Everyone remembers the scene in "Field of Dreams" - Shoeless Joe Jackson whispering through the Iowa cornfields to Kevin Costner, "If you build it, they will come." Similar words were shouted out the train window by a phantom conductor as the elevated car passed only feet away from Loyola's Alumni Gymnasium.
"Next stop Loyola...if you build it, they will come." Rambler track coach Gordon Thomson must have been the only person to hear the message as he sat in his office, wondering what to do about an indoor track.
Inspired by the words he got in touch with alumni and raised money for the track materials, his athletes anxious to get to work so they would have a place of their own to train indoors. Many days the team went well into the evening hours on the project, listening to the Bangle's "Walk Like an Egyptian" and the Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" blasting from the sound system, Gordon listening for the words as L's passed by on their way to Evanston.
A few weeks later the wooden track was completed with 110 4'x8' sheets of plywood - ones on the straights attached to balcony on two-by-fours, on the banked turns screwed into the face of old wooden bleachers so runners could get around corners at high speed.
Picture a basketball court ninety-four feet from baseline-to-baseline. Just over thirty-one yards. The straights were barely that long. Each lap was 140 yards. A mile was 12.5 laps around the oval when a typical banked track at the time was 10 laps and 176 yards.
But Gordon heard the call from the L conductor beseeching him that day with the plea, "If you build it, they will come." And they did.
He got a sub four minute miler to compete up there, an NCAA champion in the 200 meters to race in his specialty, a 1:47 800m runner to take on all-comers, and a women's all-American in the 10K to race twenty-five laps in a two mile. The meets were a wild success.
Yet as thrilling as the competitions were, it was the practices that produced the most excitement, each workout requiring that athletes possess the coordination of a centipede and the steely nerves of a Blue Angel pilot.
Picture ten male distance runners doing repeat 800's, five middle distance runners sprinting through some 300's, a group of seven or eight women doing 400's, and then throw in some sprinters for good measure - at some point ALL of them on the 140 yard track at the same time. It was a madhouse.
Oftentimes, getting started on an interval was like trying to merge into the Dan Ryan Expressway...from a standstill.
With a common finish and unique starting lines for every distance, there were clusters of runners all over the track waiting to start, many groups jogging reverse direction on the outside of the 8' wide sheet of plywood for their recovery interval, the steady drumbeat of foot-strikes on the boards so loud that it was tough to hear the splits over the noise.
The fastest group of runners needed to be off first so they didn't overtake anyone, a slower group of men starting immediately behind, women right on their tail as each pack took off on a repetition. Any bunch which jumped into an interval without the required spacing behind got run down like the Queen Mary overtaking a canoe, the faster teammates glad to dish out some elbows or hip-checks to those so foolish not to wait another ten seconds.
Recruits stood off to the side on visits absorbing at the scene, thinking this was the coolest thing they had ever seen. Like a three ring circus blended into one circle. It wasn't unusual to have the entire track filled with runners going at various speeds, groups blending into one long thin line like cars exiting from a post-game parking lot. The interplay was an astounding to watch.
During the quiet interludes after practice, the brief moments when no one was running in circles, we paused to listen for the words from passing trains before we headed downstairs. "If you build it, they will come."
Enjoy this story? Be sure to check out the rest of the website where you can purchase my books, "A Golden Era" and "A Long Road Ahead" which tell the stories of the high school and college running careers of a father in the 70s and his son in the 2000s.