More than 500 young athletes will compete in track and field events at the University of Illinois Armory at the end of the month. For some of them, it’s like a home meet, held on the track where they practice regularly.

The Vipers Track Club -- based in Urbana but attracting more than 60 middle school and high school runners from throughout central Illinois -- will have 15 athletes at the Dorothy Dawson Invite on Jan. 28.Blog Photo

“They put this meet in our backyard. We’ve got to do it,” said Marques Lowe, the co-founder, president/CEO and head coach of the track club.

“For us, the UI is like a home track. We train there, we practice there,” Lowe continued. “Sometimes the kids get to bump into UI athletes. I think that’s great for young athletes to see.”

Having an early-season meet in the community helps the athletes get ready for their school track seasons. It will be the second indoor meet of the season for the Vipers, after the Arkansas High School Indoor Invitational, which will take place this Saturday.

“(Dorothy Dawson) is one of the earliest indoor meets for any youth track and field team around the nation,” Lowe said. He said it will bring runners from Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and elsewhere in the Midwest, making it a highly competitive meet. For example, Lowe said the 400-meter race at last year’s meet included four athletes from Illinois and Wisconsin who had won state championships at various distances.

“It was a really fast race,” he said, adding that two of his runners ran a personal best in that race.

The Armory has hosted the Dorothy Dawson Invite for the past two years. Eric Vetter, the coordinator for the Armory track, has developed a relationship with the Illinois chapter of USA Track & Field over several years. This year, in addition to the Dorothy Dawson meet, the Armory is hosting the USATF’s master’s and open indoor championships, as well as another youth meet.

Blog PhotoThe master’s and open championship meet is Feb. 4. Athletes 30 years and older can compete in the master’s events, while those between 19 and 29 years old can compete in the open division for the events. Vetter expects up to 200 athletes to compete in the master’s and open meet.

“I think there’s the possibility in the open competition for post-collegiate or collegiate athletes wanting to compete, after (running) in high school,” Vetter said.

Lowe -- who ran the 200 meters and 400 meters for the UI track team when he was in college -- will be one of the athletes competing in the master’s meet. It will be the first time he’s competed on the track since 2006. He’s running at the meet because it is located here. He’ll run the 60 meters and 200 meters, and possibly the 400 meters as well.

“It’s going to be special. I’m just doing it for fun. The kids in the club are keeping me motivated to do it,” Lowe said. “I want to go out and have a good time. I’m doing it for the kids, so they get a chance to see me compete and have fun, and they see you can still compete at this level.”

The USATF just added a youth meet for the weekend of Feb. 4-5, following the master’s and open championships. Vetter said the Midwest regional youth meet could bring in 500 to 700 athletes from up to 13 states.

“For the university, it brings youth to campus who may be not only interested in track and field, but also maybe an academic program or other sports where they may be competitive, so there may be a recruiting component,” Vetter said.

He also noted the athletes and their families will help the local economy by spending money at businesses in town.

Lowe said his club will likely compete in the Midwest regional youth meet as well.

“It’s an opportunity for athletes to get some good competition in before they go to their conference meets and big invitational meets,” he said. “I get to watch the kids go into the high school track and field season with the confidence to really excel.”


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.


Photos: Top: The stands at the UI Armory were packed for the 2016 Dorothy Dawson Invite, which returns to campus on Jan. 28. The invitational hosts runners from across the Midwest. Photo provided by Eric Vetter. Bottom: The Vipers Track Club lines up for a practice run at the Armory, the site for the Dorothy Dawson Invite. Photo provided by Marques Lowe.


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