Speed isn’t everything when it comes to installing a running track

Depending on the application and budget, there is an array of topcoat materials to choose from. Some are sprayed.
Photos courtesy of Hellas Construction.

The first running tracks were simple dirt – maybe cinder – loops. Today’s models are high-tech systems that require careful planning, engineering and expertise to design and install.

Jessica Hutton, contracts manager with Renner Sports Surfaces (http://www.rennersports.com), which has offices in Denver and Salt Lake City, emphasizes that adding a running track around an existing athletic field isn’t just possible, it’s something that’s done all the time.

However, there are some added considerations when adding a track to an existing facility, says Hutton. “We need to see the original as-built plans,” she states, noting that the drainage system for the track may need to be tied into the field drainage, depending on whether the field is synthetic or natural turf. “There are a lot of other factors to consider, as well,” adds Hutton. “Depending on how wide – how many lanes – the track will be, there may be existing bleachers or concrete in place that we’ll have to either expand or push back. Or maybe there is fencing that will need to be moved. But it’s all very doable.”

Hutton says more caution is typically needed to protect synthetic turf playing surfaces when a track is added. “On a natural grass field we can usually protect it with regular poly sheeting, but that will melt the synthetic turf [in the sun], so we use protective cloth and/or concrete blankets to protect the surface while we install the track,” she explains.

Conversely, it’s sometimes more difficult to protect tracks that are installed around natural grass fields. “You don’t want water to touch the track at all,” Hutton emphasizes. That heightens the need for good drainage, and care must be taken to adjust irrigation spray heads so water doesn’t land on the running surface.

…while others are poured.

There’s a fair amount of flexibility in track size, depending on the amount of space available surrounding the field. “We do six, seven, eight, all the way up to 10-lane tracks. It all depends on what the customer is looking for,” she says.

Track installations start with surveys and soils tests. “People want to jump right in and just start talking about what surface type they want. But you can’t rush into it. You have to start with your soils, and you have to know what you’re working with as far as your land, as well as your climate conditions and weather,” Hutton explains. In most cases, excavation is required, with new material brought in and compacted. “We sometimes have jobs that call for up to 48 inches of gravel subbase. Then you grade everything out and get it to whatever elevation is specified,” she notes. After that, a subsurface material, often asphalt, is applied around 6 inches deep. Renner Sports Surfaces is increasingly using concrete instead of asphalt, with concrete applied at a depth of 5 inches. Concrete offers greater longevity and protection against subsurface moisture problems than asphalt, Hutton says.

Once the subsurface has cured the top surface is applied. The two most common choices are latex and polyurethane. “The polyurethane is more durable and will last longer, especially if you have a sealed mat [an impermeable layer applied during installation] which keeps the water from getting down into it,” she explains. Latex, on the other hand, allows water in, which can eventually break the surface apart and delaminate it from the asphalt, Hutton adds. Latex also has a tendency to get soft in the heat and hard in the cold. Still, she says, latex is a popular choice in more budget-driven installations, such as at middle schools.

Track Talk

Following are some important factors to consider when talking with contractors about installing a running track.

Decide on the right track for your needs:

  • Thickness – Who will use the track?
  • Cost – What system will be most beneficial?
  • Sandwich system versus full-pour system versus prefabricated system
  • Polyurethane track surfaces
  • Color choices
  • Re-top only if track is still in good condition

Important factors:

  • Choose the right company with references and a long track record of installing tracks
  • The right surface: completely flat subsurface
  • Trained crews to install tracks
  • Weather conditions when installing
  • Premixed glue can be a better option to ensure consistency
  • Materials – Ensure that quality materials are being used
  • Quality control – from start to finish
  • Maintenance of the track – Protect equipment and prolong the life of the track
  • Choose the right location – Where earth moving on-site (cut and fill) is minimal and balanced (minimal import and export)

Common mistakes:

  • Inexperienced contractor – Choose a contractor that has experience working in all weather conditions
  • Poor knowledge of products, inexperienced crews
  • Poor materials – Quality control is important!
  • Poor drainage design
  • Poor design – Not enough space to run out at the end of the running track
  • Uneven surfaces – creates birdbaths
  • Soils report – Always recommended prior to installation; must have stable soil. Using existing soils whenever possible will help keep the cost down
  • Marking tracks – need to be familiar with the measurements

Source: Hellas Construction/ http://www.epiqtracks.com

Typically, track surfacing is best done during very warm weather, says Hutton. Fortunately, in school settings that usually corresponds to the summer months, when students are gone. “Whether you’re going with a polyurethane or latex surface, warm weather is essential for the cure of the material,” she explains.

