An invitation to compete at a world championship meet is a special thing, even for the top athletes in the world. Imagine then how a high school 4 x 400 relay team feels after receiving such an invite for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.

Thirty-six prep relay teams from Oregon, Washington and Idaho are getting the opportunity to compete on the same track, in the same venue, and before the same crowds as the world’s top track and field athletes.

TrackTown President Vin Lananna says this and other youth initiatives are essential to the entire World Championships effort.

“One of the founding pillars of our organization is to inspire the next generation of track and field athletes,” Lananna said.

Friday evening kicked off the series of relay races with 5A/6A girls and boys races, which occurred just before the official start of the evening session. Two races will also take place on Saturday (1A-4A girls and boys races), and again on Sunday (girls and boys invitational races).

The first night’s races were won by the Summit girls and the Marist boys. The Summit girls broke the race open early with a 58.3 opening leg by Piper Flanery, and went on to an easy win in a time of 3:58.86, just a second and a half off their best time from the 2015 season. The boys’ race was much tighter, as the Marist team held off a scorching anchor leg by Oregon City’s Jake Harthun to claim the win in 3:32.60.

While the results of the races at the Oregon Convention Center are not likely to have a major impact on the high school track season, which is just getting started, the athletes say the experience of running here was unforgettable.

Madison Hergert, a junior who ran anchor for the Newberg team, said “What an opportunity (for us) to get to do this with our 4 x4 team. To come out here and run on the new track and everything, it’s super cool to do that . . . I love track. My parents did it and it runs in the family. I’ve always done it and I’ve always had a place in my heart for it.

“It’s amazing to run here. Seeing Allyson Felix all the time (as I was) growing up, I was just like, ‘You’re my idol.’ It’s just cool to be able to be in the same facility as those Olympic athletes and to see your role models here.”

Oregon City boys coach Adam Thygeson echoed Vin Lananna’s sentiments about the importance of involving the next generation, saying, “I’m very excited for the opportunity to have them compete alongside the world-class athletes, and see how they warm up and how they perform. And just to run on that track – it should be a pretty magical experience for this group of athletes. They’ve been through some big meets, but nothing like this.”

Harthun, who was 3rd at the 6A state meet 400 last year as a sophomore, said the experience would definitely inspire him throughout his track career.

“I’m super excited,” Harthun said. “It’s really cool being here with (all the) professionals and everything. It’s really nice with how official everything is. It’s making you want to do better and get in bigger meets and everything.”

University of Portland assistant coach Chad Colwell coordinated the relays, as well as the middle school 60-meter event earlier in the week. While looking forward to the next two days, Colwell was happy with how it started and how excited the athletes were.

“I had quite a few athletes just walk up after and say ‘thank you.’ You can tell it was a good idea when a high school kid comes up after and says ‘thank you – it went well.’ The coaches were really impressed and excited, too. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run on this track with these athletes right by you. The whole idea behind this was to inspire the next generation of Oregon athletes, and I think we’re doing it.”

March 19 & 20 Relay Entries:

•  Girls 1A/4A, Saturday, 18:10 – East Linn Christian Academy, Newport, Molalla, Phoenix, Siuslaw, Union.
•  Boys 1A/4A, Saturday, 16:45 – Catlin Gabel, Cottage Grove, Crook County, Junction City, Regis, Union.
•  Girls Invitational, Sunday, 12:15 – Central Catholic, Holy Names (WA), Mountain View (ID), Southridge, Sunset, Union (WA).
•  Boys Invitational, Sunday, 12:25 – Camas (WA), McNary, Mountain View (ID), Tahoma (WA), Tigard, Sheldon.