The idea was to create something partly informative, partly entertaining and completely goofy.
Jeff Merrill and Andrew Wheating seem to have pulled it off.
They call their creation “Tracklandia.” It’s a monthly, one-and-a-half hour show before a live audience featuring elite athletes from Portland’s world-class running community.
The shows are recorded. Segments are available on the “Tracklandia” website.
“The goal from the beginning was, if it already exists, then we don’t want to do it,” says Merrill, who handles most of the more serious interviewing and sometimes plays straight man when Wheating injects levity into the proceedings.
They see it as a way to both popularize and humanize Olympic-level athletes. They figure, the best way isn’t to talk about race strategies, training and personal records. Those stories already are being done.
“We thought, let’s talk to them about their favorite movie or food or the time they got scared, so terrified they peed their pants,” Wheating says. “Let’s take athletes and make them whole people.”
The result is something that is part late-night talk show, part “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update, part Second City.
The shows generally end with athletes playing some sort of wacky game Wheating has devised.
When it was over, Merrill was taped to his chair.
The improvised baby diaper Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy created needs to be seen to be believed.
The live shows are at Downstream, a design and production company in Northwest Portland. Admission is free but requires advance tickets. Shows are announced about a week prior on the “Tracklandia” website and Portland Track Facebook page.
“Tracklandia” now has a show band Merrill says is “made up of local runners. Well, I don’t know about the guy on the drums. Hopefully, he gets out and jogs.”
There is beer available. The principals generally gather afterward at the adjacent Yur’s Bar & Grill.
“Everybody knows there is a social aspect,” Portland Track president Michael Bergmann says of the post-event activities. “You’ll have Craig Engels and Shelby Houlihan playing pool with a bunch of locals.”
“Tracklandia” is an example of Bergmann’s vision for growing the sport. Portland Track stages the Portland Track Festival and the Stumptown Twilight, elite track meets at Lewis & Clark College.
But Bergmann believes track and field needs to think beyond traditional meets if it wants to reach more than a niche audience.
He bubbles with ideas, including pop-up, one-event spectacles on the Portland Waterfront or on a downtown street.
Bergmann and Merrill were two of the driving forces behind the Portland 5,000, a standalone race which drew an estimated 2,500 people to the Nike campus one evening last September to watch Bowerman Track Club runners Woody Kincaid, Lopez Lomong and Matthew Centrowitz chase the Olympic standard.
That race is the subject of the short documentary “The Hunt” by filmmaker RJ McNichols. It’s been shown to audiences in Portland, Eugene and Brooklyn, and soon will be available on the “Tracklandia” website.
“Tracklandia” evolved out of Bergmann’s idea for a Portland lecture series. Merrill, a former runner at Michigan and Nike employee, was volunteering with Portland Track and interested in doing some sort of talk show.
Wheating, the former University of Oregon mid-distance star and two-time Olympian, had retired from running, moved from Eugene to Portland and was looking for ways to stay involved in the sport.
While living in Eugene, Wheating and mid-distance runner Russell Brown made a series of slapstick videos they called “Behind the Stands.”
Bergmann put Merrill and Wheating together, which is how “Tracklandia” came to be.
When the live shows began two years ago, attendance was sparse. But “Tracklandia” is beginning to develop a following beyond the featured runners and their friends.
Attendance sometimes includes young couples looking for cheap entertainment and, occasionally, members of the Portland Thorns soccer club.
Fifty spectators or more now crowd the Downstream studio. The online audience for the videos is expanding, too.
Wheating was surprised this fall when a teenage runner approached him with recognition dawning on his face.
“I’ve been in that situation before,” Wheating says. “I get a little bit of a big head. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m an Olympian.’
“But it was, ‘You’re the guy from the Tracklandia show.’”
The first “Tracklandia” of 2020 took place Tuesday. What happens next is anybody’s guess because things are getting complicated.
Wheating was hired for a sports marketing job by On Running last summer. The job requires frequent travel, which has cut into his time to plan, shoot and edit “Tracklandia.”
“Our show is catching some traction,” Wheating says, “I would love to keep doing it.”
— Ken Goe