Eugene played host to the NCAA Track and Field Championships two weeks ago. This week, athletes from around the globe will descend on Eugene for the United States Junior Track and Field Championships. Then, at the tail end of July, Eugene will play host to the Junior World Championships.
With those events, fans and athletes from all over will likely hit the same wall that many newcomers to Eugene run smack into during the spring: allergies. The city and the Historic Hayward Field are planted at the tailpipe of leagues of grass farms. Those who haven’t driven through and seen the welcome signs may learn the hard way that the Willamette Valley is in fact, the grass seed capital of the world.
As a result, athletes and fans alike may find themselves taking their flushed faces and weepy eyes to the city’s various allergists, who tend to the oft-blindsided rookies of the antihistamine game.
“I get really bad conjunctivitis, I think, in my eyes. It’s awful,” said Craig Leon, an outreach coordinator for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Program at the University of Oregon. Leon is also a professional marathoner. “I hadn’t been to a doctor in 10 years prior to last spring and — of all things — I had to go see the doctor for grass pollen. Grass pollen brought me down.”
The 29-year-old faculty member placed 12th in the Boston Marathon last spring and 10th the year before. Hailing from Ohio, Leon may have been allergic to grass, but he never would have known how severe his allergies were until he came to Eugene.
“It’s an extreme inconvenience,” he said. “Eugene, and Oregon in general, is a great place to train. That’s why you have so many distance runners here. But for me, there’s about a month every year where it’s pretty bad. It totally impacts the way that I train.”
The vortex of allergens relegates Leon to the treadmill during peak allergy season, which falls around the last week of May and Memorial Day. This affects his entire performance, until the pollen count starts to wane.
“During those weeks, I have to slow my paces down and take longer breaks because I get all that crap built up in my lungs,” Leon said. “I told my coach I feel like I only have one lung, like I’m breathing through a giant straw. Or a chain smoker, or running at altitude.”
Judy Moran, a registered nurse at Oak Street Medical and research coordinator for its Allergy and Asthma Research Group, said allergy problems for athletes happen every year.
“We see athletes kind of get caught off guard and the patient or coach will call us for an emergency before their event,” Moran said. “It stands to reason that if it’s your first day in Willamette Valley and you spend all day outside, by the time you get home you’ll be miserable.”
The implications for track and field athletes is obvious. It’s especially problematic for distance runners. The Prefontaine Classic in early June saw runners training while wearing masks to block the particles. Once, Galen Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar, withdrew the ex-UO star from the Pre Classic in 2011 because of pollen spikes.
The Allergy and Asthma Research Group says that the cascade of pollen is a perennial miasma, returning with the dry season. The pollen collects until it’s windswept to neighboring towns on the valley floor. It is one of the reasons a lot of track and field athletes have checked into hotels on the coast and only come to town when necessary.
“Like last year, this was kind of an early season, starting at the last week of May,” Moran said. “Grass pollen is definitely the biggest problem. Memorial Day to the Fourth of July is definitely the biggest time too, but it can vary.”
Moran’s Allergy and Asthma Research Group regularly updates pollen counts on Oak Street’s website. The counts calculate pollen grains per cubic meter. Pollen levels have dropped since the Prefontaine Classic, when it was at its worst all year. Then, the count hovered around 460 — essentially off the charts, which is past a normal count of 200.
Recent downpours have also beat the pollen back into the dirt, stifling hay fever symptoms. However, Moran says the rain can cause bigger problems for those with allergic asthma. Microparticles shrink even more and bypass nasal filters and creep into the lungs.
“In other words, the rain breaks up the pollen particles so they get down into the airways and those reactions get more intense,” Moran says.
As for the upcoming events, the worst has likely passed. Moran is confident that the pollen will remain around normal levels and coaches know how to prepare. Still, it’s a factor to consider in Track Town if you’re susceptible.
“If you’re gearing up your whole season for the NCAA championships and you’re affected by the grass pollen, I really feel for that,” Leon said. “In Eugene, it’s so extreme that it just knocks you on your butt.”