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In an Olympic year, all-comer meets lure all types to the track

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Jeffery Rodriguez competes in the pole vault at the all-comers track meet earlier this month.

Coming down the home stretch, No. 956 veers sharply off course, just strides from the finish line.

But 3-year-old Campbell McQuire, pink and orange hair ribbons flapping and turquoise sneakers churning, makes a speedy recovery, realizing that her dad has stepped off the track so she can finish this 400-meter race on her own.

She does so triumphantly, then holds up one glistening arm.

"That's sweat," she says.

Campbell is one of nearly 100 athletes who turned out for the latest Luke's All-Comers Track Meet at St. Michael's Academy. It's part of a series of summer meets sponsored by running store Luke's Locker, designed to lure everyone from recreational runners to Olympic-bound athletes onto the track for some low-key competition.

Three of the USA Track & Field-sanctioned events remain — Thursday, July 12 and July 26.

With the start of the London Olympics just more than a month away, interest in track and field events is increasing. At St. Michael's, a small crowd gathers in the bleachers to watch. Blankets and coolers are strewn in the infield, and cheers go up around the field as athletes compete in events from hurdles to shot put, pole vault to long jump.

"If you're running, this is just part of the whole sport," says Carmen Ayala-Troncoso, who is at the meet with five runners she coaches. Before the sun sets, though, she's lining up for the 400 meters herself. "Track doesn't lie. There's no ‘My GPS was wrong, coach.' It's the part of running that's purest."

The meets draw a diverse group — old and young, men and women, All American or just learning the ropes, from all economic backgrounds. They race on a real track, with real announcers and real timing equipment. For some, it's a unique experience. For others, it's old hat.

"Everybody fits in like a community picnic," says Donna Lawrence, 44, a world champion in her age group in the 100 meter who is volunteering today instead of racing. "Even the pros out here are very helpful as far as tidbits. There are people training for the Olympics here, trying to fine-tune their races. You don't know who you're running against."

Luke's Locker has been hosting all-comers meets in Dallas for years. Here in Austin, several other clubs have periodically staged similar meets. When no one stepped up this season, Luke's decided to fill the gap, says Jennifer Harney, who organizes the meets for Luke's.

"What I love about the all-comers meets is that they are for all ages, abilities and experience levels," Harney says. "There is no minimum age, and there are no benches ... everyone can put on a bib, race and have a time result."

The meets remind some veteran athletes who've fallen away from the sport that it's something they love. "There are many different facets to running. Track and field is one that needs a revival, and what better town or year to do that," Harney says.

Newer athletes learn that it's not about how fast or experienced they are; it's about giving a best effort and having fun. Recreational runners use the meets to improve their times at road races and perform better at weekly track workouts.

"It's important to try something new — and it takes guts," says Sarah Boyd, 42, a former University of Colorado track athlete who now competes with the Waterloo Track and Field Club. Newcomers learn the rules of the sport, and veteran athletes set and meet goals.

"It's just fun to do shorter distances," says Doug Hamm, 68, a regular at local 5K and 10K events. Today he's running the 1,500 meters, and strategizing about what it'll take to shave a few seconds off his time. "We call it fun. You get out here and suffer and call it fun when it's over."

But it's the kids who get the most cheers.

Three siblings — Ford, 10; Kate, 8; and Cole Knippa, 4 — tear down the track in the same heat of the 60 meters.

Cole scuttles across the finish line in last place. "I just won," he announces. "I'm the first fastest 4-year-old."

"You get to be competitive," says Kate, who hopes someday to beat Ford. "You get to be with your friends. It's fun."

And that's the mission for mom Kristy Knippa, 39, a former hurdler herself.

"I just thought this was a terrific opportunity to expose them to track and field at an early age in a nonthreatening environment."

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com or 445-3994 Twitter: @fitcityleblanc

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