Words - Paul Snyder - Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club
Photos - J. Dunn - Prefontaine Classic - June 2016
The Olympic Trials last for 14,400 minutes. Making the Olympic team in the men’s 1,500m takes up about ten of those. How does one kill the remaining 14,390 minutes?
For the overwhelming majority of visitors to Eugene, Oregon, the Olympic Trials are one big party. Fans of what is nearly always a niche sport revel in track & field’s sudden thrust into national acceptance, and even relevance. Things that would generally be socially reprehensible, like passionately discussing track with a stranger at a bar, suddenly become the norm. Old friends reunite and make merry. New friends share pitchers of cheap beer at one of many shoe-company-rented Eugene bars. Athletes failing to advance to the next round go out with a vengeance. And I’m fairly certain the press zone at Hayward Field is situated under the shade of the grandstand because prolonged exposure to the sun, coupled with the media’s collective hangover from the previous night’s party, would prove dehydratingly lethal.
And that’s just speaking of the the track community. This is, after all, a college town, and school is not in session, so naturally, those students staying put to enjoy the incomparable beauty of a summer in Oregon are feeling loose.
With all of the commotion around the social aspect of what very may well be American track & field’s Burning Man, it can - ironically enough - be easy to forget that the athletes we’ve congregated around to watch, are around, even when they’re not competing. Tucked away from the hobnobbing and barroom chatter, athletes waiting to vie for an Olympic birth sit in their hotels, existing, and gearing up for something more stressful than most of us can probably conceive of.
I visited with members of the New Jersey-New York Track Club on day three of the Trials to see how they pass the time and quell the anxiety.
Olympic 1,500m hopefuls’ previous four years of living and training are publicly scrutinized in the span of a three-and-a-half minute race. That’s a stressful notion, especially when they’re physically present in the location of their impending judgement for a week before the race actually happens.
The Holiday Inn Express that is serving as NJNY’s home base for the duration of the Trials and is located about a 10 minute walk from the track. It’s also close enough to The Wild Duck - the unofficial home base bar for everyone in Eugene with an affinity for track - that if you leave your hotel window open you can hear the noise it emanates from across Franklin Avenue.
As I approach the hotel I received a “sup” nod from a U of O fraternity member in a bro-tank, holding a 30-rack of Keystone Light, and standing outside his car, whose stereo was bumping “Dolce and Gabbana” by RiFF RAFF. Right after this interaction, three members of the Bowerman Track Club who have yet to race jog in my direction in street clothes to enter the organic grocery store behind me. It turns out they’re also staying at the Holiday Inn Express, which I guess is a sort of bastion of focus, distraction, and clean living in the midst of the all the chaos, temptation, and stressors around it.
Just inside the hotel’s efficient-looking lobby, seated at a polished square table, sit Johnny Gregorek and Colby Alexander, both waiting to race the 1,500m. They didn’t seem to be up to much. In fact, when I ask “what are you guys up to?” they both respond with “not much.” But they also seemed calm, relaxed, and not visibly nervous for the first round of their event, which isn’t until Thursday. They obviously run, eat, and sleep each day they’re here. But how do they occupy the remaining chunk of time?
We continue to chat as we make the short trip to the Dutch Bros. Coffee located in their hotel’s parking lot. Alexander and Gregorek order their drinks as if this isn’t their first rodeo (it isn’t; they’ve gone here at least once a day since their arrival), and their affable demeanors are extremely well-received by the smiley barista. He quickly hands them their coffees in a manner I’m still not sure isn’t condescending, and we then take a seat on a shaded bench outside the hotel.
Alexander and Gregorek - who enter the Trials with the 6th and 13th fastest qualifying marks, respectively - have an advantage over many of their competitors when it comes to battling the boredom and stifling the stressfulness of their situation. Alexander, an Ohio native, attended U of O as an undergrad, and raced for the Ducks for five years, while Gregorek took his fifth year there, after a decorated career at Columbia University. For them this trip to Eugene feels less like a vacation or business trip, and more like a return to their days as Ducks, where according to Gregorek “we spent a lot of time bopping around and hanging out.” They’ve slipped back seamlessly into that lifestyle.
“So far we’ve talked about seeing a movie or two,” notes Alexander, “maybe Finding Dory today. The critics are raving about that one.”
“Plus we went to Dairy Queen and tweeted about it the other night,” adds Gregorek.
As we sit on the bench I also notice that they’re naturally doing a good deal of goofing around and reminiscing, as one is wont to do when reuniting with one’s alma mater.
Gregorek’s family and longtime girlfriend are arriving in a day or so, and Alexander’s parents are already in town. In fact, the Alexanders swing by for a moment to drop off a Cleveland Cavs championship t-shirt for him, but don’t linger for long. Visitors are encouraged, but are understandably nervous themselves about being too involved. Even famed NJNY coach Frank Gagliano keeps it brief as he passes us on the bench. He introduces his athletes to his family, then jokingly shouts, “okay now men, enough, sit down.” (“Sit down” sounds like “siddown” and it’s the way coaches are meant to sound, in my opinion.)
Kyle Merber and Ford Palmer, two of their NJNY teammates, are also in the 1,500m field, but have opted to stick around their Clinton, NJ, home until closer to race time. “It’s been nice being away from Kyle for a while,” says Gregorek, “when he’s around and reading a book, I can’t focus on whatever it is I’m reading because his reading takes such a commanding presence.” Apparently reading before bed is a hot ticket item in the hotel room Gregorek and Alexander share, as well. “I just finished The Count of Monte Cristo,” announces Gregorek, “great book.”
They share a room because they’ve done everything else this training cycle, and to tremendous success. It feels like a continuation of their training and hours spent bull-shitting in the living room of the Clinton, NJ, home they share with Palmer, Merber, and a rotating cast of teammates. Alexander admires his new Cavs t-shirt as Gregorek describes a nearby shopping mall they’ve contemplating paying a visit.
If this all sounds pretty dull, that’s because it is, by design. It’s a tricky task to balance distraction with over-doing-it. Spend too much time walking around to clear your head and you risk toeing the line with heavy legs. These are elite athletes, but they’re highly specialized, and as anyone who has ever felt like they’re truly fit can attest to, simple acts like walking up a flight of stairs can derail you.
Gregorek and Alexander are two of professional distance running’s funniest, most charming rising stars, but a perusal of their week’s hypothetical activity log - and by extension probably this article - could put you to sleep.
That’s alright by them. “We have pretty much four uninterrupted years ahead of us to be interesting,” says Gregorek, “until it’s time to do this again.”