Joe Greene’s sleek form glided around the 400-meter track, teammate Alie Beauvais in tow.
The three-time All-America from the University at Albany hit the finish line before an official, counting off the seconds, made it to “47,” prompting one goggle-eyed young spectator to turn to his friend and say “Wow! Oh, my god.”
Not long after, a little boy led the field in a 50-meter dash, and stopped twice within 15 feet of the finish line, not sure if he was done. He was caught — barely — from behind, and settled — happily — for second place.
Like a beautifully preserved Shangri-La for track and field athletes, the Colonie Recreation summer series kicked off its 41st season on Tuesday at Colonie High School.
Chuck Terry, one of the top distance runners in the Capital Region, won the first heat of the mile, then the second heat drew 70 runners, who stretched around the length of the track soon after the starter’s pistol cracked the air.
It was a parade of everything that makes the Colonie Rec meets a popular draw: young, fast runners were able to run a hard race; kids got the experience of being on a real track; older age-group stars like Martha DeGrazia, Wade and Annie Stockman and Chris Rush got to tune up their game. Some people ran it just for the pure benefit of fitness.
“My second career,” said a panting Jennifer Petersen, a former state champion high jumper at Fonda-Fultonville and the University of Michigan who coaches at Colonie.
Somewhere in the middle of that heat was long-time Colonie coach Frank Myers, who ran a 6:26, precisely as predicted. “See, my internal clock still works,” he said with a grin.
And his timeless meet still works.
There were 17 competitors at the six-event inaugural West Albany Striders meet in 1969, including Myers and his brother Don, a retired superintendent of the Colonie Recreation Department. It started as a venue for top area runners, like Barry Brown, Dirk Bradt, Tom Robinson, Jeff Green and the Schrader brothers, to compete during the slow summer months, and has evolved into an integral part of the local track and field landscape, a place where young kids can learn the sport in a structured environment side-by-side with elite athletes trying to stay sharp.
“When my two kids were small, they looked forward to this every Tuesday night,” said UAlbany coach Roberto Vives, whose son, Andres, and daugter, Ashley, starred at Shenendehowa and ran for the Great Danes. “We went to Pizza Hut afterward. It was like a family tradition. They come and run their 50 meters, and then go get pizza. My daughter was 2 and my son about 5. It was part of their upbringing. It’s almost part of the culture, which is great. I don’t know what we’d do without these guys.”
“Here, you see age 2 to 92,” said Paul Rosenberg, a former UAlbany runner and president of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club in the mid-1970s. “Around ’93 or so, I said, ‘OK, that’s enough, it’s always hot,’ and I didn’t run for 13 years. I got back into it two or three years ago . . . it’s exactly the same as when I left it.”
There are other meets in the area, like the Empire State Liberty Tour, which is sanctioned by USA Track and Field and is hosting the Adirondack Junior Olympics Championships at Knox Field in Johnstown this weekend, and weekly meets at Queensbury High School. Colonie Rec is the only one that’s free, though, and it has a tradition and history that keeps bringing them back.
The 6 p.m. schedule includes hurdle races, relays and open events on the track from 50 meters for kids up to two miles.
Various field events are also conducted, and Myers has a team of well-known area coaches and officials, like Bob Oates, Sandy Morley, Doug Hadley, Scott Hannay, Nicole Susser and Don Romano, to run the show.
The meets will run every Tuesday through Aug. 11.
Stars come out
Part of the appeal is that you never know who might show up, or what you’ll see.
Two years ago, UAlbany’s Gered Burns and John Moore ran an 800 in 1:48.9 and 1:49.9, respectively; former Albany Academy star Dan Olson is one of two men to go 7-0 in the high jump; and Olympic hopeful Alisa Hill, the 1991 Pan Am Games champion, ran a 2:05.2 in the women’s 800 in 1997.
Myers can count 28 high school state champions who have participated, from A (Art Allen) to Z (Joe Zelezniak), and Colonie Rec has also drawn the likes of Andy Bloom of Niskayuna, who was fourth in the shot put at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and Jeff York of Troy, who just missed qualifying for the U.S. team in the hurdles that year.
