Each year, as track season moves to the conference, regional and state meets, runners, many in their best shape of the season, will not make it to the starting line, or at least not until next year. Their times are just not fast enough to compete at that level.
For many, practices continue, miles are logged, sprints completed, but the chance to compete is over. Athletes competing in Michigan come back after spring break and there is only five to six weeks of competition prior to conference and regional meets. Many of these early season meets take place in cold, rainy, and even snowy weather, followed sometimes by a quick transition to blazing temperatures, so opportunities to set personal records (PRs) are gone for those not moving on to the final meets.
Dan Ebright, Cross Country and Track and Field coach at Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills High School had an idea that he thought would not only benefit his athletes but would be of interest to many athletes and coaches in the distance running community. He wanted to give his middle distance and distance runners (and athletes from other schools) just one more opportunity to PR. He felt an end-of-the-season meet, offering only distance races, would keep his runners working out -- keeping them engaged in the team’s success all the way through the end of the season.
Ebright focused on a track meet in the “off-week” between the regional qualifying meet and the state finals. But not a meet with teams competing for points, and not a meet with sprints, hurdles, relays, or field events. He envisioned just three events, the 800, 1600 and 3200, run in heats, each heat of approximately 20 runners seeded by the runner’s PR. He also felt hosting the meet in the evening would provide runners the best opportunity to run in great weather conditions with cool temperatures and little wind. So, the idea of Distance Night Under the Lights was born.
With Ebright coaching every day, co-meet manager Jolinda Lucas is tasked with putting together the details of meets that the duo hosts at historic Houseman Field, which sits in the urban center of Grand Rapids. Ebright and Lucas host a total of 12 to 15 elementary, middle school and high school meets each spring at Houseman Field and have been a big part in once again making Houseman Field an epicenter for great track and field events.
After joining the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) district in 2011, and being a GRPS middle school athletic director, Lucas has had firsthand experience with some of the struggles older city schools have in competing with the larger suburban schools. She wanted Distance Night Under the Lights be another defining event, showing what urban schools can accomplish.
In 2021, Ebright thought of the meet idea a mere two weeks prior to hosting it.
Due to some logistical problems with graduations at Houseman Field, the inaugural event was moved to the Grand Rapids Catholic Central Athletic Complex also known as the “CAT.” Even with short notice, and just three events, Distance Night at the CAT (no lights at the CAT) drew 24 schools and 150 runners. A total of 111 runners set new PRs. An amazing 74 percent! Eighty-two percent achieved PRs in the boys’ 1600.
After the success of the inaugural event, “Dan and I saw the potential for growth of the event with more lead time to plan,” Lucas said. “We wanted to host an outstanding meet and provide an innovative event for our athletes and community and the athletes and fans from other communities throughout the state.”
To build on 2021’s success, the 2022 Distance Night, again held on the weekend between the regional meets and the state meet, was moved to the historic Houseman Field track in Grand Rapids.
Houseman Field, dating back to 1910, is a true throwback to a golden age in track and field with the footprints of legends in the cinders (now, synthetic of course). In the 1970s it was high school runner Greg Meyer, later winner of the Boston and Chicago marathons, that crowds came to Houseman Field to watch. Meyer is one of many great athletes who have competed at the historic facility in its over 100-year history.
Since Ebright and Lucas had an entire year to prepare, the size of the 2022 meet tripled with 445 individual runners taking part. More than 90 schools were represented. On Saturday, May 28, races started at 6 p.m. with 11 heats of the 1600. This was followed at 7:30 by 13 heats of the 800, and at 8:30, by eight heats of the 3200. The last and fastest heat of the 3200 finished just after10:30 p.m.
Out of 539 finishers (some doubling in events) there were 430 PRs for the night (79.78%). Eighty percent of finishers in the 800 set PRs, 76 percent in the 1600, and 76 percent in the 3200.
For Kris Koster, track coach at Wyoming’s Potter’s House Christian, a small Division 4 school where he coaches both middle school and high school runners, Distance Night Under the Lights at Houseman Field was an opportunity for his top runners to test their speed without focusing on tactics. A few ran shorter distances. One won the 3200m and broke the school record and Division 4 state record. Many set personal bests. In the state meet a week later, Potter’s House runners won the Division 4 individual titles in the 1600 and 3200 and the 4 x 800 relay.
But most importantly, runners, both boys and girls, who will never win state meet honors, or even get to the starting line, had the opportunity to race with others with similar PRs and set new PRs for themselves, all on a special night under the lights on a track of legends.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by
THE MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION