The Track in the Forest

I was sent The Track In The Forest – I didn’t know by whom at the time – and I flipped it open and started reading. It was a very different, and much more personal, book than I thought (and I already had high hopes). In a moment I’ll tell you why.

I’m a track junkie. Track sits deep on my brain stem. I became a runner, at age-13, in 1970. When I fell for running I fell hard. I was just a little late to know the story of the track that is the subject of this Bob Burns’ revelatory (for me) book. It’s the story of the run-up to the 1968 Olympics, which were to be held at Mexico City’s 7,500’ elevation. How much would this affect America’s track athletes? In particular the distance runners?

Shockingly little was known at the time about elevation racing, about acclimation and training. What was determined – fortuitously – is that some consideration and planning be given to the high elevation of Mexico City, and that an Olympic Track Trials at elevation would benefit America’s chances. Accordingly, several options were considered, including in Colorado and elsewhere, and the decision was made to situate the track at the top of Echo Summit, the southwestern pass separating Lake Tahoe from Sacramento.

But this was National Forest land, and the only way Forest management would agree is if the track and facilities left the smallest footprint possible. This track was therefore constructed with fewer than the typical 8 or 9 lanes and, enchantingly, was placed in a forest of ponderosa and lodgepole pines, and red firs, with these giant trees and granite boulders inside the track! In the infield! To spectate the finish of the 200 meters you heard the starting gun, but you didn’t know what transpired until the runners cleared the turn and entered the straightaway! If a runner fell in the steeplechase’s water hazard, you wouldn’t know.

I’d heard, of course, of Larry James, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Bob Seagren, Bob Beamon, Ed Caruthers, Willie Davenport, Al Oerter, Randy Matson and so on. They were legends to me. They were my Marvel Superheroes as a teenager. Which meant they were not people. They were like my parents. Not people. Now, today, 5 decades later – finally – they’re people, because the author interviewed them all, those who are still living, so that I could have a chance to “know” them before I myself die.

This is the charm of the book. It’s not just about the building of a track. That would have been enough! But it’s about those who ran around it. It spans 2 years of planning; the duplicitousness of federations; the travesty of “amateur” sport; the under-the-table payments by Adidas and Puma; the use of steroids (even back then, and even though legal).

The book is also about the ambitions, triumphs, heartbreaks of those who ran and jumped and threw heavy objects with the goal of making the Mexico City Olympics. I know, or at least have met, many of these men, but it took this book for me to know them, like asking your parents – once you discover they had ambitions and fears just like you do – what it was like to hope and fall in love. My Marvel Superheroes were great, as Superheroes, but how much better now that they’re mortal.

That’s not all. Strap in. Because this book became very quickly relevant in another way. For those who don’t remember, 1968 was the year of a pair of assassinations, of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. This was only 3 years after LBJ’s civil rights legislation; it was the year after the Summer of Love; it was the height of the Vietnam War; and an entire generation of younger Americans – especially Americans of color – looked for a different, better future.

Strike that. They looked for a better present. Mexico City was the site of a medal ceremony where two on the podium raised black-gloved fists. Those two – John Carlos and Tommy Smith – were vilified at the time. Sent home from the Olympics. Doors closed. Life trajectories altered.

Today, if you visit the campus of San Jose State – aka Speed City – you’ll see the Black Power Statue, erected in 2005, 23 feet tall, for that same pair of gentlemen who are today considered heroes, not unlike the change in the way Muhammad Ali was viewed as an unpatriotic, draft dodging disturbance who threw off the name and religion of his youth, versus the way he was loved and lionized at the time of his death. I could not read The Track in the Forest without contemplating Colin Kaepernick, and wondering how he will be viewed a generation from now.

So there you go. That’s the book. For most people. But it’s resonant for me, because that’s my high school track. After the 1968 Olympic Trials it was moved and donated to the South Lake Tahoe Middle School. My mother uprooted her 2 children from Southern California, decamping to Lake Tahoe in the Summer of 1972, and I was (as you might imagine) mortified at the notion of leaving my home, my teammates, my tribe. The only thing I took with me was my love for running, and a stack of back issues of Track & Field News, which I devoured, inhaled, month by month. I was devastated. Dejectedly, the first week of my new prison of a home I walked into the local South Lake Tahoe sporting goods store.

Wait. That looks like… Chuck LaBenz! I recognize him from Track & Field News! Fastest miler alive! And… that’s Tracy Smith! I'm looking at him! In person! There’s Tom Von Ruden!

"Hmm," thought the 15-year-old to himself.

Then I went out to see my new high school track... this track. There were 3 people standing next to it and I – Mr. Big Buttinsky even back then – walked up and demanded to know, “Who are you?”

“My name is Alvaro Mejia; we're from Colombia; my friends and I are preparing for the upcoming Olympics; this is Victor Mora and Domingo Tibaduiza.” I had just finished reading in T&FN about Mr. Mejia – who’d just won the Boston Marathon – and Mr. Mora, celebrated as the fastest half-marathoner in the world. Maybe this move to Lake Tahoe wasn’t such a bad thing after all! (I would go on to become friends with Domingo Tibaduiza and his brother Miguel.)

I went on to earn friendships with Tracy Smith and Tom Von Ruden, a gracious man who has just recently passed away. I didn’t realize it at the time but the point of their being in Lake Tahoe when I moved there was because of that Track in the Forest, that magical summer of 1968 – they came for the trials, and kept coming back. Before Boulder, the running enclave was South Lake Tahoe.

I finally have the full story, courtesy of author Bob Burns, and of my best South Tahoe High School running buddy (and 6-time winner of the Lake Tahoe Marathon) John Gailson, who I eventually discovered is the one who sent me the book.

The Track in the Forest, by Bob Burns, is hardback, published by Chicago Review Press, Inc., is 248 pages, and sells for $26.99. It is available for $19.88 on Amazon, and is available in Kindle format as well, via that link. I would have purchased this book if it had no text at all, just for the images, of which there are many, and those included here are courtesy of the publisher for the purpose of this review.

[The finish line photo is by Rich Clarkson, the overhead of the track is from Steve Murdock courtesy of Track and Field News and the runners photo is from Don Chadez.]