Competition in the 'Landia
Editor's Note: I was nervous about this one getting out. I got a WhatsApp message from Jeff Merrill last week saying we had to talk. After some timezone-led back and forth, we finally connected - Sunday midday for me, having just returned from some trails, and late Saturday for Jeff - having just adopted a dog. Turns out Jeff was cooking up an exciting match up between Oregon Track Club Elite and Pete Julian's unnamed group.
No media coverage, no sneaky athlete social posts, nothing. No leaks. That's what I was told, and that's how it worked out. I spent most of my Saturday furiously checking Twitter and the same old message boards seeing if our scoop had been stolen - and to my surprise, it hadn't.
So here it is - The Big Friendly. Enjoy.
The gun cracked and echoed against the wall of trees. Runners in green and blue singlets fell into position single file down the back straight, settling into the early pace and readying themselves for what smoke the others might throw at them in the final laps.
On a locked-down track that could have been in West Texas, Area 51, the Moon or Alabama, the sport of track returned in earnest on July 3rd as Mark Rowland’s Oregon Track Club took on Pete Julian’s squad of Nike elites in Portland Track’s tidy little dust up now known as ‘The Big Friendly’.
Every competitor and member of the skeleton staff was sworn to secrecy in order to keep numbers low in the midst of the global pandemic. Mask-wearing officials and coaches walked the infield amongst the world’s best set against empty stands giving the environment the feeling of a Kubrick film being shot on a soundstage in a Hollywood studio. But the athletes were real, the racing was hot and the game is back.
Spoiler alert! If you want to watch the races without knowing results, head to youtube.com/c/tracklandia.
The Big Friendly showcased limited but quality fields of the world’s top athletes across 3 events:
- Men’s 1500m
- Women’s 800m
- Men’s 800m
With 10 athletes competing in all, the fields were loaded with talent, including 2 world champions (Donavan Brazier and Chanelle Price), a world silver medalist (Raevyn Rogers), a world bronze medalist (Konstanze Klosterhalfen), and Japanese national record holder and marathon great, Suguru Osako toeing the line in the 1500m. Reigning American 1500m champion and mustachioed wild man, Craig Engels dusted off the cobwebs in the 800m and young up and comers on the OTC, Will Paulson and Vince Ciattei mixed it up with Brazier and Osako in the 1500m, paced by their teammate, Welshman Jake Heyward. Second year OTC athlete Sabrina Southerland joined her partner in crime, Price, Klosterhalfen and Rogers in the women’s 800m.
The five men came through 400 meters in 60 seconds, Jake Heyward at the front and Suguru Osako holding onto the rear. Picking it up slightly through the second lap to cross 800 meters in 1:58, Osako, who ran 2:05 for the marathon only 3 months ago drifted back, losing touch with the others who stayed bunched in a row, Heyward at the front, Paulson, Ciattei and Brazier stalking the boys in green. Through 3 laps in 2:57, the order remained largely unchanged and still just as tight. Heyward stepped off the track and left the 3 men alone for the final 300 meters. Brazier looked hesitant at the top of the back straight, but midway down, he made a strong move that could not be matched by Paulson or Ciattei, or maybe anyone else on the globe
Continuing through the final 200 meters, Brazier glanced over his shoulder twice to gauge the cushion of his victory, measuring his effort to finish strong but not depleted. In the final 250 meters, he put nearly 4 seconds on second place finisher, Ciattei. Brazier’s final 300 meters was unofficially clocked at 38 seconds, securing the world lead and a new personal best for the 800m world champion of 3:35.85. Coach Pete Julian told us as fit as Brazier was in 2019, finishing workouts that Julian had never even heard of other runners accomplishing, he is a level above that fitness this season, and we can expect to see more fireworks ahead. Brazier said he’s got no intention of moving up to the 1500m at this point, but the man loves to race, and will take all challengers if they’re brave enough to test him.
- Donavan Brazier - Nike - 3:35.85 PB 2020 World Best
- Vincent Ciattei - OTC - 3:39.48 PB
- Will Paulson - OTC - 3:39.86
- Suguru Osako - Nike - 3:50.69
- Jake Heyward - OTC - DNF
Coach Pete Julian told us as fit as Brazier was in 2019, finishing workouts that Julian had never even heard of other runners accomplishing, he is a level above that fitness this season, and we can expect to see more fireworks ahead.
Raevyn Rogers led Chanelle Price, Sabrina Southerland and Konstanze Klosterhalfen through a brisk 28 second first 200 meters and then through a perfectly paced 58 second quarter before stepping off the track around 500 meters. Through the first lap, Price pressed to stay close to Rogers’ back kick. Klosterhalfen moved around Southerland to get onto Price’s shoulder. After Rogers stepped off, Price pushed to create a gap between herself and Klosterhalfen- Koko trying to stay in touch and equally gapping Southerland as the 3 runners powered around the final turn.
Down the final straight with the victory in hand, Price didn’t let up. Joining the team this last Fall, the 29 year old knows that she is closing in on the final act of her brilliant career, and though that act could be 5, 6 or 7 more years, the look in her eye showed that she aims to give her time on the track every ounce of grit and power she has. She crossed the finish line clocking 2:01.47 for her first victory in the OTC green. Cooling down afterwards she was delighted with the win and looking forward to a shake from Chik-Fil-A. She is also looking forward to getting back under the 2 minute barrier, something she hasn’t done since 2015.
Her victory at The Big Friendly is a strong indication that training with her new team is going well and the times will come with more competition- a match-up with world silver medallist, Rogers a possibility in the near future...
- Chanelle Price - OTC - 2:01.47
- Konstanze Klosterhalfen - Nike - 2:04.00
- Sabrina Southerland - OTC - 2:04.07
- Raevyn Rogers - Nike - DNF
The RV-driving, mustache-wearing, sometimes mullet-donning back country sweetheart of track opened up his season as the sole finisher in the men’s 800m at The Big Friendly. Engels stepped to the line with Donavan Brazier and Jake Heyward, doubling back from the 1500m less than half an hour earlier. A nod to his mullet days, Engels only tucked the front of his singlet into his shorts, leaving the back out to party behind him.
Brazier got out hard in front through the 200m in 24 seconds with the 1500m specialist, Engels fighting to stay close behind him, Heyward trailing him in third. Brazier looking smooth, passed 400 meters in 49 seconds before stepping off around 450m. Engels looking for a 52 first lap heading into the race, instead found himself through in 50 with a lap to go.
Heyward passing in 51 seconds. Closing in on the 600 meter mark, Heyward shrunk the gap on Engels before stepping off in 1:19. Engels, looking drained with 200m to go, showed why he’s the reigning American champ at 1500m, fighting through to finish solo in 1:48.55 for a solid opener and a good sign of strong finishes in close races to come.
Following the run, Brazier was apologetic for taking it out a little hot. Both men sat slumped on the infield 10 feet from each other catching their breath and making amends. Brazier said: “you can’t put a saddle on a mustang.” Engels rolled his eyes.
With The Big Friendly in the books, Mark Rowland’s Oregon Track Club and Pete Julian’s group without a name have brought the game of track back to the people. With safety precautions, rigorous testing and Portland Track’s mission to provide a platform for all athletes to bring their talents and tactics to clash in the center ring in riveting fashion, you can bet there will be more contenders ponying up to measure their skills against the best in Tracklandia.
For now, at the outset, one thing is for sure, Donavan Brazier is still on top- slouched on the throne- crown cocked to the side over his brow, waiting patiently. Is there a man out there in west Texas, Area 51, the Moon, Alabama or Oregon who wants a shot at the champ?