Portland fans, athletes embrace TrackTown Summer Series

San Francisco’s Inika McPherson clears 6 feet, 2 ¾ inches (1.90m) to earn the victory in the high jump at the TrackTown Summer Series meet at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.

GRESHAM, Ore. – One thing was certain at the second stop of the 2017 TrackTown Summer Series – this is a completely different experience for track and field fans. It’s more informal, more intimate and a more streamlined competition with only nine events.

Start with the day’s first elite event at Mt. Hood Community College, the combined men’s and women’s shot put, which took place before any of the track events started. Hundreds of fans gathered on the side of the shot put venue to watch two athletes from each team compete, with the combined best throws of the two athletes – one male and one female – determining placing and scoring.

The duo from the Philadelphia Force – Michelle Carter and Ryan Whiting – had the edge in age, experience and Olympic medals, and to no one’s surprise, they dominated the event.

Olympic gold medalist Michelle Carter combined with teammate Ryan Whiting to give the Philadelphia Force a victory in the combined men’s and women’s shot put.

Carter had the best throw by a woman, 62 feet, 3 inches (18.97m), and Whiting had the best mark by a man, 69-¼ (21.03m). Their combined total easily gave them first place over the shot put pairs from the New York Empire, the Portland Pulse and the San Francisco Surge.

Both Carter and Whiting said they appreciated the chance to compete in the U.S. in July, as opposed to having to travel to Europe to find a competitive meet. They also liked the team format of the TrackTown Summer Series and the intimate setting for the shot put.

“It’s always nice when the fans are able to come close to us,” Carter said. “It’s more exciting for us and also a little more pressure because they can really see us and everything we do.

“I think (the Summer Series is) going to go over well. It’s going to take a little time for people to get familiar with it. The more we do this the more people get to know it and I think it’s only going to go up from here.”

The veteran Whiting said, “I like high-fiving little kids before I throw. It makes it more fun. Having them be excited about it makes me more excited.

“I’ve got two young kids and this gives me more time to be with my family. I wish I could have done this my whole career. We don’t like going over there (to Europe) – the Europeans have a big advantage not having to travel and we still go over them and beat them. But it’s nice to stay here.”

Following the shot put, action moved to the track, the triple jump runway and the high jump apron. Fans seated in the beer garden on the infield inside the track oval had a great view of all three.

The highlight on the track was the meet finale, the men’s 1500 meter race. The 1,500 came with a very strong field, and had the added interest of seeing whether newly-crowned U.S. 1,500m champ Robby Andrews could get the qualifying time – 3 minutes, 36 seconds – he needed to move on to the IAAF World Championships in London, Aug. 4-13.

Philadelphia’s Ben Blankenship leans at the tape for a narrow win over Portland’s Kyle Merber in the 1,500 meters. Both runners were clocked at 3:37.43.

The 1,500 could also determine which team would win the Portland meet, and which team would lead going into the series finale in New York City on July 6.

With fans lining the homestretch in lanes 4 to 8, Andrews settled in behind pacer Lopez Lomong, and came through 400 meters in 55 seconds. The fast early pace took its toll, however, and Andrews, who had fallen back in the pack on the third lap, stepped off the track with 350 meters to go in the race.

Ben Blankenship of OTC Elite and the Philadelphia Force roared into the lead down the backstretch and held on for the photo finish victory, out-leaning Kyle Merber by .006 seconds. Both were timed in 3:37.43. Fast-closing Craig Engels was just .22 seconds behind the leaders.

Andrews was disappointed but hardly devastated after the race.

“I felt pretty good early on, (but) that may have been the problem,” Andrews said. “We were out a little quick. I didn’t quite have it in my legs today . . . as soon as I realized that I stepped off (the track) and tried to save it for Thursday. Great venue, crowd was great, and I had a great time for about 800 meters of it.”

Blankenship, who pushed the pace in Sacramento before finishing 12th, laid off the early pace here. Noting his first lap was “high 56” seconds he stayed toward the rear of the pack, calculating he could navigate through the small field of eight runners when necessary. It was a strategy that paid off for Blankenship.

Another runner coming here off a strong race in Sacramento was Drew Windle, who made Team USA with his third-place finish in the 800 meters. Windle, running for the Portland Pulse, won the 800m in 1:46.21 edging New York’s Andres Arroyo.

Portland’s Drew Windle used a late surge to capture the win in the 800 meters.

“I didn’t know what to expect since USAs,” Windle admitted. “I just did some training runs, ate some crap food and did a mental reset. Coach (Danny Mackey) said he didn’t care if I ran 1:50 today, we just needed to get a hard effort in.”

Windle said he gets to experience the team camaraderie every day in practice with his training group, the Brooks Beasts, and he was excited to have that in the Summer Series. The prize money was nice, too, he added.

Former University of Oregon standout Phyllis Francis dominated the 400 meters. Francis, running for the Philadelphia Force, blasted out in the first 200 meters and looked strong down the homestretch, winning in 50.65. The Portland Pulse’s Elexis Guster, another UO star, took second in 51.39.

Philadelphia’s Phyllis Francis gets out of the blocks en route to a dominating win in the 400 meters at 50.65 seconds.

Francis joined the chorus of athlete voices expressing their enthusiasm about the TrackTown Summer Series, which drew an estimated crowd of 1,300 to Mt. Hood Community College.

“I loved the energy,” Francis said. “It was amazing. I think (the Summer Series) is awesome. It’s a good way to promote track and field here in the U.S. It gives the athletes a chance to train and compete in their own backyard.”

For steeplechaser Stephanie Garcia, the TTSS meet was a chance to put a disappointing USA Outdoor Championships in the rear view mirror. Garcia wound up doing a face plant off the water jump in the semis in Sacramento, but still managed to qualify for the finals, where she finished fourth, one spot out from the World Championship team.

Representing the New York Empire, Garcia won the 3000 meters convincingly in a quick 9:01.05, and was all smiles afterwards.

New York’s Stephanie Garcia rolled to victory in the 3,000 meters.

“After you have a heart-breaking U.S. Nationals you can do one of two things,” Garcia said. “You can go home and hide under your blankets or you can go out there and try again. My career has proven I go back out there and try again, even if I fail the next time. That’s what I love to do – go out there and compete.

“It’s such a privilege,” she added about the TrackTown Summer Series meets. “You have people out here who are American record-holders, and you have people who just qualified for U.S. Nationals. It’s so exciting and I love that TrackTown (USA) has created this opportunity.”

After the final event, many of the athletes joined in with young fans in the Kids Half-Lapper – a 200-meter fun run, jog or walk. Blankenship, the 1,500m winner, jogged the half lap with his friends’ small children.

Not too many meets where you witness something like that.