Track and Field, Then and Now

Issue Date: 
September 11, 2006

John Woodruff: “Things are altogether different for track athletes today than they were in my time. Our shoes were different, for one thing. They were much heavier than the shoes they wear today.”

Alonzo Webb, head coach of the Pitt men’s and women’s track-and-field and cross-country teams (in a separate interview): “Even as late as 1968, when I was running cross-country in high school, I wore spikes that were fairly long and heavy, and you couldn’t remove them from the shoe. Today’s spikes are light, and you can replace them if they get dull. And the shoes now are so light, you don’t feel like you’re even wearing anything on your feet.

“Today’s track uniforms are lightweight and they wick off moisture and keep you dry, whereas back in 1936 they wore heavy, woolen uniforms. When I saw those uniforms and the heavy track shoes that guys like John Woodruff wore during the 1930s, I thought, ‘Man, guys today definitely wouldn’t be running as fast as they do if they had to wear what those guys wore back then.’”

Woodruff: “What would we eat before a meet? Oh, just ordinary food—steak, potatoes, toast, that type of diet.”

Webb: “At the beginning of every year, we have a sports nutritionist come in and speak to our cross-country and track-and-field teams about proper nutrition and what to eat the week before a meet, a couple of days before a meet, on the day of the meet, and so forth, to give you your best performance. Our runners learn about the importance of eating carbohydrates, hydrating themselves, and keeping up their electrolyte levels. Instead of meat and potatoes, runners today typically will eat pasta or salad on the day of a meet.”

Woodruff: “I was very tall for a runner, and I was unusual in having quite a long stride—it was measured at nine feet.”

Webb: “A nine-foot stride! That’s amazing. The only other runner I’ve seen with a stride like that was Alberto Juantorena of Cuba, who won both the 400- and 800-meter races in the [1976] Olympics. I’ve seen the film of John Woodruff’s gold-medal race and marveled at how long his stride was and how smooth he was. A normal stride for an 800-meters runner is about six-and-a-half feet, seven feet at the most.”

Woodruff: “I came from a poor family, and I had to overcome some adversity.”

Webb: “At Pitt, we don’t have an outdoor track. I tell our student-athletes, ‘If you needed the best facilities in order to be great athletes, people like John Woodruff and Jesse Owens never would have achieved the things they did. Those guys ran on cinder tracks, and they still ran great times.’ My standard line is, ‘It’s not where you train, it’s how you train.’ I don’t let our student-athletes use [the lack of an outdoor track] as an excuse, and they don’t. Our women’s track-and-field team has won the last two Big East titles.”

He Set the Pace
For Future Pitt Olympians

John Woodruff’s gold medal-winning performance in the 1936 Berlin games set the pace for three later Pitt Olympians.
Herbert Douglas Jr. (EDUC ’48, M.Ed. ’50) was the first to follow in “Long John’s” Olympic footsteps, winning a bronze medal in the long jump during the 1948 London games. By that time, Douglas already had made history by becoming one of the first two African Americans to play football for Pitt.

Roger Kingdom (CGS ’02) came to Pitt determined to make his mark in football, but watching a videotape of Woodruff’s Olympic victory inspired Kingdom to focus on track. He went on to win gold medals in the 110-meter hurdles in 1984 and 1988 at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles and Seoul, respectively.

The most decorated athlete in Pitt history, Trecia-Kaye Smith (EDUC ’99, SHRS ’02) is the reigning world champion in the women’s triple jump. Hampered by injuries, Smith finished fourth in the triple jump at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, running for her native Jamaica.