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Long hours, short nights and ulcers: Portland Track defies the coronavirus to stage elite meets
Author: Ken Goe, The Oregonian/Oregonlive
Posted: July 28, 2020

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If Portland Track’s Jeff Merrill feels a little ragged, well, no wonder.

The legwork it takes to stage elite track meets during the coronavirus pandemic would be a strain on anybody.

“It’s an around-the-clock type of thing,” Merrill says. “The days all kind of blur together.”

Portland Track has put on two popup meets, the Big Friendly 1 on July 3 at Portland’s Jesuit High School and the Big Friendly 2 (the Bigger Friendly) on July 17 at McKenzie Track, 40 miles outside of Eugene.

Big Friendly 3 is being planned for Friday at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Portland area. Organizers are staying mum about the location to discourage spectators and prevent potential spread of the virus.

The effort it’s taken to get to this point would exhaust a marathoner. Portland Track has consulted with Oregon’s three, Nike-sponsored elite distance groups — the Bowerman Track Club, Oregon Track Club Elite and coach Pete Julian’s unnamed group.

The Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League have advised. The office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has signed off. So have Multnomah and Lane counties, and, presumably, the county in which the next one will take place if it’s not Multnomah. So has USA Track & Field.

Portland Track organizers have arranged with Providence-Oregon for participants to be tested twice in a 48-hour period shortly before race day. They have had to find available tracks suitable for Olympic-level athletes that meet USATF’s sanctioning criteria.

In the case of McKenzie Track, that meant building an inside rail the day before the meet, even while on the phone to Lane County Health and Human Services.

“We weren’t sure the meet was going to happen because a new mask order was going into effect and we wanted to find out for sure that we were OK to hold it,” Merrill says.

They were — once they had passed the hat to participants to pay for the rail. Portland Track is a shoestring operation with an all-volunteer board and next-to-no budget. Merrill, who is a Portland Track board member and works fulltime for Nike, hasn’t slept much this month.

None of this is easy. All of it is time consuming. Start with finding a track.

“It’s pretty hard,” says Portland Track president Michael Bergmann. “I’ve learned about all the tracks in the state, from Lane Community College, to George Fox, to Linfield, to Mt. Hood Community College. All of those guys have rails. But the schools are closed. The campuses are closed. Most of those places don’t want to take the risk of having any sort of event, which I totally understand and respect.”

McKenzie Community Track & Field didn’t have those concerns, which made the track available on July 17 — providing Portland Track brought the rail.

But that track’s tight turns make it less suitable for running fast and setting records, which is what athletes such as Donavan Brazier, Craig Engels, Konstanze Klosterhalfen, Raevyn Rogers and Shannon Rowbury of Team Julian, Nijel Amos and Chanelle Price of OTC Elite, and Josh Kerr of the Brooks Beasts want to do.

“A good call out is, when you’re looking at an aerial view on Google Maps, you want a track with a soccer field in the middle because those are wider,” Merrill says. “If they just have a football field in the middle, they’re a little narrow.”

The Thorns became involved because some players are fans of Tracklandia, a talk show Portland Track streams and Merrill co-hosts with two-time Olympian Andrew Wheating.

Thorns defender Emily Menges, who ran track at Georgetown, has been known to join the pre-pandemic post-show gatherings at an adjacent restaurant. When Merrill mentioned Portland Track was trying to set up a coronavirus testing protocol, Menges put the organizers in touch with the Thorns training staff. That led Portland Track to Providence for the testing.

“Their system is awesome,” Bergmann says.

On race day, Portland Track is serious about keeping out spectators and holding down the number of people around the track.

At McKenzie Track, “we had folks from their board at the front of the road access with a checklist,” Bergmann says. “Nobody got past who wasn’t on the list. When people come into the facility, we do a temperature check and give them a wristband to show they’ve been checked.”

Athletes are asked to wear masks when not competing. Portland Track board members do everything from labeling and handing out race bibs to counting laps to handling the public address announcing.

They had hoped to livestream the McKenzie meet, but rural Lane County couldn’t provide the necessary bandwidth. That shouldn’t be a problem Friday.

J.J. Vazquez, a Portland State professor who runs the production company Locomotion Pictures, is set to be in charge of streaming the action live on Portland Track’s free Tracklandia YouTube channel.

There should be plenty to watch. Team Julian, OTC Elite, the Brooks Beasts of Seattle and Little Wing of Bend will compete. Seattle-based post-collegians mentored by University of Washington coaches Andy and Maurica Powell also figure to be there.

Bergmann has hinted there could be surprises — either entries or record attempts — but declines to be more specific.

The Bowerman Track Club has opted out, choosing instead to hold intrasquad time trials.

Bergmann says BTC coach Jerry Schumacher “knows what we’re doing. But they’ve been pretty successful doing it their way. He has his plan. I’m not going to beg him.”

The people at Portland Track have enough on their plate as it is. They aren’t getting rich.

On their own time, they are providing the region’s Olympic-level athletes a chance to do what they train to do.

“We’re having a blast,” Merrill says. “Although, I might have an ulcer.”

-- Ken Goe

kgoe@oregonian.com | @KenGoe