The 1,600 spectators who jammed the House of Track in Northwest Portland Friday night for the finale of four high-performance track and field meets saw competition that was well worth the price of admission, had there been a price of admission.
All of the meets have been free and open to the public, courtesy of TrackTown USA. The participants -- 500 strong on Friday night -- were competing on the synthetic track that will be used for the U.S. and World indoor championships on successive weekends in March.
The final dry run before the track is broken down into 1,400 pieces and hauled to the Oregon Convention Center for set-up featured a couple of races that could earn the spotlight at any invitational in America.
Former Oregon standout Matthew Centrowitz held off Hassan Mead to win the 3,000 as both runners set personal records and easily bettered the World Indoors qualifying time of 7:50.
Nearly three hours later, in a battle involving three-fourths of the U.S. team that won silver in the 4x100 relay at the 2015 World Outdoor Championships, Allyson Felix nipped former Ducks English Gardner and Jenna Prandini to claim the women's 60.
Centrowitz -- silver medalist at 1,500 meters at the 2013 World Outdoor Championships and fourth at the distance at the 2012 Olympic Games -- won Friday night in 7:40.74, five seconds better than his previous indoor PR. Mead followed in 7:40.95, well ahead of his previous indoor best of 7:44.88.
For Centrowitz, 26, the night was about handling a curveball thrown at him at mid-race when rabbit Ben Blankenship dropped out. Blankenship, who would later finish third in the 1,500, was subbing for Pat Casey, who was supposed to handle the pacing but pulled out of the race.
Word of the switch never reached Centrowitz, who lives in Portland and trains with Nike Oregon Project.
"I had no idea what was going on," he said. "I heard Pat was going to lead up the race. I knew Ben was doubling, but I didn't know he'd be pacing (the 3,000)."
So when Blankenship took out well ahead of the rest of the field, Centrowitz went with him.
"Ben is one of those guys who likes to grind the pace," he said. "So I was just like, 'I'm going to get after it, tuck in and see what happens.'
"I'm in behind Ben, and then all of a sudden on the backstretch, he turns around. I couldn't hear him that well. I thought it was something like, 'Hey, come help me out. Dude, I'm absolutely spent.' Then he goes out to lane two or three, and I realized he was pacing us."
Centrowitz had to carry the pace from there.
"At that point, I had built a gap," he said. "I knew those guys were going to reel me in. I suck at leading. I was trying to continue to run the pace that Ben had set out, but by yourself, it's a lot harder to do.
"I glanced back with about 400 to 600 meters (left), and I saw then maybe 10 meters behind me. I thought, 'That's a lot closer than I thought they would be.' I needed more like 50 meters. I just had to keep the pole position. I fought for it."
Mead, who lives in Eugene and represents Oregon Track Club Elite, was on Centrowitz's tail with a lap to go but could never overtake him.
"Being my first race (of the indoor season), it always takes me awhile for my legs to get going," said Mead, 26, who placed 15th in the 10,000 at the 2015 World Championships after an eighth-place finish in the 5,000 at the 2012 Olympic Trials. "At about 2K, my legs got going.
"(Centrowitz) had about three seconds on me. I knew if I could catch him by the bell lap, the race was on, but he beat me to the turn. Being a 200-meter banked track, you have the advantage of anybody trying to move outside. I spent quite a bit of energy trying to close the gap. It was hard to pass him on the turns."
Centrowitz was "very pleased" to win and set a PR on a night when the stars were hardly in alignment.
"Doing strides (before the race), I felt lousy," he said. "It was one of those races where you might not feel 100 percent, but this is what's going to make you tougher. You could wake up the morning of an Olympic final and not feel great, and what are you going to do?
"I really stuck my nose in it on a day where I didn't feel as springy. I was just grinding it out."
Centrowitz, who said he hasn't decided whether to enter the 1,500 or 3,000 at the U.S. Indoors, will defend his Wananaker Mile title in the Millrose Games Feb. 20 at New York City. Mead said he will run the 3,000 at the U.S. Indoors.
Felix -- the defending Olympic 200 champion and a three-time world champion -- outleaned Gardner and Prandini in a near photo finish to win the women's 60 in 7.22. Gardner, in her first race of the indoor season, was second in 7.24 and Prandini third in 7.27.
"I originally entered this meet because it was going to be low-key," said Gardner, 23, now living in Los Angeles and training with John Smith's sprint crew. "Then I heard who was going to be here, and I was freaking out.
"I knew it was going to be fast. Those girls are fierce competitors. No matter what race Allyson runs -- 60 to 800 meters -- she still competes at an unheard level. I knew that was going to push me to be where I need to be. Me and Jenna have been running against each other since her freshman year in college. I'm used to her beating up on me all the time."
Gardner, who ran 7.22 in her qualifying heat, felt some technical errors near the end of the race cost her a chance at victory.
"I had a body malfunction the last five meters," she said. "I'm not very sharp right now, and I don't want to be. I like where I'm at. The more races I get, the sharper I'll be and the more I'll be able to put it together.
"I feel like a deer that's just been born. When they first come out, their legs are going all over the place. I'm getting my feet wet, and I'm glad I was able to open up here at home.
I did some pretty good things for this early in the season."
Prandini, 23, is living in Eugene while taking a couple of classes to finish her degree (she'll graduate this term). She had run in the second of the four House of Track meets two weeks ago and was pleased with her performance Friday night.
"It was a good, competitive race," said Prandini, the NCAA 100 champion and the national 200 champion last year. "We were all out here to run against each other, to get some decent times and some training in.
"It's fun to go out there, get some big-time competition in and get a race under my belt."
The athletes enjoyed the scene at the House of Track.
"This place took me by surprise," said Gardner, whose next race is at the New England Indoors at Boston on Feb. 21. "I expected greatness, because Oregon is where track is almost born.
"I love the feel of this place. I love the running surface. The fans were amazing. They were engaging with us. We had fun. That's the way track is supposed to be. I had a blast today."
"It's such a positive vibe here," said Wheating, 28, the former NCAA champion from Oregon and a two-time Olympian who won the 800 in 1:48.04. "The fast track helps, but the fact that everyone here is really excited about it is more entertaining. Even warming up and doing strides, the buzz was there. You toe the line, you can feel the tension. It creates an atmosphere that is exciting to run in."
Wheating, who is living in Eugene, isn't sure if he'll run the 800 or 1,500 at the U.S. Indoors.
"They're both on my radar," he said. "It's whatever feels best. They're both easy options."