The stoplight flashes red to halt traffic on P Street, and London Freeland glides to the edge of the sidewalk, waiting to cross busy North Capitol Street.
On an overcast spring afternoon, the junior sets the pace, and the other members of the Dunbar girls’ track team dutifully follow her lead. As cars whiz past, the teammates laugh and chatter, but they’re also chopping their feet in place until it’s safe to get moving again. Practice began a block and a half ago.
The Crimson Tide lost its own state-of-the-art track two years ago to make way for a gleaming school building that is set to open in August. As they wait out the construction, the runners have vowed not to let the price of progress slow them down.
By this time next year, the existing school building should be razed and replaced with a roughly $4 million athletic facility that includes a track that Coach Marvin Parkerhelped design.
For now, the boys’ and girls’ teams hold most of their practices at nearby McKinley Tech. While the boys walk there accompanied by their coach, the girls navigate the city streets for a mile-long jog that has become integrated into their warmup routine.
In spite of those challenges, the Crimson Tide swept both the boys’ and girls’ team titles at last week’s D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association meet, with the girls further solidifying their status as the gold standard for track in the District. Both teams hope to add more hardware at the inaugural D.C. State Athletic Association meet, which begins Thursday at Spingarn.
“It’s just part of the process,” said Freeland, who won all four of her events at the DCIAA meet. “That’s what the sport is about. Nothing comes easy. It takes a lot of determination and willpower. You have to be willing to work.”
When the spring began, Dunbar’s athletes were grateful to have regular use of a track, even if it meant splitting lanes with the Trainers. The team practiced outdoors a few times during the indoor season but mostly used the gymnasium or the parking garage connected to the school.
Parker and boys’ coach Kurt Bembridge designed special workouts to maximize the effectiveness of the garage’s sloping ramps and put up orange cones to mark the oil slicks.
Senior Michael Smith, who won four gold medals at the DCIAA meet, logged competitive indoor times and said he finished certain races thinking, “Just imagine if we had our own track.”
Dunbar Athletic Director Johnnie Walker said he has done his best to accommodate his athletes through the construction but has been met with resistance from other schools.
The football team was bussed to Cardozo for fall practice, the only outdoor sport to receive this luxury. Even that squad had to lug all its equipment there and back each day, and players walk down North Capitol to Gonzaga for spring workouts.
The track team’s popular Crimson Tide Invitational has moved to Spingarn the past two years, and Walker said the meet will seek a new home next spring before the new facility is ready.
“Nobody really wants us on their track,” Walker said. “We’ve had an uphill battle.”
Bembridge uses the walk to McKinley to bond with his athletes, and his team warms up with laps on the track. Meanwhile, the girls drop their gear in Parker’s car and take off down a mostly residential stretch of P Street.
That road empties onto Florida Avenue, where traffic picks up and car exhaust heats the air before a left onto Eckington Place.
Before each season, Parker gathers his team for a lecture about traffic safety that seems basic but eases his mind. In two years, the girls have occasionally reported tales of unwanted catcalls from older men on the street but avoided any major problems.
“You’re in a catch-22 situation,” Parker said. “If something happens to them, it’s probably your [butt.] Then again, what option do I have? I can’t transport them all.”
The coach said his squad has sent 47 athletes to college on scholarships, a mix of athletic and academic, during his tenure. His team has won 16 total DCIAA titles between the spring and winter seasons and cross country. The boys’ team has claimed five indoor and four outdoor titles in the same span.
Early on, Parker longed for the school’s facilities to match the teams’ burgeoning success. The previous track had been condemned before 2007 when former mayor Adrian Fenty approved a plan to modernize the facilities at schools across the District.
At Parker’s urging, the school opted for a $700,000 Le Monde track, a top-of-the-line surface designed for speed. That one was still in fine shape when construction on the new building began in November 2011. The coach still keeps a rectangular chunk of the spongy, red track in a storage room across from his office.
At the time, it was decided the cost of tearing up a stadium that recently had received a $3.7 million renovation was still less expensive than finding a place to relocate the students while building on the site of the existing structure.
As the plans for the new building took shape, Parker attended meetings to make sure the designers considered the team’s needs for the track. His requests included eight regulation 42-inch wide lanes, markings on both sides of the track to better accommodate youth meets and dual long jump pits. The surface will be upgraded with the latest technology from the same company that produced the previous one, and Parker said the design includes a video scoreboard, as well.
“We asked for a Hayward Field-feel,” Parker said, referencing the famed track at the University of Oregon.
While the student population in the outdated Dunbar has dwindled, Freeland, a Southeast resident, chose the school to learn under Parker with hopes to compete in college. She makes an hour-long commute to school each morning, utilizing bus and Metro.
So far, the plan has worked as she has won at least three events in each of her three DCIAA outdoor meets and has earned a pair of cross country titles. She was named an All-Met for the first time this winter and has received recruiting interest from schools such as Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Each day, Freeland leads a group of 15 to 20 runners on the jog to practice without complaint, but she is eager to move into the new building, excited by the two-lane indoor track in the gym and the promise of a revitalized student body.
Dunbar has about 500 students enrolled, hundreds short of the building’s capacity. The new building was designed to outfit 1,100 students, and enrollment is expected to spike when classes begin next school year.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be able find some talent in the new building to come out and help us,” Freeland said. “I hope so.”