When we watch the Olympics every four years, we see athletes seemingly gliding around the corners of the beautiful track, often breaking records.

Same at high schools and universities now, Kennewick and other area schools got brand new tracks at their facilities.

But it wasn't that long ago that sprinters, hurdlers, and distance runners would 'scrunch scrunch scrunch' across older cinder tracks. There's a distinctive sound made from spikes in older tracks.

Even in my college days, in the mid 80's, Whitworth University, and some other smaller NCAA D-III schools, still had cinder tracks.

Before polyurethane and rubber were combined to make the surfaces we see now, there were a variety of methods used that runners had to put up with.  The ancient Greeks basically ran on sand or dirt.

As for the 'modern' era of track and field, which began with the modern 1900's Olympics then spread worldwide, athletes for decades ran on either clay or cinders. Cinders are a mix of crushed fine ash, carbon, and rock, called cinder. It's a gritty crunchy mix and runners would often end up with a layer of tiny grains of cinders all over their shoes, ankles, and even legs. This image shows the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the steeplechase, and they're running on cinders.

Getty Images
Getty Images

All the lanes for running events have to be laid out with chalk every time a meet was held.

Then along came asphalt surfaces, but these didn't last that long. Soft asphalt could be painted instead of chalked like cinder but tended to be hard on joints.

Getty Images for European Athlet
Getty Images for European Athlet

Then once polyurethane and rubber were combined to make a smooth, fast surface with some give to it, they began to appear everywhere. The forerunners of the modern tracks we see today made their debut in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and records began to be smashed ever since.

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The other big problem with cinder tracks was constant maintenance. They have to be raked and dragged to ensure a flat, even surface. And rain turns them into a sticky slow mess; especially if it works down to the hard dirt or clay underneath.

There are grade and even middle schools that still have grass tracks, grounds workers use gas or other vegetation killers to spray lanes in the grass so runners know where to go to, but even these are being replaced by the modern tracks are more and more schools.

So when you're watching the Olympic athletes fly down the Tartan (brand name for one of the earliest poly tracks) remember the old days when everyone was basically running in 'fancy dirt.'


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