EUGENE, Ore. -- Far off the track, early Saturday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, and far out of sight, with nine events of the decathlon safely tucked into the books, Ashton Eaton stretched his weary, 24-year-old body out on a rubbing table. He is young, strong and fast, but the decathlon will always extract its toll and this one was no different. It had been rainy and cold and it had been sunny and dry, sometimes in the same 15-minute period. Eaton had done remarkable things and outside this break room, a record Hayward Field crowd in his adopted home clamored for a moment at the intersection of talent and history.
Eaton's coach, Harry Marra, a crusty, irreverent former decathlete asked Eaton how he felt. "Tired," Marra recalled Eaton telling him. They almost never talk during a decathlon about how many points Eaton might score, about what records he might break. They talk about individual events, about technique, about staying the course paved during months of training. "The thing about Ashton," said fellow competitor Curtis Beach, who would finish 11th, "He's just out there having a great time, competing." Eaton had four times previously broken world records -- junior records, indoor records, collegiate records. But now much bigger prey awaited.
Over the nearly two full days of the event Eaton had fulfilled the prophecy of nearly everyone who studies the decathlon and felt that he would someday break the world record. He had scored decathlon world bests in the 100 meters (10.21 seconds) and long jump (27 feet, ¾ inches) on Friday and a person best in the pole vault (17- 4 ½) on Saturday. Now, with one event remaining, he was virtually certain to break Dan O'Brien's 20-year-old American record and was within striking distance of Czech Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old world record of 9,026 points, which had stood since 2001 and represented the only total more than 9,000 points by the event's arcane scoring tables.
Marra recalled leaning over to Eaton. "You can get the record," he said.
"The American record?" said Eaton.
"No," said Marra. "The world record." It wouldn't be easy. Eaton would need to run 4:16.23 for the 1,500 meters, the crushing final event of the decathlon. Eaton does not train specifically for the 1,500. He lets if flow from his 400-meter training. His personal best was 4:18.93, run last year when he won a silver medal at the world championships in Daegu.
Marra and Eaton agree on what was said. Eaton looked at Marra, super cool, and said, "Let's go for it."
What happened next will fall into the myth of Hayward Field, where Steve Prefontaine is still revered for his passion and his greatness (and sadly, for dying much too young, at the age of 24 in 1975) and track is worshipped like no place in America. (And in no small part because it was Oregon where he matriculated in the fall of 2006 from the central Oregon city of Bend, where he had been a solid 400-meter runner and long jumper, but had never pole vaulted or thrown any implement into the air).
Eaton and Marra had a plan. "Even pace for three laps," said Marra. "Run 69s for 1200 meters and then bring it home in 47 seconds." That would be a 4:14. Eaton settled into third place for most of the race, well behind Beach, who is a terrific 1,500-meter runner, and Joe Detmer. But with those 300 meters left, Eaton exploded down the Hayward backstretch, breaking into a full sprinter's stride. He moved nearer to Detmer. "It was like Joe was saying, `Come on Ashton, catch me, catch me' and I was like thank you, Joe."
When he hit the homestretch, it was apparent that he would take down Sebrle, and 10 meters from the finish line, Beach slowed to a jog and stepped aside to let Eaton cross the finish line first. "I thought it was right for Ashton win the race when he set the world record," said Beach.
"Those last 600 meters, that's when the crowd was lifting me up," said Eaton. "I was not running on my own legs. It was incredible. I don't care what anyone says, this is a magical place. And then when Curtis stepped aside, that was just such a show of respect." Eaton crossed the line in 4:14.48, nearly two seconds faster than he needed and finished with 9,039 points. On the 100th anniversary of the decathlon, in front of a crowd that included Bruce Jenner, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey and Dan O'Brien, he became 10th American to break the world record. And it might be just the beginning.
Before the 1,500 meters, I texted Marra and asked, playfully, if they were saving anything for London. Marra texted back: "Savin a lot!!!!!" Eaton said after the decathlon was finished: "Not to pump my own tires, but I feel like I'm not maximized yet. I'm not at the end of my career, I'm at the beginning. I can run faster, I can jump higher and farther. I can certainly throw farther."
And therein lies the juxtaposition at the center of long, remarkable session. It had been one of those days in track and field -- nay, in any sport anywhere -- when athletes pass each other in time. When an old man (or woman) finds himself (or herself) suddenly facing the end and that end looks like what was standing in the mirror a long time ago. Sometimes that athlete survives for another day or another year and sometimes that athlete is gone.
