Western Albemarle High School’s outdoor track has fallen into a state of disrepair so acute that the school can’t host track meets on it, and coaches often have to direct students to other schools’ tracks just to practice.
The problem began with a poor resurfacing job done 12 years ago. “The track surface started coming up within four months after the last resurfacing [in 2010-11],” said long-time boys cross country coach Lindy Bain, “and it’s only gotten a whole lot worse.”
Bain, who has won the Virginia Boys High School Cross Country Coach of the Year award twice in the past five years and has helmed multiple WAHS state championship teams, said that trying to solve the track situation has been frustrating. “The asphalt underlayment separating from the rubberized surface so soon [after installation] just should not happen,” he said. “A major problem is that the job was done by two different companies. One company did the undersurface work and another separate company laid the top surface. Both companies blamed the other for the problems that we have, so holding someone responsible is very hard.”
Sections of the track’s rubber surface are loose or worn through, and the underlying asphalt is exposed in patches, particularly in the most-used lanes and at starting lines. “When the top layer comes off, then the bottom layer starts deteriorating faster, so now there’s a bunch of cracks in the bottom layer, and it’s not going to be an easy fix,” said Bain.
When WAHS coaches and administrators met with county building services officials several years ago, they were told that the track was on schedule to be resurfaced during this past year, but it didn’t happen. “It is hard to understand how an Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) sport facility can remain unsafe for competition for over six years,” said Bain. “If you’re running from a standing start, there’s a pretty good chance your foot is going to slip when you take off. If somebody goes down on the rubberized surface, that’s bad enough, but if you’re going over hurdles or something and hit the asphalt, that’s even worse.”
Bain said that coaches have to be cognizant of where the worst sections are on the track and organize practice drills away from those areas for safety. Some coaches have resorted to using Henley’s small cinder track for practices, or heading over to Charlottesville High School’s track. In the fall of 2021, the county patched the track along the interior lanes where the asphalt was exposed, but Bain said those repairs only held up until the spring of 2022.
Asked why fixing the facility hasn’t been a priority for ACPS, Bain said, “Well, it’s track—it’s not a money-maker, I guess. I really don’t know how it’s not at the top of the list. The turf field [which was replaced this year] was in bad shape, no doubt about it, but compared to the track, there’s no comparison. I don’t think there’s another sports venue in the county where the school cannot host a competition on it,” said Bain.
WAHS Athletic Director, Steve Heon, concurred. “Track improvements are needed,” he said. “Current track conditions do not allow our cross country and track teams to adequately prepare for competition. We understand the budgetary constraints the county is working under; however, we feel this project needs to become a high priority project. Track conditions have been poor for several years and it’s time for our state championship level programs to have a worthy track on which to practice and host meets.”
Chuck Witt, who has coached track teams at WAHS since the 1990s along with his wife Cherie, said the track’s condition is an embarrassment. “Compared to what Albemarle, Monticello, Charlottesville high schools have in terms of tracks and facilities, this is not equality,” he said. “If you go back to the beginning of Western track and cross country, these are the strongest programs the schools have—the first four state titles were won by track. That’s not to say we should get anything extra, but to have such a lousy facility is not right.”
Eric Envall, the dad of a three-season track athlete at WAHS, attended a November 28 county budget community meeting to advocate for resurfacing Western’s track. “The big thing that I see is that the track is unsafe to have a true practice, and that is going to create a diminished connection to the school for athletes,” said Envall. “Then you’re going to have a diminished influx of athletes going out for track, and fewer people having a connection and building that community. We can’t host meets so we have to go out to Louisa or Orange County to find facilities to use. The fact that we can’t compete with facilities in Louisa and Orange is kind of disappointing.”
Envall said that the track’s chronic poor condition creates a circular problem in attracting funding as well. “If the facilities aren’t as good as at other schools, then you have fewer people on the team. Some of the team’s top performers then start to look elsewhere—a few left to go to St. Anne’s, for example—and then you lose those connections to the school. And so, then someone at the county says, ‘Why should we spend this money when there are only a few people on the track team? Well, that’s the situation because you didn’t have any place for them to practice.”
Beyond the school’s cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams, other sports teams and gym classes use the track, and it’s open for use by the public as well. WAHS Principal Jennifer Sublette said that infrastructure like the track should be both a school and a county priority.
“I am sensitive to the fact that the division has to balance competing priorities,” said Sublette, “and many of our facilities across the county are of significant age. So, we try to be patient, and we try to look at high yield projects to really prioritize. That said, I really value how important athletics is to our student body and our community, so I do support advocating for those improvements because I think they’re not just for our students. One of the concerns of many of us who are historically from Crozet is whether our growth is being partnered with the infrastructure we need to support an increased population.”
Matt Wertman, Deputy Director of Building Services for ACPS, explained to the Gazette how the track project currently fits into the overall ACPS budget. “An entire track resurfacing project at WAHS is included in the School Board’s Maintenance Capital Improvement Program request for fiscal year 2025,” said Wertman. “This means the work would take place either in the Fall of 2024 or the Summer of 2025, depending on weather and contractor availability. This work will also include replacing the pole vault and high jump surfaces and re-painting all track and field surfaces.”
Wertman said that about $160,000 is allocated for the resurfacing project. “It is not anticipated at this time that the asphalt substrate will be replaced, as it was installed in 2012,” he said. “ACPS scheduled the track replacement project to occur after [Western’s] turf field replacement, which began immediately at the conclusion of this year’s football season and is now nearing completion. These two projects were intentionally sequenced in this manner to work from the ‘inside-out’ and to prevent any potential damage to recently completed work.”
Wertman said the division is still seeking potential opportunities within the current year’s budget to expedite the timing of the track replacement project, and added a caveat about the project’s price tag. “The cost would increase significantly if we needed to replace the asphalt subbase, but that is not currently in our plans since the subbase is only about 10 years old.”
Coach Bain is skeptical that replacing only the top layer is a viable long-term solution. “I will say that it would fix the problem at least temporarily, though without knowing the root cause of the problem, it seems like an expensive gamble,” said Bain. “Also, the underlayer has deteriorated so much, it seems like resurfacing over that and hoping it holds up is wishful thinking. Even if the underlayer wasn’t the cause of the problem, it certainly seems it is part of the problem going forward.”
Bain’s concerns point to a need for more conversations between the school and the division to look at both short and long-term plans, said Sublette. “We want to make sure we’re not doing [another] short term investment and just putting off a long-term investment,” she said. “And we want to be sure that this would be enough for us to be able to host meets and to be able to have our kids not only practice but also compete here, to have their home field advantage.”