The Early Lead: ‘Blue on the shoe’
By BRANDON HURLEY
The Blue Oval.
Three simple words that resonate triumphantly across the state of Iowa, the midwest and the entire country each spring.
The beautiful, pristine, baby blue track inside Drake Stadium (it’s all new this year, which I can’t wait to see in in person) is a far cry from the days of cinder tracks, where times were slow and mishaps were dangerous. When you took a tumble on a cinder track, you weren’t left with track burns but rocks were often protruding from your knee.
The crowd, the stadium as a whole – it’s a unique venue, one that’s old but still has an endearing quality to it – the fans are on top of you, just a few feet off the track. The stands wrap all the way around the track, there are no unnecessary gaps for cheesy statues or decorations. When you attend the Drake Relays, you are apart of the event, whether as a track athlete, a spectator, the security guard or the media.
“[That] crowd and hearing your name over the PA while you’re running a race, that’s special,” Greene County girls’ track and field coach Kelly Simpson said. “[If] you can get them to say “Greene County” or “Jefferson-Scranton,” that’s really special.”
The Drake Relays often bring out the best in its participants. Not only do they consistently break records, but their personalities shine as well. And whether it’s that “Iowa Nice” factor rubbing off on them or the rich history of the Relays seeping into their veins, sportsmanship is shared from the high school students all the way up to the Olympians.
The lead long jump official at the Drake Relays and Greene County faculty member, Chad Morton, believes it’s one of the lesser-known positives of the annual event.
“The elite athletes are so gracious and so nice. A lot of them come around and say thank you,” Morton said. “It’s their job too, its a different side that I’ve never seen. To see how humble and nice they are, the compliments they give, that’s the thing that has impressed me.”
Of course, the high caliber of athletes is what really draws the fans in. Gold medalists, Olympians and world champions often dot the field of track stars while Iowa’s best of the best high school students compete in front of a packed house, on a college track.
“Where else would you be able to stand side-by-side with an Olympian? That’s exciting,” Morton said. “People are just screaming – how can you not have your hair on the back of your neck stand up? It’s just awesome, it’s hard to sometimes keep your attention focused.”
The nostalgia of the Relays is something that reaches even the deepest part of local communities. A smaller school can compete toe-to-toe with the big boys and girls, fighting for supremacy all in the same division. There are no classes at the Drake Relays, everyone from Coon Rapids-Bayard on up to West Des Moines Valley is competing at the same level.
Greene County, while classified in 3A, is still one of the smaller schools in it’s division. The Rams are only sending one athlete to the Relays this spring, but the small town of Jefferson relishes the achievement. Megan Durbin, the defending 3A high jump champion and Drake Relays title holder, will compete at 9:45 a.m. Friday.
“Having a participant at Drake is what this community, school district, and team needs to celebrate,” Simpson said. “I’ll be proud of Megan if she wins, or can’t make opening height.”
I personally enjoy standing at the top of the steps, taking in the wall-to-wall excitement in the crowd. I’ll take in the ‘Blue Oval,’ the stadium and the fierce competition below. The budding enthusiasm for a potential record or photo-finish is exhilarating. Of course, you’ll see me take a wide-angle shot or two of the stadium.
I came into this profession not necessarily a “track” guy – but the spectacle of Drake Stadium, record-breaking performances and the overflow of statistics hooked me. As a sports nut, statistics and records are my thing. Keeping an eye on the time or watching an athlete or relay team just blow past the field is astonishing.
The Drake Relays exemplify all of that while also giving so many different age groups a shot at glory.
With more than 70 Olympians dueling it out over the next three days, we are sure in for a treat.
“There’s no other track meet where you can watch middle school, high school, college and Olympians,” Morton said. “Drake’s the best, it’s the best meet in America.”