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Put through the paces: Track-and-field events coming to Edmonton sure to marvel us

EDMONTON — I likely pulled a muscle, maybe two, at the TrackTown Canada mini-meet Friday afternoon, but let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.

I can’t even blame it on the hurdles because they were not 83 centimetres off the ground, as they are in most track and field competitions for women. They were itty-bitty placeholders, arched bars lifted slightly off the ground — for children.

On Friday, a handful of people from the media, business professionals and politicians, including NDP MLA Deron Bilous, federal MP Laurie Hawn and city councillor Amarjeet Sohi, laced up our running shoes and donned our spandex to get a taste of what it’s like to be a track-and-field athlete.

We tried four events: javelin, shot put, 100-metre hurdles and long jump. Each team of four got a brief lesson from an athlete specializing in that field and then we were off.

And if the pulled muscles say anything, it’s not easy being a track star. As TrackTown board chair Jerry Bouma put it, track and field is “arguably the oldest and truest sport in history.” Running, jumping and throwing forms the fundamental components of almost all sport. Track and field is about pushing the human body faster, higher, farther. It’s a marvel to watch the pros. Us? Well, maybe not.

While Edmonton is known as a winter city, it’s also making a name for itself as a destination for top track-and-field meets. It’s ranked as one of the top five host cities for track and field events in North and South America, according to TrackTown Canada.

“This is the first time in history both championships have been awarded to the same city and at the same time,” says Peter Ogilvie, TrackTown Canada’s chief executive.

If that surprises you, just wait until July, when this city will be overrun by high-calibre athletes with lean, sinewy muscles for three major events: the Canadian Track and Field Championships from July 2-5, the TrackTown Classic from July 11-12 and the 18th Pan-American Junior Athletics Championships from July 31-Aug. 2. Some of these athletes are bound to be going to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in 2016.

Canadian Olympic javelin thrower Curtis Moss is hoping to be one of them. He moved to Edmonton in 2012 after the London Olympics and says the city has become a hub for elite athletes and coaches because of the access and affordability of top-notch sporting facilities.

Moss’s best throw these days is 81.2 metres (the world record is 98.4 metres), but back when he started in Grade 10, it was 12 metres. Everyone else on his team beat him. Once he learned the technique, he was able to apply his athleticism from football and baseball to the sport. It’s good to know everyone starts somewhere.

“Besides being the most frustrating event I’ve ever tried, when you get it right, it’s so satisfying,” Moss says. “You’re chasing as close to perfecting as you can get.”

Being back on the track in the scorching sun, sand sticking to my sunscreen-coated arms, I feel that same rush of adrenalin, excitement and stomach-churning anxiety from my days on the high school track team. I miss it. Once you’re out of high school, if you’re not pursuing it in university, you probably won’t ever participate in another track meet again.

I’m envious of the teenagers in the stands on Friday waiting for their turn on the track, who get to do these events every year and who, unlike us adults, seem to run, jump and throw with ease and fluidity. I’ve never thrown a javelin or shot put before and it’s awkward. I’m also more of a slow but steady long distance runner. At least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t think they’ll be limping home with pulled quadriceps, just ribbons to add to their walls.

A teenager stands nearby, waiting eagerly to get a picture with Angela Whyte, a two-time Olympian in the 100-metre hurdles who was born and raised in Edmonton. She says local spectators are in for a treat come July because they’ll get to know and see how athletes change and improve on the road to Rio. We’ll get to see them before they make it big time.

“We’re already the City of Champions, so why not bring champions from another sport here?” she said.

While I’m not the speedy teenager I once was (or imagine I was), it’s still a thrill to be back on the track. Everyone starts somewhere.