeron had fallen off the pack. It was an Oregon Track Club sweep: 1. Tegenkamp, 13:20.57, 2. Solinsky, 13:20.82, 3. Jager, 13:22.18.
At the 2010 NCAA Championships there was a dramatic moment in the men’s 1500 meters. The University of Oregon had dreams of sweeping the 1500 not just at the conference meet, like they did in 2009, but also at the national championships. This time the threesome was Wheating (now a senior), Centrowitz and A. J. Acosta. Runners like Lee Emanuel from New Mexico, Jack Bolas from Wisconsin, and Jeff See from Ohio State were certainly going to try to prevent history from being made. As I watched this race unfold online, I kept waiting to see something that told me the sweep would not happen – one of the Oregon trio dropping too far off the back or a non-Oregon runner looking strong. Acosta led the race for about two laps and the pace was slow. Everyone was still in it. With a lap and a half to go the pace picked up as Emanuel surged. With one lap to go Centrowitz challenged for the lead while Wheating and Acosta sat back in fourth and fifth place. With 200 meters to go there was still a large pack of runners together and it was anyone’s race. Then they hit the Bowerman curve. When the runners came off the curve, almost magically, there were three Oregon runners out in front. They would cross the finish line running three abreast: 1. Wheating, 3:47.94, 2. Acosta, 3:48.01, 3. Centrowitz, 3:48.08. The three Oregon runners were almost at a loss for words to describe what happened.
At 12:18 P.M. in the 2010 Prefontaine Classic International Mile the field had thirteen runners including Oregon’s Acosta. I remember Acosta from his high school days and DyeStatCal message board posts so I kept my eye on him even though he was holding down thirteenth place for the first two laps. It wasn’t until 1000 meters into the race that Acosta moved up to second to last place. With 300 meters to go Acosta surged by three runners and I said, “Look at A.J.! If he can close the gap on the main pack maybe he’ll get a wave of energy around the Bowerman curve.” And he did! In the last 150 meters Acosta moved from seventh to second. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed. His time was 3:53.76, a five second PR. For the moment it was the second fastest time in Oregon history, better than Steve Prefontaine’s 3:54.6 and trailing only Joaquim Cruz’s 3:53.00.
At 2:47 P.M. in the 2010 Prefontaine Classic Bowerman Mile perhaps the greatest collection of men’s milers ever assembled on US soil toed the line. This was the big finale of the meet, the Bowerman Mile – everything is named for that man in these parts! Wheating received the loudest applause when he was introduced: “In lane one, wearing the Oregon Ducks uniform for the final time, let’s give a Hayward Field welcome to Andrew Wheating!” But most eyes were on the others in the field which included many of the top milers in the world: Asbel Kiprop, Haron Keitany, Nicholas Kemboi, and Daniel Komen of Kenya, Youssef Kamel of Bahrain, Mohammed Moustaoui and Amine Laalou of Morocco, and Bernard Lagat of the USA. Like Acosta earlier in the meet, Wheating stayed in the back of the pack; just like Acosta he started moving up in the final lap. Again I thought out loud, “Wheating has a great kick. If he can get close the crowd will go nuts and he may do something!” And he did. With a final surge around the Bowerman curve, Wheating moved into fifth place where he would finish the race in 3:51.74, a seven second PR, first American in the race, and a new University of Oregon school record.
Seemingly impossible finishing kicks have taken place by Oregon athletes as they round the Bowerman curve. Four Oregon 1-2-3 sweeps, a race that led to the recruitment of a high school record holder, a five second PR in the mile, and a seven second PR in the mile. As Wheating said after his 3:51 mile; “Unbelievable!”