After two decades out in the cold, indoor track has returned to Oregon. It’s like nothing the state has ever seen before.
Eugene, Oregon, is known as the spiritual home of track and field. For a town of just 160,000 residents it is spoiled with world class athletics meets: the Prefontaine Classic, NCAA Championships and Olympic Trials will all roll in to town this summer. TrackTown is the body that organises and promotes these events (Pre Classic is organised by Oregon Track Club). They do that job so well that the tag has become synonymous with Eugene.
The University of Oregon, based in Eugene, has one of the most successful – probably the most storied – collegiate track and field outfits in the country. The Ducks are reigning NCAA outdoor team champions for both men and women.
Zip north two hours on the I-5 and you wind up in Portland. There is no NFL team in Bridgetown, no MLB team, either. Yet it is home to the headquarters of the three biggest sports brands on the planet: it’s all about mother of all sports in this corner of the Pacific Northwest. “Athletics in Oregon has always been a very important part of the culture,” Vin Lananna, the swashbuckling President of TrackTown tells SPIKES. “There’s always been this affinity for the sport that is unlike any place else in the country.”
But we knew all that.
What’s harder to work out is why, for generations, the region has been deprived of a regular indoor track and field meet. There isn’t even a banked 200m indoor track to train on. “Or, for that matter, in the state of California either,” Lananna points out.
This is odd. The indoor season is well-established in the American collegiate system. Running, jumping and throwing indoors is not alien to west coast-based athletes who graduate to professional level. Nor is indoor athletics alien to the west coast: the Oregon Indoor meet was held at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum annually from 1961 to 1997 – Steve Prefontaine was unbeaten in the two mile event between 1971-75. “It had a good long run. It had good support. It just kind of petered out,” Curtis Anderson, director of communications at TrackTown tells us.
The decline wasn’t limited to just Oregon. Lananna says: “In the United States the majority of those indoor meets took place in other venues, like basketball arenas. When the size of the track increased from eleven laps in a mile to ten, then to eight, the venues were no longer capable of accepting the track in there.”
Twenty years of hurt ends this year, with Portland set to hold the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March. TrackTown was the logical choice to take the organisational lead, despite being based 100 miles away. Anderson calls it a “labour of love”.
Future Champions at the House of Track! pic.twitter.com/k8yDv2XGaZ— Vin Lananna (@vinlananna) February 7, 2016
“Hope is cheap. We try to take hope and turn it into tangible results. We stick to it until it connects. Not every idea is a good one. But we’re not afraid to think big.” – Vin Lananna
TrackTown’s passion is matched with its gusto: a local organising committee that gets things done. Typically, the brains behind TrackTown weren’t satisfied with just putting on the most high profile indoor track meet in US history. They also took the lead in organising the US nationals, which take place the week before worlds in the same venue, the Oregon Convention Center.
The brand new championship track was ready by December last year. It was assembled in a downtown warehouse to ensure all was ship shape for champs. This sparked another idea. “Since it was up, rather than just take it apart we decided to leave it up and run some events,” Lananna says. It would be rude not to. “We named it House of Track, and that was it.”
That’s how a disused warehouse in northwest Portland became the scene of one of the most imaginative series of indoor track meets ever organised. The “makeshift” venue was the antithesis of a modern sporting arena, but it nonetheless proved a hit with everyone who passed through – and alot of people passed through: elite athletes, juniors and high schoolers, recreational runners, fans. "We wanted to expose as many people as possible to the intimate surroundings and thrilling competition that typify indoor track and field," Lananna says.
Its popularity can be measured by the round-the-clock demand. "We had programming on the track 10 hours a day, seven days a week," Lananna adds. "[The] four high performance meets attracted multiple Olympians, world champions and other elite athletes such as Allyson Felix, Galen Rupp, Matthew Centrowitz, Shannon Rowbury, English Gardner, Jenna Prandini, Ben Blankenship, Andrew Wheating, Jesse Williams, Hassan Mead and many others."
Portland-based Emily Infeld, whose 10,000m bronze was the only middle distance medal won by any US athlete at last year's Beijing World Championships, squeezed in a couple of workouts at the House of Track before heading to Flagstaff for altitude training. “It’s crazy to think that there isn’t an indoor track or facility [in Oregon]. It was really nice to have that,” she says.
Infeld will attempt to make the US team for Portland in the 3000m. Athletes such as her, she says, benefitted by being able to “put out some fast times and just get used to" running on a banked 200m track without having to travel across half the country.
But the point of House of Track was not to merely pander to the pros. There has been a genuine effort to connect the elite activity with the community. It’s a grass roots drive that makes the track's green surface feel apt. House of Track has hosted run clubs, community sessions, high school meets, youth development training, even a fire department vs police department meet.
“It wasn’t good enough for us to just have a few elite meets – we wanted to connect the high school kids.” Lananna says. “Our vision all along was schoolbus loads of kids coming for field trips and being able to run a lap round the track. And we will do that in between the US nationals and the world championships.”
The value of this is obvious, and Infeld recognises it. “I love that they have the high school meets there," she says. “I feel like that’s when you really fall in love [with the sport] and you really connect with it. It’s cool that they’re putting on these races, high school level as well as elites. There’s a good connection.”
It’s hard to measure the success of such programmes. Slow burn tactics do not tend to produce digital stats that will impress the suits. What TrackTown did with House of Track is “create a buzz,” to use Anderson’s words. “Hopefully that will spill out to the general community. We don’t have any analytics to measure that, other than seeing the parking lot filling up early and telling people to find some place else to park. Luckily we didn’t have to turn anyone away, but we hit maximum capacity.”
Capactiy was 1,600. But the crowds were notable not just for their size. Anderson says it was “one of the more unique atmospheres I’ve ever seen. The juxtoposition of a grungy old warehouse and a dazzling new track. There was a really cool vibe in there. It was a young crowd, which is different than what we’re used to seeing down at Hayward Field.”
When the community is properly engaged, the benefits are felt from top to bottom. Lananna adds: “With absolutely no promotion, more and more people showed up each Friday night. It was completely organic. We attracted a total of 4,600 spectators for the four [elite] meets, and most were in their early to mid-20s.”
It bodes well for the US nationals and world championships, which are now just weeks away and will see youth races take place on the same days. Whether it will prompt a return of indoor track on a regular basis to the state of Oregon remains to be seen. The University of Iowa have already called dibs on the track, but that doesn’t spell curtains for future meets.
“There are more than one track that could be built,” Lananna says. “I think if there was really a sincere appetite for a track and a building to put it in, I think we’d be able to figure it out.”
Anyone else hungry?