On Tuesday, Greene and Beauvais gave everybody something to “ooh” and “aah” about, and out of the blue, Daniella Eriksson, a 21-year-old from Sweden who has personal records of 6-0 in the high jump and 40-plus in the triple jump, showed up. She’s visiting for the summer, and is trying to post a 5-9 in the high jump so she can qualify for the Junior European Championships to be held July 23-26 in Novi Sad, Serbia.
“It’s nice to compete, and nobody knows who you are,” she said.
The Colonie Rec athletes come in all packages.
Last summer, Bob Mattison of Bennington, Vt., was a regular, as he chased several world records in the 90-and-over age group, and on Tuesday, 60-year-old Hillen Von Maltzahn, fresh off a European age group-record 9:08.51 in the steeplechase at a Liberty Tour meet at Ichabod Crane High School, ran three sprints as a pole vault workout.
The native of Germany, who lives in Troy, holds the 55-59 world record in that event, and is preparing for the world championships in Finland at the end of July.
“For me, it’s great practice. And the atmosphere is wonderful. It’s like a big family here,” she said.
Myers, 63, said the Colonie Rec meets typically draw over 200 athletes later in the season.
During the running boom in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the AAU held meets at Bleecker Stadium in Albany, but the menu of events was limited. Schenectady also hosted meets run by future Nike president Tom Clarke at Mont Pleasant, Linton and Union College, but that program ended in 1986.
The Colonie meets, meanwhile, occasionally shuffled around to Shaker High and UAlbany, while the Colonie High track underwent renovations, but it always maintained the same flavor and diversity.
“Way back when I got out of college in ’69, there were a lot of people like me who wanted to continue to run, and high school kids in the summer,” Myers said. “At that time, I’d never even seen a person running on the roads before, and then one day I saw Jim Bowles and thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ Then there was Barry Brown, and that whole thing kind of proliferated.
“We were kidding one day. Mark Mindel used to help here, and Tommy Clarke was over there in Schenectady, and the three of us were running one day on the roads. Somebody said, ‘If we ever got hit by a car and killed, that would’ve been the end of area track for the summer.’
“We’re not the only game in town, but when we get going, I don’t think anybody has the participation. We have one thing — we don’t charge anything. It’s been free forever.”
That makes it all the easier for truly recreational track enthusiasts to make their way to Colonie every Tuesday.
Last week, Dan Servetas, a former high school pole vaulter from Trumbull, Conn., who lives in Loudonville and works for Shaw Environmental in Latham, ran the mile with his 6-year-old son, Tommy.
“We’ve been doing it for four years now,” said Servetas, who also has a 10-year-old daughter, Victoria. “They love it, because they see some of their pals, and just running. It was his first mile, 8:26. He did well. He had a little left in the end for a kick. We did a quarter-mile, and I figured if he could go at that pace for four, he wasn’t huffing and puffing at the end, so I just helped him pace through the first 31⁄2, helped him keep his breathing steady and all that.
“Yeah, they like seeing those guys, too.”
“Those guys” were Greene and Beauvais.
The two Great Danes had just gotten back from the NCAAs at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where Greene was fourth in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.
Vives tried to get them to work out on campus Tuesday afternoon, but after a long return trip during which they missed a flight in Atlanta and had to stay overnight there on Sunday, Greene and Beauvais just couldn’t get into it.
Vives suggested they head over to Colonie for the meet, and a lightbulb went on.
“I couldn’t motivate them at practice at 3 o’clock today, so I said ‘You guys want to go over there?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll go over there,’ Vives said with a laugh.
“The atmosphere’s a little different. There’s people around, so you’re more motivated. They know they get to encourage some young people.
“My kids grew up here. It’s free, it helps to promote the sport. I mean, you’ve got young kids involved, all the way up to masters. It’s a tremendous program.”
“It feels like another track meet,” Greene said. “The crowd was amped, because they knew who I was and what I’m capable of, so
being out here, these little kids look up to athletes like me. It feels good to give back to the community and showcase what Albany has done for me the past four years.”
“We try to stress this is recreation,” Myers said. “In the beginning, there wasn’t a whole lot of people, but it was pretty good quality, and then as it got older, we started having age groups, then we started getting more women involved, then kids, and now we’ve got everything.
“People do it for different reasons. There’s a lot of camaraderie. A lot of people come back.”
“You see these ‘Best Of’ lists, like in Metroland,” Rosenberg said. “Well, there’s nothing like this.”
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