Come on out to the Electric Forest

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The Portland Track Festival is its own kind of special

As Craig Engels swept around the final curve of the 1500m run, a smile formed under his wispy moustache. It was directed at the rowdy bunch of onlookers assembled around and on top of his 1983 Toyota Dolphin Motorhome parked trackside on the outside of the bend. He powered down the home straight, his mullet swaying side to side behind him, the rest of the field catching a good glimpse of the rocking party in front of them. The crowd erupted. The performance was a World A standard of 3:35.32, made possible by a dart around Tinman Sam Parsons, and a 26 second final 200m. Parsons and Brooks Beast, Izaic Yorks doused the mullet that taunted them with water after the race before Engels was escorted to a flowery couch between two tasseled lamps for an interview in front of the grandstand.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night because a guy came out to mow the astroturf at midnight” Engels joked to the crowd, alluding to having possibly slept in his RV next to the track pre-race. He got a good response.

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The 1500m races were the highlights of this year’s Portland Track Festival. Engels’ flowing mullet, big grin and wild kick were matched by Konstanze Klosterhalfen’s (Koko) deceptively smooth closing circuit of 61 seconds to clock 4:03.30 and lead Nikki Hiltz (4:05.56) to a World A standard.

Unlike big time meets you’ll find on the European circuit, many athletes will run multiple races throughout the day, some rabbiting their teammates in other races. Before Koko unfurled her long stride to pull away from Hiltz in the women’s 1500m, she methodically crept her way through the field of heat 2 of the 800m to secure victory in 2:04.18. Taking her seat on the couch after the double, the Oregon Project athlete politely declined her 1st place 10 Barrel fancy beer, saying in her German accent, “No thank you, give it to Craig (Engels).” For her win, she still walked away with her Publisher’s Clearing House sized cheque tucked under her arm, presumably to find a big bank.

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PTF takes place year after year in a small stadium at Lewis and Clark College on the outskirts of Portland. Customary in Oregon, an old covered wooden grandstand borders the home straight, and a backdrop of closely encircled Douglas Fir pines wraps the rest. The sounds from the loudspeakers echo off trees and keep the electricity of the meet in the forest. Performances like Engels’ run are amplified by the intimacy of the setting, loud ground-rumbling secrets shared in the grove between athlete and spectator. It is a carnival of track with supporting elements like food carts, the RV of a World Class 1500m runner, a post race interview set-up built to look like your grandmother’s living room and a pop-up shop selling vintage track gear.

It’s the fun-loving, weird younger sibling to the golden child, Prefontaine Classic. Having some of the premier distance groups in the world right in its backyard, the meet showcases athletes from The Nike Oregon Project, The Bowerman Track Club, The Oregon Track Club and The Brooks Beasts. It draws top talent from Canada, Mexico and even Australia in years past. It’s a meet defined by the quirky character and performances of the athletes who race there, it’s an athlete’s meet.

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The meet was started in 2008 by track fan and youth coach, Craig Rice. Up until 2004, Portland was home to the Portland Track Classic, but when adidas pulled their sponsorship of the meet, the city was left without a high level event to satiate their track and field needs.

Until Rice came along.

“I was coaching an age-group team that had grown large enough to host a meet as part of the USATF Oregon circuit. I didn’t want to put on a youth meet though and imagined a hybrid meet with a lineup of races that I’d find entertaining if I was a spectator.” Rice planted the seed and others joined the Portland Track crew, wanting to take what they loved about the personalities and efforts of racers and communicate them to fans in the stands.

Aside from its proximity to world class talent, The Festival’s growth is also due to its unique line-up of races which includes middle school and high school heats, a 3,000 meter scored competition between runners from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, and many heats of elite distance races capped by showdowns featuring some of the fastest athletes on the planet. This year’s edition included US Mile Champ, Engels, European Championship Medallist, Klausterhalfen, American Record Holder, Shannon Rowbury, World Medallist, Drew Windle, Josh Kerr, Alexa Efraimson, Nikki Hiltz and many more. The top athletes come to secure World Championship and Olympic standards, while rising stars get a chance to run with the best, even if it is just for a post-race jog.

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Sitting in the grandstand, a jogging amoeba of all levels of athlete can be seen down on the infield as the races go on around them. Young track fans grab a cool down jog with the runners they look up to and maybe take home an article of sweat-soaked clothing. This year, the Tinmen led the charge, steering a mob of roughly fifty shufflers clockwise while they watched Shannon Rowbury run circles around them in her 5,000 meter victory.

The accessibility to the athletes on the track is the defining characteristic of The Portland Track Festival. Track racing in its essence is a pure and simple endeavor. The goal is to run fast. Insiders know that each person runs fast a little differently. Each athlete has their own flair, their own style, their own swagger. PTF celebrates the differences and idiosyncrasies of athletes laying it on the line. When runners are pushing their limits, their unique traits and quirks are maximized to the nth degree and we get a glimpse of who they are as clear as we’ll ever be able to see it- a dozen distinctly different balls of fire blazing toward the tape, allowing the audience an opportunity to shine in the light. A thing like that should be hooked up to a top-shelf amplifier. The athletes and the fans deserve it. The meet is for both. The organizers’ job is to pour lighter fluid on the blaze, keep it inside the trees, and douse any mullets that might get singed. They’ll keep finding new ways to amplify the light. See you next year in the Electric Forest.

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