On a wet December night in Eugene, Ore. two track fans from California spent the night sleeping in the middle of the track at Hayward Field. They awakened at dawn to find dozens of runners silently circling them on the track.
Their pilgrimage to America's track mecca symbolizes the reverence track athletes and fans hold for Eugene, a lumber and university town nestled in the southern part of Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Alberto Salazar, now the fastest marathon runner in history, chose Eugene as his home when he left high school in Wayland, Mass., several years ago. He was the second fastest high school distance runner in America at that time, but when he arrived at the University of Oregon he found his dormitory roommate, Rudy Chapa of Indiana, had been the fastest.
Mary Decker Tabb left Boulder, Colo., another running center, for Eugene over two years ago. Since then she met and married another world class runner, Ron Tabb - and during the last year she has set seven world records while establishing herself as America's top female runner at a variety of distances from 800 to 10,000 meters.
And now world record middle distance runners Sebastian Coe (3:47.33 in the mile) and Steve Ovett (3:31.36 in the 1,500 meters) have chosen Eugene as the site of their first head-to-head confrontation in the mile. The Sept. 25 race between the two British superstars will be the centerpiece of the best track meet in America since June 5, when Eugene put on the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field, site of the last three United States Olympic Trials.
How did a remote town of 104,000 become the track capital of the United States? It began in 1904, when Eugene was a much more remote town of 7,500; the University of Oregon hired Bill Hayward as track coach, and within two years Oregon had the first of its many world record holders, Dan Kelly in the 100-yard dash.
In 1932 Hayward was at the sidelines of an Oregon football game when a defensive back intercepted a pass and ran it back 95 yards along the sideline. As he ran, Hayward ran alongside him yelling, ''Lift up your knees, lift up your knees!'' The defensive back was Bill Bowerman, who succeeded Hayward as track coach in 1948. ''Bill Hayward taught me how to run,'' Bowerman says. ''More importantly, he taught me how to coach.''
Bowerman is a living legend in the world of track. In 1950 he started the all-comers meets that have become a part of life in Eugene ever since, including world record and world class performances, such as Decker Tabb's.
Bowerman coached NCAA mile champions Bill Dellinger (who succeeded Bowerman as Oregon's track coach in 1973), Jim Bailey, Jim Grelle, and Dyrol Burleson and thus started Oregon's track dynasty, culminating in NCAA team championships in 1962, '64, '65, and '70.
In 1962 Bowerman toured New Zealand with his world record four-mile relay team, and there he met Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand Olympic coach. Lydiard had introduced the idea of jogging to the general populace, and it became a national pastime.
Bowerman decided to go out jogging with about 200 men, women, and children. When he couldn't keep up with the group and only a 76-year-old man stayed back with him out of courtesy, Bowerman realized he was out of shape.
When he got back to America Bowerman continued jogging, then started a program for the citizens of Eugene. The first time 25 people gathered on the Hayward Field track, the next week 50 showed up, then 100. When Newsweek came to Eugene to write a story about jogging, word got out and 3,000 people showed up.
Bowerman wrote the book ''Jogging'' with W. E. Harris, M. D., and a new word and phenomenon was introduced to America. The book has sold well over a million copies.
Bowerman had made shoes for his runners since the 1950s and one of his runners, Phillip Knight, started a shoe importing business with him in 1964. In 1972 Bowerman ruined his wife's waffle iron inventing the now standard waffle sole running shoe. That same year he retired to go to work for the company he helped start, Nike Inc.
Although Knight retained 46 percent of Nike's stock, Bowerman sold all but 2 percent. ''I've never been interested in being a millionaire,'' the maverick Bowerman says. But with the company's revenues soaring about the $500 million mark, Bowerman can now afford his share of waffle irons.
A bigger thrill for Bowerman, however, was watching Steve Prefontaine run for the University of Oregon. Prefontaine led Oregon to the NCAA track championship in 1970, and to NCAA cross-country championships in 1971 and 1973. He also held the American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. But it was how he did it that made him legendary.
''Prefontaine just went out and ran right up against the wall,'' says Kenny Moore, an Oregon runner who finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon and has gone on to become one of America's leading track and field writers. ''Crowds reacted to that effort and then he reacted to the crowd and it just built into this incredible symbiosis.''
Bowerman recalls the 1972 US Olympic Trials, held at Hayward Field, home of the roaring ''Go Pre!'' chant. Thousands of fans had 'Go Pre!'' T-shirts, and rival Gerry Lindgren had some ''Stop Pre'' T-shirts made as a joke. Prefontaine won the 5,000 meter race to a deafening roar, and after his usual victory lap to sustained cheers, he ran into the stands, grabbed a ''Stop Pre'' T-shirt and made another victory lap wearing it to an even louder roar.
Prefontaine died in an automobile accident in Eugene in 1975. This didn't make him a legend, he already had been one for years, and his example inspired Salazar and Chapa to come to Oregon in 1976. Chapa became NCAA champion in the 5 ,000 meters, and heard chants of ''Rudy, Rudy, Rudy'' at Hayward Field to spur him on. Salazar led Oregon's cross-country team to the NCAA championship in 1977 , and finished first in cross-country in 1978.
Chapa has been slowed by injuries and returned to Indiana to attend law school, while Salazar, of course, has become the world's best marathoner, winning his marathon debut in New York in 1980, setting his world record 2:08.13 a year later in the same race, then dramatically outrunning Dick Beardsley to win the Boston Marathon last April.
Bowerman is one of Alberto's biggest fans. ''He's highly intelligent and he's tough,'' Bowerman says. ''He's so tough that he runs beyond his physical capability. There isn't one man in a million who can push himself like that.''
Salazar and his wife Molly, who holds several University of Oregon distance records, are expecting their first child this September. One can never tell, but if their child decides to become a runner, he'll feel right at home in Eugene.