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May 23, 2017

Pollen, smoke, ash and more: a brief history of Eugene’s atmospheric particulate

Eugene’s certainly earned its self-anointed nickname, Track Town, USA.

It’s just about the only place in the country where you can guarantee athletes a near-sold out crowd to compete in front of. There’s an historic air about the place, which Eugene homers will remind you of by referring to the place as “Historic Hayward Field.” And the Pacific Northwest as a region tends to provide perfect track weather during the summertime.

All week long I’d imagine we’ll be sharing some of our favorite Hayward races and we’ll leave hundreds of worthy ones on the cutting room floor.

But for my money, there’s no more iconic Hayward Field image than the men’s 10,000-meters from the 2011 USATF Championships. We’ve talked about it before here on the site: the Rupp Mask.

It was extremely funny, yes. But what made it iconic was that it publicly acknowledged what was–and always has been–on the mind of athletes racing and training in Eugene, Oregon: for a lush, green college town, it can really suck to breathe there.

Let’s take a walk through a brief history–breathing laboriously like an aging pug fighting to suck down air through its own nasal folds–of Eugene’s atmospheric woes.


One of the coolest and most deserving of myth-status things that Steve Prefontaine ever did was time trial a solo 3:58.3 mile then cough up blood after. It was in the fall of 1974, and thanks to crop burning in the Williamette Valley, this highly publicized and well-attended workout resulted in Pre tearing a diaphragm muscle. (Kenny Moore wrote about this fateful, smokey day for the New York Times’ obituary of Prefontaine.)


This one’s probably most persistent and routinely relevant to meets held at Hayward. We already mentioned Rupp’s mask. But when I mock it, it’s from an aesthetic perspective not a functional one–Eugene does periodically have some of the worst grass seed pollen counts in not just the country, but in the entire world.

Even runners less frequently roasted online than Rupp have had their struggled with allergies. Jim Ryun used to routinely run very fast on a cinder track, which means he was a tough runner. But before the 1,500-meter finals at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ryun warmed up a town over and was helicoptered in to avoid excessive exposure to grass seed. He won, but sheepishly, because getting air lifted to a starting line is pretty decadent.

Mount Saint Helens Volcanic Ash

I’m going to be honest with you. When I sat down to write this blog post I was confident that soot from the 1980 MSH blast impacted Eugene directly. According to the below image, courtesy of the USGS, it did not.

A USGS generalized map showing the distribution of ash fallout; in dumb-ass parlance, it’s a map showing where the volcano stuff went.

The eruption took place in mid-May of that year, so I was sort of thinking, “hey, I bet some track meets got really bungled by that volcano.” But I was wrong, and this is me owning up to that wrongness. Eugene’s air can suck, but rarely due to volcanic activity.

Ultimately, the pollen count will be in the high-to-quite-high range, and that’s just a fact of life for athletes venturing to Eugene to race at Pre this weekend. The likelihood of a catastrophic volcanic explosion is low. And the Oregon state legislature banned field burning in 2010. I’d say that all things considered–including my wildly wrong assumed belief–that’s about as good a weekend for runnin’ as you’ll get in Track Town, USA.

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