By Ben DeJarnette / TrackTown USA
PORTLAND – It has been eight years since a 20-year-old Andrew Wheating shook the Hayward Field grandstands with his remarkable second-place finish at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
The Eugene pro has a few more races under his belt now, but on Friday night he cued up some of his old magic — and the home-state crowd responded with its full voice.
Racing the 1,500 meters at the “House of Track” in Portland, the two-time Olympian held off strong finishes by fellow former Ducks Trevor Dunbar (3:40.77) and Will Geoghegan (3:41.08) to win his 2016 debut in 3:39.82.
Moments later, as Wheating stepped off the track and walked within feet of the temporary bleachers, the estimated 1,200 fans in attendance responded with one of the evening’s loudest salutes. “The crowd was just phenomenal,” Wheating said. “I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
Less than a year ago, this sprawling warehouse in industrial northwest Portland stood vacant, home only to concrete floors and the occasional echo of a train rumbling by across the street. There are still signs of its less glamorous history — the exposed ceiling beams, the roll-up hangar doors, the designated fire-hose cubby — but the athletes said the track itself was nothing short of spectacular.
“It’s the perfect amount of everything,” said University of Oregon alum Laura Roesler, the 2014 Bowerman Award winner, who claimed the women’s 800 meters in 2:04.04. “It has the perfect amount of bank, the perfect amount of springiness. It even smells good.”
“The set-up in here is really cool,” Dunbar said. “I wish I had a better descriptor. It’s one of a kind.”
The 200-meter banked track, which next month will be disassembled into 1,400 pieces and transported to the Oregon Convention Center, is the same one that athletes will compete on at the USATF Indoor Championships and IAAF World Indoor Championships in March. Covering 40,000 square feet and topped with a state-of-the-art polyurethane surface (green, of course, for the Emerald City), the oval is billed as one of the fastest in the world.
“It’s perfect,” 3,000-meter winner Paul Chelimo said. “Once I got on the track, I knew it was going to be fast times.”
Friday’s event marked the second of four High Performance meets scheduled at the House of Track this winter — and it started with fireworks. In the men’s 3,000, Chelimo sat in second place for most of the race before kicking past Nike Oregon Project’s Eric Jenkins on the final lap to win in 7:44.68.
Meanwhile, the race for third place was no less exciting, especially for the purple-clad cheering section gathered by the first turn. Squeezed four- and five-deep against the rail, the University of Portland crew went bananas as UP senior Woody Kincaid sprinted past 2012 Olympian Cam Levins on the final backstretch and crossed the line in a school-record time of 7:48.89, a personal best by 35 seconds.
Overheard in the post-race celebration: “I’m going vegan!” one UP runner said, apparently sold on his teammate’s eating habits. (Kinkaid switched to a vegan diet eight months ago.)
After the race, Kincaid said the waves of noise emanating from the track’s southwest corner didn’t go unnoticed. “That was so fun, man,” he said. “That was the most fun race I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve never had so many people cheering me on.”
There were also some fast times and close finishes from the evening straightaway races. In the men’s 60-meter final, UO football player Kirk Merritt edged Trevon Clay at the tape, 6.86 to 6.89. And in the women’s race, 2015 Bowerman Award winner Jenna Prandini clocked 7.28 to beat Octavious Freeman, a 2013 IAAF World Championships qualifier, by less than a tenth of a second.
“It was a good rust-buster,” Prandini said. “[And] the track is awesome. It’s definitely fun to run on.”
The next High Performance meet will be held on Friday, Jan. 29, but the House of Track won’t be sitting idle in the meantime. On Monday nights, the Oregon chapter of USA Track and Field hosts races for youth. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the Nike+ Run Club takes the stage, and on Wednesdays the track is open to community members from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Throw in the High Performance and Developmental meets on Fridays and Saturdays, and there’s hardly ever a lull at the House of Track. Not bad for a once-vacant warehouse.
“It’s low budget,” said Vin Lananna, president of TrackTown USA, and head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic track and field team. “but it’s high energy, high excitement, and it gets high marks from the athletes. I think they love the track, and they love the atmosphere.”
Jenkins agrees. “I love the loud, chaotic atmosphere,” the 3,000-meter runner-up said. “When you’re running and the fans are right on top of you, that’s a great feeling.”