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The heats are on

Low-pressure all-comers track meets provide fun for all ages and skill levels
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, It’s a wide-open 60-meter dash for competitors in the all-comers track meet at Grant High School on Tuesday, where athletes of all ages test their skills.

As an athlete, David Pietka's best events were the long jump and the high jump, but his love for track and field has turned into a marathon.

Early on a perfect spring evening, a gigantic field day takes shape at Grant High School in Northeast Portland and hundreds of bodies swirl around Pietka, a longtime Portland real estate appraiser.

Pietka is both nerve center and master of ceremonies at this weekly all-comers event, as he has been for 13 years. He directs traffic for participants young and old, supervises dozens of volunteers and issues a steady stream of announcements over the public address system. There are better athletes in attendance, but none is moving more skillfully than the 55-year-old Pietka. Or enjoying the event more.

'I'm a track nut from the old Eugene days in the '60s,' he says, referring to a heyday at and around the University of Oregon that produced running legend Steve Prefontaine and a lesser athlete named Phil Knight, who proved better at sports apparel than sports.

In high school, Pietka high-jumped 6 1/2 feet and posted long-jump distances that rivaled the state's best, but he'd caught the track bug earlier, at an all-comers meet sponsored by a local civic organization.

'I got ribbons, and they're still in my scrapbook,' he says. 'It built my self-esteem.'

Now, Pietka seeks to give other youngsters the same opportunity. In 1994, he saw the city of Portland and Grant High struggling to run an open meet for youth in the nearby community and elsewhere. The city had some funds and Grant had a facility, but the program lacked a vigorous administration, Pietka says. So he raised his hand.

'I saw that there was not enough support for kids to do what I had done,' he says. 'My interest started as a concerned citizen. This was a feature that was lacking in the city.'

Every year, Pietka's three local Foot Traffic stores, which sell shoes and apparel to runners, co-sponsor track and cross country meets for middle-schoolers as well as the series of all-comers events at Grant High, which take place Tuesday nights.

Sean Rivers, a partner at Foot Traffic, says Pietka's dedication to community involvement helped persuade him to get involved in both the business and the events.

'The goal has always been to introduce track and field to young athletes and their parents,' says Rivers, 26. 'It's a fairly noncompetitive, fun, family atmosphere. It makes sense for Portland.'

Pietka says the meets attract adults who want to stay in shape, serious athletes who want to stay in tune and wide-eyed kids getting their first taste of competition. That suits him just fine.

'We've had 3-year-olds in the 60-meter dash and 85-year-olds run in the mile,' Pietka says. 'Participants have come down and ended up working with the young people.

'If this creates a venue for kids to excel and to feel good about themselves, that's the goal. The philosophy is that every kid gets a ribbon for their activity. Many times, the kids run faster back to their parents to show them the ribbon than they did in their event.'

Coaches sometimes jump in

'Hey, I told you people to get back,' Ron Brown roars in mock anger. Young runners crowding the starting line for the 60-meter dash backpedal in a hurry, taking Grant High's assistant track coach seriously.

Nearby, Curtis Wilson stays loose in a dark nylon tracksuit. The head track coach at Roosevelt High School is mostly here for his two sons, students at Shaver Elementary in Parkrose. Mostly.

'Depending on how I feel, I might jump in. If I hang on and nothing snaps, the following week maybe I'll do the one, the two and the four,' he says, referring to the 100-, 200- and 400-meter runs.

Wilson has been an accomplished athlete most of his life, but his program at Roosevelt struggles to get and keep students interested. He tries to sell students on open meets like this one anyway.

'I pitch the all-comers and the state games to my athletes throughout the season,' he says.

With the loud crack of the starter pistol - which prompts some younger participants to cover their ears - a group of 4-year-olds tears down the track. Some are pictures of determination, others wear grins as goofy as their gaits, but enthusiastic cheers greet all at the other end.

'It's electric for a little kid in the 60-yard dash, seeing everybody clap for you,' says Foot Traffic's Rivers, who, like Pietka, got his introduction to track and field early: 'I remember doing one meet and running the 200-meter dash. I was addicted from that point on. I draw from that experience every time I see kids out there.'

Meets start, end with smiles

Robin Hawley mans a clipboard for the Eagle Track Club, which gets its membership primarily from Abernathy Elementary in Southeast Portland. The club's bright blue T-shirts are everywhere.

While Hawley records times in the 60 meters, her son, Basil, prepares to run in the event.

'He's not been one of those soccer, T-ball kids at all,' she says. 'He likes running.'

At the opposite end of the field, kids take turns throwing themselves over a high jump bar. In another corner, youngsters hurl Day-Glo javelins that look more like backyard toys, often sending them somersaulting through the air.

Natalie Stoll, a recent Grant graduate, ran the 400 meters and relays for a team that finished fourth in the state this spring. But she insists on volunteering at the long jump pit each year, and for one reason.

'The kids all just come down with smiles on their faces,' she says. 'Seeing them have fun out here, trying new things and getting into the sport … it's a fun sport.'

John Ellis warms up on the track adjacent to the pit. This fall, he'll begin his final year at David Douglas High. He placed sixth in state this spring in the triple jump.

'I'm just staying in shape for my senior season,' he says. 'I need improvement in the long jump. It's just me trying to get better any way I can. Everything helps.'

Another long jumper, Thomas Griffin, begins his sprint toward the sand pit. Almost immediately, however, the 3-year-old swerves into the grass alongside the runway. He keeps going, arms and legs pumping, making no attempt to get back on track. Finally, just short of the pit, he throws himself into his mother instead.

'He decided to veer off and head for Mommy,' says Jeff Griffin, the boy's dad.

With the sun now well below the fir trees bordering the running track, Griffin and his wife, Amy, begin collecting their kids and heading out. But they'll be back, they say.

'Our neighbors told us about it,' Jeff Griffin says. 'It's a great idea.'

'It's as much fun for the adults as for the kids,' Amy says.

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