Howard's Oliver Bridges and David Charlton, two of the finest quarter-milers in the nation, jogged slowly on the grass, avoiding even glancing at the university's dusty, debris-filled cinder track.
Howard's track is in such poor condition that Charlton, who also runs the 400 intermediate hurdles, won't practice on it for fear of injury. But the stones, potholes and litter on the track have not prevented Bison Coach William Moultrie from developing national-quality relay teams over the last decade.
Last week, Howard won its first event at the Penn Relays, defeating Arizona State to take the 4x400 relay in 3:03.90. Charlton ran a 46.5 on the first leg, followed by Kenny Wilson (46.4), Richard Louis (45.8) and Bridges (45.9).
"We've always been able to recruit the quality track athlete, but I have to convince them to look beyond the track," Moultrie said. "We don't hide it. We have to live with it until we can do better."
"It's the worst I've come across," said Charlton, a senior from the Bahamas. "I've never even practiced the 400 hurdle race on this track. When I get to a meet, I just run the race.
"I'll use one or two hurdles to work on form, then compensate by running faster between hurdles," said Charlton, who has run the 400 hurdles in 52.15. "Because we have such a bad track, we tend to run faster when we get to a good track."
The Penn Relays provided an excellent surface, and a wonderful showcase, for the Bison.
"That's the race you want to win," said Moultrie. "Whatever has transpired all day during a track meet, the winner of that final race--that mile or 1,600-meter relay--leaves an impression in the minds of the spectators. You remember that last race. I admit it, I'm a relay fanatic."
In the 4x400 relay trials last Friday, anchorman Bridges was chested out by Arizona State's Kent Galpen. Both teams were timed in 3:05.4, but Arizona State was awarded first place, upsetting Moultrie and the other Bison.
"I had my doubts about that. I felt I won," said Bridges, a junior from Suitland High. "I had the tape on my chest, but maybe the judges thought we weren't supposed to win. I felt I had let the guys down and wanted a chance to redeem myself."
Bridges got his chance, after a discussion of switching around the runners for Saturday's final. Moultrie considered moving Bridges from anchor to either the first or second leg because he feared his sensitive sprinter still was slightly out of shape, and upset by Friday's result.
"We talked about it and the fellows calmed me down and told me they had confidence in me," Bridges said. "To have a great relay team, you have confidence in one another."
Bridges didn't disappoint anyone. Charlton, Louis and Wilson ran superbly to give him a two-step lead over Galpen. Those two ran step for step until Galpen made his move with 200 meters left.
"He went past me, but I knew I had him this time," Bridges said. "When we hit the last 100, I turned it on and left him."
Moultrie said the the team is capable of going much faster.
"We set an NCAA record with a 3:02.66 in the trials and ran 3:05.65 in the finals (finishing fourth) last year, but I've never had a team run this fast this early in the spring," Moultrie said. "We're about 30 days away from where we want to be, but I believe we've got a good shot at the national title."
Charlton, Louis and Bridges were on that record-setting team. Leadoff runner Charlton, who has run a 46-flat open 400 and a 45.2 split this year, is the leader and calming force of the quartet. Louis, a sophomore from Barbados, West Indies, has an open 46.2 and 45.8 split to his credit, and Wilson, another senior from Freeport, has run 48.0 in the open and a 46.4 split.
Bridges, who is 6 feet 4 and 200 pounds, stopped playing football to concentrate on track. He has run a 45.9 open and a 45.7 split. "I may play football after the Olympics--that's what I'm aiming for right now," he said.
Moultrie said the 4x400 runners and several teammates will compete in meets the next three weeks to qualify for individual events in the NCAA meet.
"We'll dismantle our relay teams and let them try to qualify for some open events in the nationals, let them have a little fun," Moultrie said. "We're setting our sights on the 4x400; hopefully we'll be peaking at that time.
As they did at the Penn Relays.