I RAN FOUR LAPS around the 200 meter track at the Champaign Armory. While lurching around the turns like a battered whaling vessel rounding the Horn, hoping for speed but receiving the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup dripping me into oblivion, I thought about the weather. It was the winter of spring, a glimpse of the century’s inevitable catastrophes. Yet the air remained chilly on that particular day in February.
But we were not outdoors. We were indoors, and as I breathed the canned air, traversed through the membrane of passages surrounding the indoor track at the University of Illinois, and raced through its friendly confines, I was inevitably reminded that I’d prefer to be outdoors. The throat burned. The legs felt heavy.
Indeed, there were too many of us; 763 track and 155 field entries splattered across the heat sheets. The meet was running early but what lay ahead was still long. A herd of college students hoped to spend as little time on the track as possible. A cabal of students lay asleep in the hallways. Others watched as the races droned on. But as we sift through our events, our times and our schedules, and as I trudge my way through 800 crappy meters and 1600 good ones, I, of course, understand.
I understand because in many ways, college club track is one of the purest expressions of sport that exists. The professionals are corrupted by sponsorship, “the brand”, and gambling. The NCAA…haha fuck the NCAA. High school track is too wrapped in hormones, college acceptances and overwork, although it comes close.
Club running is a step above your Sunday rec soccer league and your Wednesday night pickup games at the YMCA. Those things are done because competitive team sports are inherently fun. There is nothing inherently fun about crowding into an indoor track for eight hours and getting zero homework done. The fun, if there is any, is in the socializing, camaraderie, and the shared experience of trying to do your best. But the sport is, as they say, actually bad. Yet everyone here, in the midst of busy lives, is trying to achieve something, somehow, some way.
Take the 68-year-old man who ran the 3,000 meters alongside us. That was no publicity stunt. There was no news team, no Facebook Live advertisers, no Buzzfeed articles. This was not an aged Jose Canseco rushing onto the field for an indie ball club. This was just a 68-year-old man who loves to run and wants to run a good time. He had fluorescent, pink racing flats. He strode with purpose. He ran 3,000 meters in 11:09, on pace for two six-minute miles. He easily beats several college students.
Take his teammate on the “CU Running Club” running in the final heat of the mile. He looks in his late-40s or 50s. He has a greying beard that doesn’t prevent him from going well under six minutes.
The same could be applied to other club sports, but club track is unique in that it retains its egalitarian spirit. There are no roster limits, no teams that won’t make it, no outrageous entry fees. If the true essence of sport is amateurism (debatable) than this is as amateur as it gets. Club swimming, actually, is probably equivalent. However, both straddle the line between the amateur buffoonery of intramurals and the somewhat exciting (mostly imagined) grandeur of the NCAA and beyond.
In this late capitalistic society, where obsession with athletics and sports have reached absurd levels, it is nice to see something so low-key. These are, essentially, the indie leagues of college track. While more “legit” than low-end Division III meets, the Illinois Club Relays are a chance to compete recreationally. There are many of these meets. Very few are as expansive as this. Pitt is here (put Pitt in). UC Davis is here. On this, the weekend of most NCAA conference indoor meets, there is no conference allegiance. Friends see friends. Competitors compete. There is little pressure, and only honor and self-determination to propel the limbs. It is very firmly in the spirit of athletics before politics, scientific racism, money and PEDs.
Club track is pride distilled. Not a single person here must be here. We are here because, unfortunately, our collective pride in our athletic abilities cannot be quenched by college, life, an endless parade of parties, midterms, fleeting hopes of love, and our temporary fears of death. It is decadent because of its absurdity. It is depraved because of its pointlessness. But it is very, very fun.
Like independent baseball, the clubs only answer to themselves. This is an entirely club organized meet. The entries cost $10. Relays are $20. The club atmosphere, with its varying levels of intensity, draws the remnants of the hordes of high school track runners from across the country. They are filtered here, through Champaign, into order. And then they scatter again. You do not see them. There are no news articles. There are Twitter accounts and disparate Instagrams. There are fans. There are parents. There is friendship. There is a lot of self-belief and a healthy dose of self-doubt.
The Northwestern Track Club retains self-belief in spite of the seed times. The five hours of driving, $200 and weeks of steady if inconsistent work confirm that.
There are fast folks here, men and women who have accomplished far more than me. The fast heat of the 3,000 concludes in a furious fight between two runners who both split 8:37.
The fact is, there is no point to all this. There are no college recruiters in the wings, no careers down the path of spending hours and hours winding through streets, the parks of billionaires, or the trails of woe and joy, no validation in the chase from the vast majority of peers, no rewards but the satisfying near-death experience of running a race in a suffocating indoor track and seeing an electronic scoreboard impassively accept you along the whims of a base-10 number system that was built to accommodate nothing but human obstinance—an obstinance manifested best by the absurdity of club running, from the slowest to the fastest poor sod who ever dared taste the Holy Grail of fitness.
It’s true, the Illinois Club Relays are somewhat decadent and depraved. It’s an 8-hour mess of human stupidity. But, I suppose, they are simultaneously beautiful testaments to human perseverance.
(Skip if you don’t want results)
The first event was the women’s 4×800 (Monica, Megan, Anna, Emme), which finished in 11 minutes and 17 seconds. They had surely been on run faster individual two miles, run much faster 800s themselves, or spent 11 minutes on a random Saturday in a fashion.
But they had fun! It was the same story for the men, who managed a 9:26. Adam split a 2:06 though, which was good. I didn’t have that much fun, but my story is ancillary. We all did much better in individual events, usually the second time around. Megan and Jazmine broke 11 in the 3k. Tucker, Clay and I all ran decent miles. Anna and Emma also raced well. Grace triple jumped better than she long jumped. Justin ran the 3k and John ran a 9:19 in the same event, but that were their only races…so the pattern breaks.