Early in the morning, before the gunmetal skies and rains came again to Hayward Field, Bryan Clay faced down a flight of 10 high hurdles over 110 meters in the sixth event of the 10-event decathlon. Clay won the gold medal in the decathlon four years ago in Beijing after winning the silver in Athens four years before that. He was trying to win a third consecutive medal in the decathlon, which had never been accomplished before. He stood in third place. He is also 32 years old, and while there had been few signs that age would catch him, in this event, it almost always does.
Clay cleared eight hurdles and then crashed into the ninth. "The race was going great," said Clay. Then it wasn't. He stopped short of the 10th hurdle and pushed it over. His time was 16.81 seconds, which would have dropped him to seventh place. But in a long and Byzantine process, he was twice disqualified and twice reinstated with his slow time, but only after fouling three times and scoring zero points in the discus. His third Olympic bid was over. Yet he continued. He pole vaulted, threw the javelin and ran the 1,500 meters.
In the middle of this, I tweeted praise at Clay for finishing the job and Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist in the high jump, tweeted back: "He respects his competitors."
After he was finished, Clay said, "I knew I needed to finish. I wanted to finish. The last thing I wanted to do was look back and have my kids remember that I didn't finish the decathlon. The last thing you want to do as a role model is quit at something." (Clay and his wife, Sarah, have three children).
Clay offered only a mild criticism of the strange process that left him feeling defeated in the discus, when had he known he was alive in the hurdles he might have thrown better. Yet he also saw the larger picture. While Clay did not say that he was retiring, it is nearly inconceivable that he will contest another Trials at a competitive level. It is time to leave the event to the likes of Eaton (whose likes we have never seen before).
"You've always got young guys coming up behind you," he said. "I remember when I was that young kid, coming up at Roman (Sebrle) and Tomas (Dvorak, the other great Czech decathlete). In fact, I was talking to Ashton today after the meet. He was saying, `Some kid is going to be coming after me."'
Adam Nelson would understand. Twelve years ago, as a prematurely balding shot putter out of Dartmouth, Nelson lit up the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento with an emotional style that helped transform the shot put into a signature, crowd-pleasing event. He twice won silver medals at the Olympic Games and a world title in 2005. But here in the rain, with a sore groin that his 36-year-old body just couldn't get healed, he managed just one legal throw in shot put qualifying and at a distance he threw as a freshman in college.
He saw 24-year-old Kurt Roberts, a prep school teacher from Canton, Ohio, make the finals and said, "He reminds me of myself, 12 years ago. This is a great occasion, the Olympic Trials. I saw a lot of beginnings out there." He wiped tears from his eyes with a fad ball of paper towels and embraced his wife, Laci. She was crying, too.
Two hours later, 28-year-old Lauryn Williams finished sixth in the finals of the 100 meters, a race that would later be won by Carmelita Jeter, with Tianna Madison second and the notorious dead heat between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh for third (which was still undecided late Saturday night). Williams was a treasure in 2004, when she streak of the University of Miami and took a silver in the 100 meters in Athens. She was small and hilarious and a killer in the blocks. She won a world title in 2005 in Helsinki and afterward trolled for sponsorship. "How about milk?" she asked and then chirped, "Milk does a body good!" She made another Olympic team in 2008 and finished fourth in the Olympic final.
Yesterday she stood in the media zone and talked to one reporter, then another. Then nobody. Did she stay to watch Jeter and Madison celebrate? "I pretty much bailed," she said, still with a sprinting Mickey Mouse tattoo on her thigh. "But I was ready to tell (NBC's) Lewis (Johnson) how happy I was to make the take the team and wave my little flag."
Lolo Jones waved the little flag, completing a long climb back from her fall while leading the Olympic final in Beijing and making the U.S. team with a third-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles. And then there was Jeremy Wariner, who came up with Williams and won a gold medal in the 400 meters in Athens and then two world titles. He was the smoothest thing in spikes, from the shades at night to his silky smooth stride. But he has struggled for three years and on Saturday night barely qualified for the final in the quarter. He is a long shot to make the team. "I'll show y'all tomorrow," he said after the semifinal.
Bryan Clay had another thought on that subject, accepting not just the waving of little flags, but the passing of torches as well. "Tomorrow," he said, "Everybody will forget about me."