For the past few weeks, cold, unrelenting rain has pelted the Puget Sound region.
At Cascade High School, which sits on the border of the Convergence Zone — the area of the region that generally catches the brunt of every storm — track and field student athletes have tried for years to make the best of the soggy conditions while they prepare and compete during the season.
Unfortunately for the athletes and surrounding community, the track and field facilities on campus haven’t changed much since the school opened in 1961, which means that Cascade is just one of a small group of 4A schools in the state trying to make due with a cinder track rather than synthetic rubbery tracks which began to be the norm in the 1970s.
“It can be under water,” Cascade girls track coach Steve Bertrand said. “It can be too muddy to use. It can be covered in snow. In the summer time it is packed down hard as concrete. I encourage our kids to run on asphalt because it’s softer than this track.”
Cinder is essentially an unforgiving combination of dirt, rocks and sand. Even when the weather doesn’t affect it, running on it is no picnic.
“There’s a lot of injuries caused by it because it’s torn up by the water,” said Cascade senior distance runner Aaron Campbell. “It has lumps in it and holes. It gets driven on and it’s really hard to practice on.”
Campbell is one of the bright track stars of the Bruins program, but he recently suffered a lower leg injury on the uneven surface and it has slowed his preparation for the season.
“It’s really hard to get a good workout in,” Campbell said.
Campbell also missed large portions of his freshman and sophomore track seasons due to a reoccurring hip injury that he blames on the surface that Bertrand calls “a dinosaur.”
The coach knows first hand because he competed on the same track when he first attended Cascade as a freshman in 1970 and now he is a full-time PE instructor in addition to his coaching duties.
“It hasn’t changed a bit,” Bertrand said. “Most of the year it can’t be used by our athletic programs and it can’t be used by the community.”
In the winter of 2010 Bertrand attended a Northwest all-sports clinic where he learned that 96 percent of high schools in Washington train on synthetic surfaces. The only local cinder surfaces are at Cascade, Jackson and Shorewood, which has plans to put in a new synthetic surface during an upcoming school remodel.
“We’re not just talking about a track issue,” Bertrand said. “We’re talking about a whole community issue here. We’re talking about a safety issue… It’s also a parity issue.”
“It seems really unfair,” Campbell said.
The solution seems obvious. Why not just break ground on a new track after the school year is over?
“Conversations are open right now,” said Cascade Athletic Director Dave Peters. “Folks are interested in talking about it. The roadblock that’s not surprising is the financial part.”
Because the track surface is so poor, many try to run on the infield, which forms holes and can be equally as treacherous when wet. As a result, the school would like to replace the field as well.
A new eight-lane synthetic track along with a FieldTurf-type surface on the interior could cost anywhere from 11/2 to 31/2 million dollars, depending on what other facilities (lights, bleachers, other Cascade sports fields) get attached to the project.
In the current economic climate of cutbacks and belt-tightening, the Everett School district has yet to find room in the budget for such a project.
“It has been a concern for quite some time both at Cascade and Jackson,” Everett School District athletic director Robert Polk said.
In fact in 2006 the district voters passed a facilities bond with very strong support. It allowed for the building of new elementary schools and remodeling other current district facilities. At the time there was hope among some that upgrading the track would be a part of the bond.
“There was very strong support for school remodeling or building new schools,” said Polk of the pre-bond survey done by the district. “But there was not strong support for athletic facilities.
“There’s hope that sometime we might be able to upgrade the tracks at Cascade and Jackson but we just haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Meanwhile year-after-year the students continue to struggle.
Allison Weir is one of the senior captains for the girls team and though she wouldn’t directly benefit from a new track since she will have graduated by the time any project is completed, she is one of the most vocal proponents of a new surface.
“To have to see my teammates suffer through injuries running on such a poor surface is really tough because I know they could do a lot better if we had a better surface to run on,” Weir said.
Polk shares the concerns of the Cascade team with regard to safety and recently asked the district’s athletic trainers to see if there was a statistical trend that was a direct result of the track, but the results were inconclusive despite plenty of anecdotal evidence from some Cascade athletes.
“Student safety is of paramount importance,” Polk said. “If we had firm figures to support it, then it would have been taken care of a long time ago, but we’ve been unable to quantify it.”
Once a week the Cascade track team piles into vans and heads to Everett Memorial Stadium to practice in four lanes. But that solution is merely a band-aid and it adds travel expenses to the Cascade budget.
The next expected bond will be in 2014, but that means several more years of slipping and mud for everyone that steps onto the track, including many community groups and organizations that try to make due such as the Special Olympics, Relay for Life, the local police department as well as the Army and Navy which use the field for testing new recruits. That doesn’t include local residents and Cascade staff that would just like to take a stroll without ruining their shoes and socks.
In the mean time, people at Cascade have their fingers crossed that one of two solutions will come through and end the frustration that stems from the facility.
Some of the district’s construction projects have come in under budget (decreased construction costs are one of the few benefits to the global economic downturn) and some surplus dollars could become available.
“Ideally the school district will be able to find those dollars that we need and we could break ground this summer,” Polk said. “That would be my pie in the sky dream.”
Polk was unwilling to guess how likely it is that the district will find the dollars but he was willing to discuss the other solution: some type of public and private partnership.
Potentially local corporations and/or affluent individuals, recognizing the importance of a new track to the community, could fund the project. The corporate participation might go unrecognized, however, because it is unclear if a stadium or facility that bears the name of a company violates the district policy banning advertising in the classroom.
“We have to determine if that would be considered advertising or something else,” Polk said.
In the meantime while the rain continues to pool on the cinder track, the Cascade coaches and athletes are forced to get creative, running in the gymnasium and under the awnings of the school buildings. The Bruins go through this while the majority of teams they compete against get to train daily on synthetic surfaces.
“We’re just asking for help from somebody,” Cascade boys coach Chris Crockett said. “Anybody.”