By RICHARD HAYDEN
As the Portlock Park Master Plan is being developed it is clear many people see a perimeter pathway around the park as somehow equivalent to a running track. I would like to show that there is no such equivalency and why a 400-metre track is a better option for Portlock.
The competitive athlete is not the only user of the track. Many people use the track. Walking, convalescing, maintaining physical fitness into senior years and new moms pushing prams while other kids play are a few examples of track users. I have spent quite a bit of time recently stopping by the track when I see people there walking to ask them why they use the track and their feelings on a perimeter path.
The track offers a dead flat soft surface. This is important to many as they may have walkers, canes or balance issues that make tripping a real peril. Many are exercising with damaged or repaired joints and the surface offered by the track is comfortable. Often users are recommended to use a track by physiotherapists or physicians.
The track is wide. Slower walkers feel comfortable that others can pass them by comfortably. The width allows several walkers to walk abreast allowing for conversation. For track users with hearing impairment, it is important to be able to see each other to communicate (lip reading). People with hearing impairment also need not worry about getting in the way of faster runners that they cannot hear approaching from behind.
The track is regular with no surprises. For someone recovering from a stroke and focusing on one step at a time this means they can concentrate on moving and not on navigating or getting around corners. People with vision impairment also find this feature of the track important. They can follow the grass line and not worry too much about navigation. A perimeter path will not likely offer this regularity and the proposed ones all have corners. We can expect that a perimeter track will likely get standing water and damage to its surface.
The track is a short distance that has a periodic place to rest (every 400 metres) and gain access to the washrooms. Users can leave their belongings where they can access them regularly and keep their eye on them. Because it is an oval and the infield can be crossed, the bleachers are never more than 80 metres away. A perimeter trail does not offer this feature and a person could find themselves quite far from facilities.
The track is safe. A person on the track can for the most part see everyone in the park and more importantly can be seen. If a person falls or has an issue, they can get the attention they need from others. Several people told me they wish there was lighting and that they find the bend of the track that goes behind the tank and wall and beside the trees anxiety-provoking. A perimeter trail will go off to the furthest reaches of the park and not offer the same level of security.
The track provides a socially positive experience. Even though people are doing different types of training they have to see each other frequently as they go around the oval. Hearing a “good morning” or a “you look great” or simply seeing a familiar face makes for a nice experience. A group of people can train simultaneously but at different levels of ability as they will recongregate periodically or remain in each others’ sights.
Athleticism doesn’t die. I talked to many track users (one with a walker) who refer to what they were doing as a workout. They appreciate being on a track. They did not feel a perimeter path would offer the same experience for them.
From the perspective of a track athlete there are clear differences. A standard 400-m track can be used for competition and training for competition. The markings, straightaways and curves are familiar to the athlete and this familiarity can be transferred to any other standard track. A perimeter path is unique, has sharp corners and is an irregular distance. It is impossible to run fast around sharp corners. I coach the high school track team, where we have up to 25 athletes at a time on the track training for events from 100-m sprints to 3,000-m races. There are numerous masters (over 30 years of age) and seniors who use the track for serious training in order to compete. The perimeter path holds no equivalence for them.
For road and trail running athletes, the track is an integral part of a training regimen. It has a consistent surface and distance and allows workouts that can be repeated and thus comparisons made with respect to improvement. Those workouts can be done on any standard track in any location and the comparisons are meaningful. Hilly roads do not allow for such comparative workouts. An irregular perimeter path does not allow for consistent, transferable workouts. We have many very competitive and successful athletes — recently a national half marathon champion in the 75-year category, and two qualifiers for the world triathlon championships — that use the track regularly.
Fortunately, the existing track was well constructed and despite poor maintenance is still functional. A perimeter path with the same level of maintenance would deteriorate.
Salt Spring has an older population. The track is an accessible, popular and, I would argue, essential community amenity.
The track is used by all demographics for many purposes, from social and mental health to physical health, fitness and competition. A perimeter path would not provide the same opportunities or access for as many potential users.
A perimeter path would be used and enjoyed. But it is not equivalent to a proper standard track.
The writer is a long-time endurance sport athlete and Salt Spring Island resident.