SIOUX CITY -- Don’t ask for an explanation, please, because I don’t exactly have one.
For some reason, though, I’ve always found the 800 meters to be the best race on the track and field program. And, this began when most Americans usually ran an actual half-mile, or 880 yards, unless they were competing overseas.
Success in an 800 or an 880 has always demanded high levels of both stamina and foot speed -- something that isn’t nearly as pronounced in either the shorter or the longer distances.
Coupled with the respect I have for the 40-and-over athletes who happen to win this thing, I’ve long felt the Masters 800 race held since 1975 at Drake Relays has been a very special feature of “America’s Athletic Classic.”
Tucked into the Friday afternoon agenda, this isn’t exactly a headline attraction. And, with the cold and rainy conditions that prevailed when the starter’s pistol sounded last Friday, the audience inside Drake Stadium wasn’t too inspiring.
“Sparse,’’ said Eric Potter, describing the crowd witnessing his first competitive race in 13 years.
Not since 2004 had the former three-sport athlete from Bishop Heelan run an official race. He wasn’t even sure he’d be able to take part just four days after tweaking a hamstring.
Yet there he was, feeling his way gingerly through a relatively slow 64-second first lap, then turning it loose to reach the finish line well ahead of anyone else in a field of 32. A clocking of 2:03.41 put him 2.25 seconds ahead of the nearest challenger, fulfilling a longtime quest.
“I probably ran in the Drake Relays seven different years and I never was victorious in a relay or one of the opens (individual races),’’ said Potter. “I think I knew back in 2004, the last time I ran there, I’d be back when I turned 40 and hopefully get my Drake Relays flag (for winning an event). So, it was fun to do that.’’
Few among us can appreciate just how much.
Let’s begin with Potter’s high school days, when his buddy, Chad Heying, was the state 200- and 400-meter champion in 1995, Heelan’s final season in Class 4A. Eric ran the 800 and 1,600 while his twin brother, Jason, was more of a sprinter on a team that finished a very noteworthy fourth.
Still, Eric matriculated from Heelan without ever achieving the major breakthrough all high school half-milers covet. A personal best of two-minutes flat was his best as a prep. He just couldn’t quite break that barrier.
That didn’t deter him from walking on with his brother to run track at Northern Iowa. After a redshirt year in 1995-96, he came out of nowhere with a 1:49 during a 1997 freshman season that saw him win the Missouri Valley Conference indoor 800 title.
An All-America finish came a few years later along with two more MVC crowns, a sweep of the indoor and outdoor 800’s as a senior in 2000.
“It was a lot of work, but I was coached by the best coach, Chris Bucknam,’’ said Potter, proud of how his old UNI mentor has gone on to become the head coach of a national powerhouse men’s program at the University of Arkansas. “There was a strong work ethic in the program and they just developed talent.’’
The UNI experience, in fact, inspired Eric to continue competing for four years after college as part of a small faith-based track club called “For Him Athletics.’’ This proved to be a fortuitous decision for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the acquaintance he made at the 2001 Kansas Relays.
Running unattached in Lawrence, of course, the Sioux City native met a member of the women’s track team from Oral Roberts University and the former Miley Turnbull, a Tulsa-area native, wound up becoming his bride. Limited as Eric’s audience was Friday, it did include Miley and their three young children, daughters Avery (7) and Saige (3) along with son Hudson (5).
Also in the stands were Eric’s parents, Eugene and JoAnne, plus his sister, Michelle Flesher, a Heelan grad who wound up married to an alumnus of longtime rival West Des Moines Dowling and now lives in Des Moines.
For Eric the best part was winning in front of his kids.
“It was the first time they got to see Dad compete,’’ he beamed.
For his final two years of college and the next two years after that, the great Joey Woody was Eric’s primary training partner. He then moved to Columbia, Mo., and spent two more years working with Derrick Peterson, an eight-time Big 12 champion for Missouri who made it to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Reaching the conclusion that his ceiling had been reached with a P.R. of 1:47.4, he settled into the life that has made him not only a husband and father but also a pastor at the Mennonite church in Metamora, Illinois, 15 miles from his home in Peoria. He is also a volunteer track coach at Metamora High School, where his distance runners have become regular contenders in the middle tier of the state’s three-class championships.
Twin brother Jason, meanwhile, has planted roots in Venice, Florida, where he’s the head coach of a perennially successful track and field program.
As many of you realize, Eric is not the first Masters 800 winner with Sioux City ties. Dave Nash, the longtime track and cross country coach at Morningside College, scored back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009. That came on the heels of several strong showings by East High product Bob Prince, the former NCAA champ for Kansas State who has been a co-director of the Sioux City Relays for many years.
At age 49, it’s been a few years since Nash saw the end to a remarkable streak of 28 consecutive years in which he broke two minutes in the 800. That ran from his sophomore year at Des Moines Hoover in 1984 through 2011. He narrowly missed a 29th straight year in 2012, when his best attempt was a hand-timed two minutes flat.
Nash, who has won numerous national championships in various age groups, is growing more inspired as his 50th birthday approaches in December, bumping him up to another division. He’s almost bashful to mention it, but he still claims a streak of 37 years of 400-meter times under 60 seconds. That one started when he was a sixth-grader.