Catnip’s Guide to Track Meet Spectating

in 2014 the NCAA Division III Championships were just a 45 minute drive for me!
In 2014 the NCAA Division III Championships were just a 45-minute drive for me!

I love the track. I love indoor track and I love outdoor track. I love training on the track and I love racing on the track. You know what else I love? Spectating at the track!

People have called me a track evangelist and I’m happy to make it official here on the interwebs! I’m currently in the process of applying some friendly pressure to a few buddies to join me at an indoor track race next week. As you might expect from a trackvangelist, I am equally enthusiastic about getting people out to spectate. In fact, my favorite aspect of racing on the track is that I also get to watch many other races while I’m there!

Now that I’ve sold you on how great track is to race, I want to encourage you to get out there and spectate! It’s been 20 years (OMG) since my love affair with the track began and, with some input from my superfans (read: my parents), I’ve come up with some advice for less-experienced track fans to find and enjoy the heck out of a day at the races. 

How to find a meet?

The best place to start is at college meets. Indoor track season is in full swing in most of the country now, so Google over to “[your favorite local college] indoor track.”  High school indoor track participation is growing, but many high schools’ indoor track meets start later in the winter or early spring. You can call your local high school athletic department to find out when the meets will be. As for the pros, attending a pro or international track meet is one of my dreams! You can find those listed on the USATF or IAAF websites.

Who should come?

Bring your baby. Bring your grandma. Most meets are cheap or free. The running events are a pretty simple concept even for the least athletic people you know to understand and it’s easy for anyone to appreciate these feats of athleticism! If you’re planning to bring your little ones, I’ve found most facilities to be stroller-friendly and it’s totally appropriate for your kid to yell (and you should yell, too). My almost-2-year-old has been to half a dozen track meets and always has a great time. Later he emulates the track stars; what a great example for him! The only downside is that he has trouble saying “fast,” so it comes out “Go FAT runner.” He means well!

What to bring?

Bring a watch or use the stopwatch app on your phone. You’ll probably want to time some of the distance races and the official clock might not be visible or it will stop when the winner crosses the finish line.

And snacks. Never go anywhere in life without snacks.

For outdoor meets, check the weather. Bleachers are rarely covered and often there’s not even an indoor area to catch a reprieve from the weather. A blanket or towel is a good idea, either to dry the bleachers or make your seat more comfortable. Consider an umbrella for rain or sun protection.

What to watch?

Despite what NBC thinks, the star event of collegiate and pro track meets is the steeplechase. With the hard pace, hurdles, and giant water pit, there’s so much potential for drama! Hustle to get a good spot by the water jump for maximum enjoyment. Who’s going to face-plant today?

Salty readers are probably also interested in the flat distance events. Outdoors, athletes generally run the 1500, 5000, and 10,000 meters, while indoors it is the mile, 3000, and 5000. For the longest races, pay close attention to the leaders because they will often lap the slowest runners and it can get confusing to follow the drama.

Babies love track. And smoothies.
Babies love track. And smoothies.

Make sure to step away from the oval at some point to check out the field athletes: the jumpers (long, high, triple, and pole vault) and throwers (shot, discus, javelin, and hammer). Often they perform on the infield but occasionally they may throw outside the stadium. After taking my coaching certification last year, I have a new level of appreciation for the strength and technique of this often-overlooked group.

Keep in mind that most meets operate on a rolling schedule, which means event times are approximate, but the order of events will be followed. In reality, this means an event might begin 30 minutes earlier than on the program (rarely) or a couple hours later than scheduled (more likely).

What does it all mean?

The top athletes in each event are awarded points (usually 10-8-6-4-2-1 for 1st-6th place in big meets) and the team with the highest point total wins. Athletes are often competing for qualification to championship meets by achieving a specific time, distance, or height and, as always, chasing PRs. Check out the meet’s website for heat sheets which may have season bests for competitors listed.

Ideally, the facility will have a scoreboard so results can be reported promptly and team scores updated. If not, use your smartphone to check out the live results on the website.

Any plans for running or watching a track meet this season? Did you run track in school? Are you a parent of a trackster? What’s your favorite event to watch?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. Basically I read this and kept nodding my head. I have a bazillion track meet memories from high school and college. I agree that as much fun is it is to race on a track, being there to see the other events is just as exciting! I’m hoping to get to a meet or two this season to cheer on some of my club teammates as they race, hopefully a few more meets during outdoor as well. It’s just a fun environment to be in…the racing the adrenaline, the cheering and camaraderie (even between teams!), it just makes for a long but well spent day. Favorite events to watch: Steeple, High Jump/PV (especially when it’s down to final few!), Relays are always exciting too!

  2. I live in Des Moines so the Drake Relays are coming up. The nice part about being in a small city is that everyone is into the Relays. We’ve got our tickets (down by the pole fault and high jump, at the fence) and I’m taking off work. It’s amazing and inspiring to watch the athletes. Personally, I love watching steeple chase.

    1. I’m so jealous you get to go to the Drake Relays! One year I’m going to make a trip to one of the big pro/collegiate meets.

  3. I love spectating track meets! My favorite event to watch is the 1500 because it’s so intense and strategic. Besides snacks, a watch and weather protection, it’s also fun to bring binoculars. You’ll look kind of nerdy, but it’s worth it to see what’s going on across the way!

  4. Track meets may have been a large reason I moved to Eugene for law school (the UO law school building is directly across from Hayward Field). So I’m very spoiled. My favorite spectating event was the 2008 Olympic Trials 800m final when three Oregon guys qualified 1-2-3. The crowd was on fire. Second favorite involved watching Ashton Eaton break the World Record in 2012. I didn’t have a ticket that day but there were hundreds of people watching on a big screen right outside the stadium.

    I also get to run open meets on Hayward every summer. It’s my annual chance to run the steeple and get my butt kicked by teenagers. So yah…. very spoiled track nerd here.

      1. Yes! This former Ohioian (who raced in college on the OWU track pictured above!) has been here going on 9 years. There are many reasons I stayed but track and the running atmosphere are definitely in the top 5 reasons.

  5. Your love for the track and track meets reminds me of my love for the pool and swim meets 😉 I’ve gotta admit, I’ve never been a track fan. Speed scares me!

  6. The only track meet I’ve been to (as a late-comer to our sport) has been the Prefontaine Classic here in Eugene. It is magical. I personally love watching pole-vaulting, jaw-dropping.

  7. Oh, and the other thing I love about the Pre Classic? Ogling all those fantastic athletic bodies: it is so amazing to see the differences between the sprinters, the distance folks, the throwers, the jumpers, etc. The human body at its best is on display on the track.

  8. You got me hooked on track last year! Running was exciting and nerve-wracking and spectating was amazing! After reading this, watching the pros run track is now on my bucket list 🙂