Hutton says that when it comes to running tracks, maintenance is critical. “It’s extremely important to keep the track clean. Any dirt or anything like that will break down the surface, regardless of the type. We recommend just using a blower to get the dirt off the surface, and if you have to wash it, [use] just a soft, mild detergent with a soft bristle brush,” she explains.

The rare cleaning aside, keeping water off the track is also important. And, if you have to drive on the track at all, you need to put plywood or some other protection over it. She also notes to be mindful when operating or transporting mowers that the blade doesn’t ever contact the track. “And don’t plow the snow off of a track, because it will mark and chew the surface up,” she adds. “As much as we don’t like water on tracks, just let the snow melt.”

Tracks should be inspected on a regular basis for sunken areas or other imperfections, Hutton advises. “You don’t want to see any water-holding areas. If you have puddles, it could be an issue with your subbase, and you’re losing slope,” she says. Addressing such problems right away can help prevent even larger, more expensive, problems. Oftentimes, issues relating to slope and drainage are indicative of poor initial design work, or grading during installation, she explains, noting that track installations are complex projects. It’s the type of specialized construction job that should only be done by a firm with expertise in this area; turning the job over to a local contractor without experience in this area is a big risk.

“It’s important not only that the crews are skilled and that they’ve done this before, but to get a very precise surface you need very good materials and the mixing needs to be done correctly,” says Annika Lundmark, marketing director with Hellas Construction (http://www.hellasconstruction.com), a Texas-based contractor that installs sports facilities, including running tracks, around the country. For that reason, she says, Hellas Construction produces its own polyurethane to ensure that high-quality raw materials are used. The company even has its own line of non-petroleum-based polyurethane. For those contemplating a track installation, she recommends checking on the materials that will be used, including the UV-stability, an important consideration as tracks are typically exposed to constant sunlight in many locations.

There’s a wide variety of track types to choose from, says Lundmark. The epiQ TRACKS that Hellas specializes in, for example, range from simple “base mat” systems with spray tops (often used in middle school applications), all the way up to full-pour tracks used at the college and Olympic levels.

Building a high-quality track takes specialized expertise and plenty of experience. When selecting a contractor, ask plenty of questions and inspect other installations.

Lundmark notes that Hellas Construction is frequently brought in to add tracks around existing sports facilities. “If we’re building a brand-new track, we go in and excavate and then put down asphalt and ensure that we have a perfect subsurface, which is what you need to install a perfect track,” she explains. “We come in and either cover up part of the field to maintain the integrity of that field … or we can block off the track while construction is ongoing,” she states, noting that the latter approach is used when activities need to continue on the field during the time period the track is being installed.

Every project is different, but she says a resurface can take two to three weeks. Building a completely new track takes longer, maybe more than a month. The type of track being installed and the condition of the existing soil and subbase are key factors that determine the length of the project. “You also need to consider the drainage that goes in between the field and the track, and you have to consider the slopes – planarity is very important,” Lundmark emphasizes. “You don’t want to have any water sit on the track at all, because that can be really detrimental to the surface. And, obviously, you don’t want any water on the surface that can make it slippery during athletic events.”

Hellas Construction uses a variety of drainage systems, depending on the installation and site conditions. Lundmark points out that while modern athletic fields are built using layers and materials that allow water to quickly drain through the surface, on a track the drainage is installed on the inside of the track, so that the water flows down to the edge of the field. The company often uses Enkadrain systems in conjunction with the tracks it installs.

Problems with tracks are sometimes caused by shortcomings in the initial design and excavation and base work; other times it’s poor materials; and sometimes it’s due to errors made when installing those materials, Lunkdmark says. She recommends working only with contractors experienced in track installations, and even then asking plenty of questions. She advises: “Ask about how the process will work and the timing. Find out who is actually going to run the project and how often they will be there. Ask for references and visit some of their installations in the area. Check on the warranty … and check references to make sure that the company you’re dealing with will fulfill the warranty.” The bottom line, she says, is that you don’t want to rush the project. Installing a track represents a large investment, and it takes work up front to be sure the right decisions are made.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vermont, and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.