For The Record: These Guys Have A Passion For Keeping Track

No sport is more identified with records than track and to a lesser degree, cross country.

Swimming is next closest but "major" sports like football, baseball/softball and basketball produce "statistics" and records that go from the obvious to the sublime. 

Track, especially, is about as pure as you can get. Go from the starting line to the finish line faster than anyone else ever, and you get the record.  Put the shot or throw the discus farther than anyone, you've got the record. Jump highest, with or without help from a pole, you're the best. 

Consider: How many high schools have track record boards in the gym or elsewhere? The Answer: Most. How about football or basketball? Not so much.

Sure, track has what many consider idiosyncrasies. What physicist figured how much wind, in meters-per-second, of course, would be allowable for the sprints, short hurdles and horizontal jumps? Yet that 2.0 meters-per-second gauge is accepted by everyone who keeps records.

So much so that any mark considered for record-purposes is those events that doesn't have an official wind reading, is summarily discounted.

And what about those record-keepers? Are they mathematic genius' sitting in dark room going over performance after performance from near and far? And what drives them to list those records that every high school track athlete can recite if they're anywhere near the mark, be it a national, state, section or school standard?

Jack Shepard, who along with Mike Kennedy, publishes the annual High School Track record book and has done so for 40 years, would not especially stand out in a crowd. Friendly, outgoing, the former Texaco employee each year lists the annual top national marks for boys and girls.

The second half of his record book lists the outdoor and indoor all-time best performances. Both lists go 50-deep.

It isn't easy and during the season, 8 to 10-hour days are not uncommon. He has a great network of individuals who contribute either offering or checking marks from major invitationals (which are fairly easy to find) to obscure dual meets (which require a lot more verification). 

Think about it on a national level. That's all 50 states, from huge areas like the 565-school Southern Section in Southern California, to the seemingly insignificant meet in Rhode Island. Yes, 7-foot high jumpers can come from anywhere and it's up to Shepard to find them and give them their due.

Shepard was a Track & Field News magazine statistician but when that publication decided that there wasn't enough interest to continue high school results after 1979, he started his own record-keeping in 1980 and 40 years later continues.

"I'll keep data, whether we publish it or not, until I'm on my death-bed, until I hit 'send' for the last time," Shepard, 84, said. "You'd think 2020 would be easy without much of an outdoor season but we had almost a complete indoor season and enough outdoor marks to have slightly smaller lists. I'm just as busy as ever."

On a smaller scale, but no less important to the athletes in that area, are uber record-keepers like Rick Smith, who produced track record books in 1965 and 1971 for the then-tiny San Diego Section before heading off to become one of the NFL's top public relations directors for the Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers.

Why a record book?

"It was a labor of love," said Smith. "As a junior at Lincoln High I'd go to the library and check track marks from way back. John De La Vega of the L.A. Times would run lists each week. I remember covering the 1956 Southern Section meet in Inglewood and the'57 meet in Ontario followed by my first state meet in Bakersfield.

"There have been a lot of memories. I've been to about 45 California state track meets-I've gone any time I had a chance."

Smith's book made it relatively easy for me to fill in the gap when I arrived at the San Diego Union newspaper in 1974. The book needed updating, marks in yards had to be converted to meters and whenever possible, performances verified.

Adopting Shepard's format, I expanded the book to include girls as well as the boys in both the previous season and expanding the all-time list.

I discovered that the one thing record-keepers have is some very specific rules. Coaches saying, "there was no wind," doesn't do it. A 20-6 long jump can end up being a 26-feet if the recorder just wrote down what the person reading the tape said -- 'twenty six'. When that jumper never reaches 22 that season, the 26-foot mark is erased.

Fully automatic timing -- where the starting gun is synchronized with the timing machine -- is required these days for record consideration on the track.

It used to be races were timed by individuals using hand-held stop-watches. Look at pictures of Roger Bannister becoming the world's first-ever sub-4 minute miler and you'll see timers recording it with stopwatches. 

To be a record the performance has to be verified by a certified official. That makes checking pretty easy, too.

Record-keepers. Just one aspect of track and field that makes it unique but fun.

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Steve Brand is a regular contributor for MileSplitCA.