Buried Under 26.2 Miles
By Emma Zimmerman
Photography by Howard Lao
The spirit of Track Town, USA is alive on Pre’s Trail. On track meet mornings, world-class distance runners shake out their legs, passing clusters of fans, whose eyes widen with the sighting. Running here evokes images of decades past: the countless athletes who have trained here; leaves changing in the background of cross country meets; and of course, the late distance running legend, Steve Prefontaine, for whom the trail was built and named. Here lies a unique energy – a converging of past and present greatness – that expands beyond Pre’s trail, through the gates of Hayward Field, and onto the streets of Eugene. This town is awash with stories of track and field.
But when you dig a bit deeper, you find other stories. This year, the World Championship Marathon took place on a 14km looped course, through Eugene and neighboring Springfield. It passed landmarks with historical and present-day importance, not only to track fans, but also to Black and Indigenous community members.
Towards the beginning, the course enters the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park and travels alongside Pre’s Trail. For track fans, Pre’s Trail is holy ground, and rightfully so – it was named to honor Steve Prefontaine after his tragic death. But long before Prefontaine was Pre and Eugene was Track Town, this land was inhabited by the Kalapuya Native people. Once inside Alton Baker Park, the course passes the Kalapuya Talking Stones – fifteen basalt stones carved with Kalapuya words and their English translations.
“The stones have raised peoples’ awareness that we are here, and we have not disappeared,” says Esther Kutzman, Kalapuya elder and storyteller. Kutzman chose the names and locations for each stone and, in 2003, led a naming ceremony for their introduction. On one of her favorite stones lies the word “Camafeema: ferns on the ground” – which was also the name of her great-great grandfather. It’s an appropriate designation for a place with such intergenerational importance. In photographs from the 2003 ceremony, one of Kutzman’s grandchildren – an elementary-aged girl, clad in purple – perches on a stone in a bright clearing. Now that child is grown and dedicated to preserving Kalapuya language and culture.
Recently, Kutzman’s family helped publish a four-volume dictionary of the Kalapuya language, considered dead for over half a century. “We always said it was just sleeping,” Kutzman says. Now awake, these words will be passed down through generations. Back in Alton Baker Park, a stone sits beside the Willamette River. “Whilamut,” it reads, “where the river ripples and runs fast.” On the nearby trail, decades of runners will pass by, their footprints sinking into the ground and washing away. But the stone will remain.
The marathon begins on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard before entering Alton Baker Park. While the first site memorializes the Civil Rights Movement, the second holds a more painful history. In fact, a deep racial inequity is woven into the fabric of Eugene, and track and field landmarks are not spared. Notoriously, Oregon was the only state admitted to the union with a law that excluded Black people from residing.
In the 1920s, Oregon had the highest per capita Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership, and Eugene housed one of its most active groups, according to the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH). Nevertheless, resilient Black families in Eugene banded together to establish communities, such as the Ferry Street Settlement. In 1949, the settlement was bulldozed to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge. The families living there were forced to relocate. In their place, Alton Baker Park was constructed and, in 1975, so was Pre’s Trail.
Much of this history is on display at the “Racing to Change – the Eugene Story” exhibit. The exhibit was created in collaboration with the nonprofit, Oregon Black Pioneers, and housed at the MNCH until October 2021. Today, it’s available online. “There is so much that Oregonians need to know about the history of our state,” says Zachary Stokes, Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers. “Our job is to try and provide that.”
For decades, Black students and Eugene community members have fought for equity. In 2020, the University of Oregon finally changed the name of a dorm hall related to the KKK, one of many demands made by the Black Student Union (BSU) five years earlier, in 2015. Notably, the BSU had submitted an eerily similar list of demands in 1968.
In the summer of 2021, you could unstick two sweaty legs from a bench at Hayward Field and walk, just across the street, to enter the museum. Once inside, you would find photographs, documents, and recorded voices, recounting Eugene’s racial history. Walking from track to museum evoked a picture of two Eugenes. In one, the best athletes of all races and ethnicities are welcomed and celebrated. In the other, history is named and reckoned with. If we look at the comprehensive history of the marathon course, in some small way, these two Eugenes converge.
Emma Bates, one of three US women to compete in the world champs marathon, loves racing in Eugene – in part because of the rich track and field history here. “Every time I step out of the airport, the smell of Eugene brings me back so quickly,” says Bates. “I can't really describe it. I just love it so much.” In 2014, Bates won the NCAA Championship 10K at Hayward, a race that largely propelled her running career. Yet, when Bates hears about the Indigenous and Black history surrounding the marathon course, she expresses disappointment: “It’s really frustrating that we only focus on certain aspects of Eugene. Why not learn the entire history of a place?” she asks. “Knowing this stuff makes me want to run for more than myself. I would love to learn more, and I hope every other athlete is on the same page.”
It’s easy to imagine why this history is seldom discussed in the world of track and field. After all, we love to bask in greatness – in records broken and stands filled with cheering fans. In 2021, I caught up with Otis Davis, 1960 Olympian and legendary Oregon alumnus. Previously, Davis had spoken openly about leaving segregated Alabama and running under Coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon. But when asked about his experience as a Black man, living in Eugene in the late 50s, he grew reticent. “I like to look forward,” said Davis. “I like to keep thinking positive.” And who could deny such wishes?
Perhaps it’s possible to do both: to celebrate the legacy of track and field in Eugene, but to not neglect the full history – the good and the bad. As the marathon course passes landmarks with importance to Black and Indigenous communities, it presents an opportunity – to reckon with the more painful history while still celebrating. Upon arriving in Eugene, Emma Bates practices a pre-race tradition introduced by her former coach, Terence Mahone. “[Mahone] taught me to take my shoes off and put my feet in the dirt,” says Bates. “By doing this, you get a sense of where you are and become grounded in that space.”