June 27, 2006
Perseverance puts cane-using competitor back on UO track
SUMMARY: Winner | Zel Brook refused to stand idle after she was barred from running in a race at Hayward Field
Long before she ran in the Hayward Classic last weekend, Zel Brook got pulled off the starting line by a USA Track & Field official and told that she couldn’t use her cane to run in one of the association’s sanctioned races.
To Brook, a longtime runner who survived a brain tumor, that was the same as telling a wheelchair racer to leave the wheelchair at the starting gate.
Brook, now 59, remembers that day three years ago as if it were yesterday.
She had recently run in the Hayward Classic, an annual weekend of track events that draws adult competitors from around the country, and she was back on Hayward Field at the University of Oregon campus for another competition when the judge came her way.
She had no reason to think he bore bad news because she’d run in the classic, officiated by the same association, without incident. She’d even won medals against other women her age.
Running on the campus track was important to her because she graduated from the university in 1970 when there were limited athletic opportunities for women. It pleased her to no end to run by a statue of legendary track coach Bill Bowerman.
But just before the starter fired his gun, a judge told Brook she’d be disqualified if she ran with her cane.
Brook, a grandmother of three, had already explained her situation. A brain tumor in 1984, discovered while she was climbing Mount Washington, took her sense of balance. Surgeons successfully removed the tumor, but she now feels as if she’s standing on a boat pitching in the ocean. She doesn’t use the cane to push off, she told judges. She uses it for balance.
The officials conferred while her fellow runners stared. She had raced in dozens of events, including the Portland Marathon, using her cane and never encountered a problem until this one.
The USA Track & Field judges decided she could run, but she wouldn’t qualify for medals and she’d be relegated to the outside lane. The move added distance and placed her away from water stations and lap counters who tell runners how close they are to the finish.
Brook, who lives in Corvallis, was insulted. Running has been an important part of her life.
“Where I live, I can take off and in less than a mile and a half be on a covered bridge,” she said. “I love running over it – clomp, clomp, clomp – and the rush of the water underneath. And then I run by cows. The cows look at me with the most curious faces. Then I run by the fairgrounds and then I run out to dirt paths . . . and I can run in the forest, just me listening to my heart rate for hours. It’s very meditative. It’s very quieting. It does something for your soul.”
Decades before, she had given up running after discovering a blood clot in her leg. Then one day… she got on her exercise bike and started walking around her neighborhood until she was running again.
Turning to the law
After judges booted her from the race in 2003 at the Northwest Regional Masters Track and Field Championship, Brook hired a lawyer. But the lawyer didn’t get far.
Officials with USA Track & Field, an organization that oversees track events nationwide, said her cane was an “assist” device and would alter the fundamental nature of the competition. One official told Brook to try a leg brace. Another, Brook said, suggested she run in the Special Olympics.
A second lawyer took over, and Brook decided not to enter the Hayward Classic while the issue was still unresolved. The lawyer restored two medals – a second place and a fourth – that Brook would have won in the regional masters race had she not been disqualified.
The medals carried no money but brought an enormous sense of accomplishment.
When the 2005 Hayward Classic rolled around, Brook assumed she could run. She was wrong. The association said her cane “would pose a direct threat to the other competitors,” according to a letter.
Brook, who has spent between $1,000 and $5,000 on legal fees and long-distance phone calls, even paying her doctor to write a letter explaining her condition, came across the Disability Right Advocates in Berkeley, Calif., a nonprofit law firm that agreed to take her case.
While staff attorney Roger Heller negotiated with lawyers for the track group, Brook worked out her emotions through art, creating a series of “threatening” canes: one with a blowtorch, one with a railroad crossing guard, one with a suction cup.
Heller and the track association lawyers agreed on a set of changes that would allow Brook to run – and also make the association’s procedures regarding people with disabilities more accessible. The association agreed to change its Web site to make its policies easier to find and agreed to provide hard copy of its procedures to anyone who asks.
“This was a huge victory for her and something that’s life-changing because running is so important to her,” Heller said. “And the bottom line is this is the right thing to do.”
Jill Geer, director of communications for the association, said, “Our position is we’ve reached an agreement with Zel to allow her to compete.”
The agreement brought Brook back to the track of her alma mater. She was so anxious she didn’t sleep well Friday night.
“I want to finish with my head held high, doing the best I can,” she said before the race. “I think for all of us, doing the best we can at any given time is all you can reasonably expect. If I look back and say I did the best I could, that’s good enough for me.”
Saturday morning, she drank the water she keeps by her alarm clock to hydrate herself before a race. She downed the cup of coffee she believes helps a runner’s liver. She ate her usual pre-race oatmeal with nonfat milk. By 8 a.m., an hour before her first race, she arrived on campus to warm up.
She stopped by the clerk’s circle to double-check that she was registered for the 10,000-meter race. She worried about the triple-digit heat and would have considered scratching if she hadn’t gone to so much trouble to be there.
Because she’d been stopped before, Brook feared it could happen again – even after the race started. She was so anxious that she ran the first of 25 laps too fast. She looked up at the clock and thought, “Oh, my word. I can’t keep up this pace, or I’ll never finish.”
Fellow runners who knew her story cheered her on the track, saying, “Keep up the good work!” and “Way to go!”
Their words encouraged her, but she didn’t relax until she crossed the finish line 25 laps later. Then she couldn’t help it, she started crying.
But the most satisfying moment came not at the end of Saturday’s long race, nor after she finished two others on Sunday, not when she won two first-place medals and a second, and not even when she treated herself to the first pizza and ice cream she’d had in a year.
The most satisfying moment came Sunday before her final race.
Brook was stretching with fellow runners who’d come from as far as Canada. The women were chatting, talking about socks of all things, when one said something that made everything Brook has gone through worthwhile.
“I’m proud to know you,” the fellow runner said.