The Magic of the Dirt Oval

By Mike Smith

So, here at Mascenic, we have the last dirt track used for high school meets in the state of New Hampshire.  While the standard 30 years ago, dirt tracks have been replaced with all weather tracks, asphalt coated with spray rubber and ground rubber bits.  The track allows for some permanence, lane markers and starting lines etched into the fabric of the track.

Not so here.  In the week prior to our meet, the track was flooded with 2 inches of rain, much of it sitting out in lanes 4, 5 and 6 around the bend at 200 meters.  It wasn’t until Wednesday that our maintenance crew was even able to start putting down throwing vectors and Thursday before they could grade the track.  Not encouraging signs when you have a 9-team meet happening less than three days away.

However, this past Saturday morning saw me track side, 5:30 am, doing final preparations for that day’s meet. Starting and finish lines needed to be lain, tents needed to be erected, pits needed to be raked.  Things that don’t tend to be big ticket items on a regular track.

Our meets tend to fall outside the traditional.  With no permanent lane lines, hurdles are pretty much impossible so we’ve decided to get rid of them.  The meet starts with the 100, moves to the 1609 meters (the full mile because why not?), and this year, the sprint medley relay.  Considering no one is going to run their fastest time on our dirt track, we’ve opted for an event schools might be not have had the opportunity to do previously.  After the SMR, we run the 400, then the 4×200, 800, 200, 3200 and finally the distance medley relay.

We also run the field events with open pits.  Show up, throw or do your jumps, and head to the next task.  Offering long jump, shot, disc and javelin, athletes get to manage themselves in a manner that works best for them.  

The other difference in our  meets is we run a middle school meet embedded within the body of the high school meet.  Members of the three local middle schools competed in different heats than the high school teams they will be joining in the future.  Not only does the middle schooler get to see what they aspire to, the high schoolers get to encourage those athletes that will become their teammates in the future.

Being both the clerk of the meet and the meet director, I don’t get much of an opportunity to witness what’s going on in the meet as my major concern is making sure the meet moves along smoothly.  Dealing with starting gun issues, timing problems, traffic control and simply the general management of the meet means I spend very little time actually watching what my kids are doing in the meet.  Every once in a while in the distance events, I get to take a peek at what’s happening and am delighted when I see no problems.

I am thankful when I hear after the meet that the visiting teams, parents and those volunteers I work with tell me the meet went well.  This year we had 49 running races, so that’s all the heats of all the races, and we were able to get it done in just under three hours.  Keeping the meet moving along is my goal, so having 9 teams here and getting it done does come with some satisfaction.

And at further inspection, the results were pretty good too.  While track conditions make PRing a bit difficult, wind making it all the harder, many athletes did just that.   Additionally, many athletes took the opportunity to try new events, stepping out of their normal comfort zone to expand their experience.  

One of the overarching observations on the day would be that of community.  Not just with the citizen’s mile, won in 5:05 by ConVal coach Lance Flamino, but throughout the meet with teammates cheering on teammates and competitors alike.  Many of these athletes run into each other at local races, play each other in different sports, and are related to each other through marriage, family or community connections, and respect the effort each athlete puts forth in their quest within the sport. And this experience is enhanced by the dirt track.

How you might ask?  If the track at Mascenic was a regular surface track, with all the normal lines and starting spots, this meet would likely be standardized like every other meet in NH.  But I feel it’s the uniqueness of the meet, the middle/high school crossover, the different event schedule, and the non-standard relays, that set the meet apart, make it unique, and allow for athletes to look simply beyond their own performances.

When I first started coaching at Mascenic, I cursed my bad luck that I didn’t have a track I could rely on.  Now I marvel in the magic that comes from having a little less than everyone else. While a spring like we had this year had me wishing for a little more track time and some better weather, I know I actually benefit, as do my athletes, from being a little more low tech and having to exhibit a bit more grit by pounding the cinders much the way Sir Roger Bannister did some sixty-six years ago.

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