By Steve Ritchie / TrackTown USA
PORTLAND, Ore. – The House of Track in northwest Portland was rocking again on Friday night as the third of four High Performance meets unfolded in exciting fashion before 1,250 spectators.
Despite the heavy showers pelting down outside, the stands in the House of Track were packed once more. Fans were standing five and six deep along the outside of the stunning lime-green track, which was built in this warehouse and will soon be moved to the Oregon Convention Center, the site of the USATF Indoor Championships (March 11-12) and IAAF World Indoor Championships (March 17-20).
Watching top-flight competition in such an intimate setting is clearly a draw for many fans. Indoor track and field is up close and personal and as exciting as the sport gets. Spectators at the House of Track learn quickly that you have to be careful or you might bump into an athlete warming up just behind the bleachers.
More than 30 colleges and post-collegiate club teams were represented at the meet, along with a handful of world-class athletes. Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist and hometown favorite Galen Rupp was the clear headliner, however, and Rupp did not disappoint his fans.
Just two days ago, Rupp created a stir in track circles when he announced he would compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, as well as the USATF Indoors and, if he qualifies, at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
But Rupp still needed a qualifying time in the 3,000 meters to compete in the USATF championships. Paced by Cory Primm of Team Run Eugene in the early stages, Rupp ran away from the field to win easily, and dipped under the eight minute standard to get his qualifier.
“I just had to get a time for U.S. Indoors. That’s what I came to do and I was happy with the time (7:57.39),” Rupp said after the race. “It felt good and I was pleased to get that out of the way. Now I can focus on the marathon.
“It’s special to have stuff here (in Portland) . . . I had a lot of familiar faces here tonight. My whole family was here and it’s just really cool to have them here and see them afterwards. It’s special.”
2013 World Championship bronze medalist Brenda Martinez was equally dominant in the women’s mile. In her indoor season debut, Martinez opened up a big lead early and continued to build it, winning in 4:32.05, nearly eight seconds in front of runner-up Treniere Moser, of the Nike Oregon Project.
“I like it a lot,” Martinez said about the track. ‘I can’t wait to get back on it again. It was fun.”
One of the top performances of the evening was the 1:46.00 win by Martinez’ Big Bear Track Club teammate Boris Berian in the 800 meters. After struggling for several years, Berian burst onto the elite track scene last year, nearly beating David Rudisha in New York and then running 1:43.34 in the Monaco Diamond League meet, the best time by an American in 2015.
“It’s a big (indoor) PR for me and I felt surprisingly good,” Berian said. “I am really happy with it.”
Berian’s journey to the top level of American track and field is a fascinating story. A high school 400- and 800-meter state champion in Colorado, Berian chose to attend Adams State, a Division 2 school which is legendary in distance running circles. His times there were decent but unremarkable, and Berian had some trouble academically. He ended up leaving school, and going to work at the McDonald’s in Colorado Springs, taking the early morning shift so he could continue training on his own in the afternoon.
“I would go to a high school that was nearby and train,” Berian said. “I was making up my own workouts.”
Then, Carlos Handler, husband and coach of Brenda Martinez, reached out to Berian and invited him to join them at Big Bear Lake, where they were starting a non-profit track club. Handler knew of Berian through legendary coach Joe Vigil.
“It was my only option,” Berian said. “I would have been stupid to pass it up.”
Since his move to Big Bear Lake, Berian’s career suddenly took on a missile-like trajectory. He plans to race at the USATF Indoor Championships with the hope of making it to the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
The House of Track started to gradually empty out after Rupp’s 3,000 race, but many stayed on for the final races of the evening. The most common refrain one heard from fans after the competition was some version of “How cool is this!”
Rick and Brenda Geiger drove an hour to watch the meet, partly to see their son, Devin, a George Fox athlete, compete. But they are track and field fans and were thrilled to hear that Rupp and other elites would also be lacing up the spikes.
“Finally, an indoor track is here in Portland,” Brenda said. “I am excited about that.”
Her husband added, “It’s just amazing the amount of work it must have taken to set up this track and the whole setup here. It’s cool.”
Former University of Oregon women’s track and field coach Tom Heinonen has been one of the announcers for the entire High Performance meet series. His thoughts echoed those of the Geigers.
“The track is great,” he said. “The crowd has gotten better each week. People like this place and they say it’s like a club. It’s a warehouse but it’s clean in here – that surprised me. This is a strange place and they have just made it into something unique.”
Bob Akamian, Heinonen’s announcing partner, believes the House of Track provides a vision of what could be in the future, even though the February 5th meet will conclude the High Performance series, and the track will then be taken apart and reassembled in the Oregon Convention Center.
“(With indoor track), we have a lot of action crammed into a smaller period of time,” Akamian said. “Coming in here and sitting so close to the action is another big attraction. I have been encouraging sports fans who are not track fans to come here and see this because I think it will get them hooked on the sport. I have always enjoyed indoor track and we haven’t had too much of it in the Northwest. This might create the momentum for an indoor track series (in several venues) in the region.”