The Big Friendly 2: The Bigger Friendly
Along the banks of the McKenzie River a narrow two-lane highway unfurls through farmland and groves of Douglas Firs. Intermittent blasts of blinding sun and comforting shade hit the windshield as the car makes its way deeper into the Oregon interior. Logging trucks and pickups accelerate through the bends, the drivers familiar with the passage - but there’s also an exhilaration that comes with taking even a familiar combination of turns at high speeds- gliding smoothly within the lane lines as oncoming traffic darts by in an instant. Forty-three miles east of Eugene, just off the narrow road sits a hidden track in the shadows of the Cascade foothills.
The McKenzie River Community Track sits on the only flat plot of land in the region. It was built on the site of an old mill pond used by the Seneca Sawmill Company- owned by close friends of Bill Bowerman, Aaron and Marie Jones. Some of the older folks in the area say the boards that made up the grandstands of old Hayward Field began as logs cut from the surrounding hills and were baptized in the mill pond that was eventually filled in with dirt, smoothed out and topped with a tartan oval. This could all be legend, but out in the hills it can be hard to decipher truth from fiction and the lines between reality and fantasy aren’t as clear as those on a track- especially when someone says a track meet with the world’s top athletes might take place here, with only the trees watching.
Before the sun ducked behind the steep tree-covered hills, cars arrived one by one to the gravel parking lot wrapping the track’s bottom curve. Exiting the vehicles and making their way to the temperature check at the front gate were some of the Pacific Northwest’s premier track teams. Seven world and Olympic medallists, multiple national title and national record holders- track racers, convening to do what they are born to do- get wild and make moves to test their skills against opponents in a safe and secure environment far away from the ‘real world’.
The Pacific Northwest has a running heritage as rich as any far-flung corner of the world and is currently home to some of the greatest training groups on the planet- The Brooks Beasts, The Oregon Track Club, Oiselle Little Wing, Pete Julian’s group without a name (insert best suggestion) and many other top tier athletes unaffiliated with a formal team. These athletes have spent the past few months isolated from each other and training for the moment when they would get to try their hand against the tricks practiced and fitness gained by their equally isolated opponents. When Portland Track reached out to groups to gauge their interest in competing against the best in the region, they were all in. They would do whatever it took to be able to compete- multiple Covid-19 tests, routine symptom checks, agreement to mask wearing and sanitization standards, sworn secrecy of the event location to avoid a gathering crowd. The athletes and coaches came together as a community in order to clash on the track, and the competition didn’t disappoint.
Spoiler alert! If you want to watch the races without knowing results, head to youtube.com/c/tracklandia
In the first event of the evening, the men’s 600m, the Oregon Track Club’s Olympic silver medalist, Nijel Amos sprung out of the gates to lead a tight bunch of 4 through the opening 200 meter mark. Along the back straight, closing in on the quarter mark, World indoor silver medallist and Brooks Beast Drew Windle passed Amos and gained the lead around the bend. Amos, known to be a hard charging opener, hanging on down the stretch remained in second place for little more than 100 meters before regaining the lead in the final stretch and distancing himself from the other competitors by over a second for an even split 1:15.86. Western Oregon Wolf, Derek Holdsworth slipped by Windle in the closing stages to claim second place.
The women’s 600 meter event saw the closest finish of the evening. Big Friendly 800 meter champ, Chanelle Price led Nia Akins and Sadi Henderson through a 26 second first 200 meters, both runners in tow not ceding Price any ground. Price led until the middle of the home stretch when Akins, the rookie Brooks Beast out of UPenn summoned the strength to pass her on the outside. As the 3 runners approached the finish line in a blanket finish, Henderson of Oiselle Little Wing caught Price by surprise on the inside for second place behind Akins. All 3 runners finished in 1:27. Akins is now undefeated in a Brooks Beast uniform, and Price and Henderson coming so close now look to a future Friendly 800m to exact their revenge.
The men’s thousand-meter race saw another victory for the Brooks Beasts from Josh Kerr, who led from the moment the rabbit stepped off at 300 meters to the finish, tightening the screws in the last lap on Sam Prakel, Vincent Ciattei and Jake Heyward to finish in 2:17.60. Konstanze Klosterhalfen secured her first victory of the season, distancing herself from Rebecca Mehra only in the final straightaway to finish in 2:37.05 in the women’s race.
In the 3000m races, track’s van life promoting, mustache-wearing, Bud Light™-drinking, shag carpet-lounging All American hero, Craig Engels secured a comfortable victory and so did the great Shannon Rowbury in an impressive 8:40.26 in her 2020 season opener. Rowbury was led by Little Wing athlete Mel Lawrence through the opening mile and then accompanied by teammate Koko (Klosterhalfen) through 2500 meters before flying solo in her final lap, pressing all the way to the finish.
The evening was capped off with a World Relays style 2x2x400m relay featuring defending World Relays champ in the event and world record holder, Donavan Brazier trading legs with World silver medallist Raevyn Rogers. The two faced the OTC’s team of Nijel Amos and Chanelle Price as well as another Pete Julian tandem of Engels and KoKo. The teams were evenly matched aside from one apparent outlier.
The man they call DB is on another level right now. Brazier cruised his first lap in 49.6 before taking the baton from Rogers and blitzing another 51.3 that could have easily been another sub 50 had he not strode in comfortably with the victory in hand down the final straight. We saw Brazier run two laps last Friday night, and there are rumblings that in the coming weeks, he may do it without the rest interval in between. If the current record boards are difficult to reach, whoever looks after them should get their ladders ready.
The atmosphere at The Bigger Friendly, like at its predecessor, The Big Friendly was atypical- without the howling of the crowd- the buzz of side conversation and speculation near the concessions stands- the crackling of the loudspeaker. But the sense of community between teams and camaraderie between athletes coming together on a track in the woods simply to play the game they love was incredibly strong. A race is a culmination of the back stories that each athlete toeing the line brings to it. The strong separate team identities help to shape the narrative of clashes between athletes. Each athlete’s unique skills, talents and quirks are contrasted and accentuated by those of their competitors’ and the differences between all create the whole picture. They create the game. In many ways, lining up against someone and giving everything you have in a way only you can is one of the greatest gifts that you can give them, and lining up against you returns the favor. In a moment in time where many things are atypical, it feels pretty good to run wild in the forest, feeling alive and like yourself… getting the win feels pretty darn good too.
Driving out to the track on Friday afternoon, Pete Julian pulled his car off to the side of the two-lane highway along the McKenzie River to cast his line into the water a few times. The house of the legendary Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman sits on a hill overlooking the same river. When Julian got to the track, nobody asked him if he’d caught anything, but that night his team reeled in four wins- two went to the Beasts and one to the OTC- on an isolated track set in the central Oregon hills along the banks of the McKenzie. Maybe the night was silent, but the setting was wild.