California in Spring - trackboundUSA

California in Spring

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It’s Stanford time. With that in mind, we have put together a little something on the distance runner’s paradise.

The magic of California in spring

Is it the lure of Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the guaranteed glorious sunshine, that all seem to magnetize endurance runners from all over the world to California every spring? Perhaps these are factors, and at this point it would also be rude also not to mention the glorious blueberry coffee cake served at Hobees in Palo Alto as another enticement.

However, asides from eating cake and topping up the tan, distance runners have been churning out remarkable performances in California for many years; most notably at Mt SAC and Stanford. Onlookers from all over the world sometimes struggle to grasp what it is that makes athletes run so fast at these meets and even the athletes themselves can sometimes struggle to replicate their ‘California’ times at other locations.

Here we draw upon our own experiences and look at why these meets produce the quantity and quality of performances each year. The meets we are referring to are typically those that take place in coastal California in April and early May.

Conditions

To consistently produce fast times, good conditions are a prerequisite. Whilst they can never be guaranteed, it is hard to go far wrong with the weather to be expected in coastal California in May. Especially so at Mt SAC, it can often be hot and breezy during the daytime, though as soon as the floodlights are switched on this seems to be a signal up above for the wind to suddenly die. The track is also built into a hill which is a huge factor in blocking out the wind. Stanford conditions are usually similar, with breezy daytimes, but usually the wind completely dies down by dusk.

Reputation

As if the collegiate athletes were not completely capable of producing quality meets, both Mt SAC and Stanford have reached the level where athletes are flying from all over the world to compete. National teams, post collegiate groups, and individuals from every continent will be represented. In fact, one of the familiar sites at Stanford every year is the banners of the professional Japanese corporate teams being displayed around the top bend.

The longer events can also be more desirable than the top tier European meets in some cases. Whilst the California meets are of high quality, the lack of prize and bonus structure means that you would be unlikely to see world record attempts or other very fast paced races. A-races are instead typically won slightly inside major championship qualifying times. For elite professional athletes not quite at the standard to go with the East African Diamond League pace in Europe, California can be preferable.

Attitude

Athletes head out west for one simple reason, and that is to run fast. NCAA regionals, national trials, World Championships or Olympic teams; all of these require qualifying times, and what better time and place to get it done than California in April. With the regular collegiate track season being relatively short, opportunities are fewer than one may think, and certainly this season the same applies with regards the short window available to achieve Olympic qualifying times. The early timing in the season of these meets can also allow athletes the chance to regroup and ‘double peak’, especially when the global championships do not take place until August.

Athletes are grouped together in races according to ability, and with the sheer amount of depth involved, it is not always a necessity to be in the top heat to run a fast time.  Whilst the top heats will all have pacemakers, large ‘train’ like fields almost guarantee that there will be big groups rolling along at a healthy pace in most of the other distance races. Although the race seeding has never been or never will be completely fair, just looking at the meet results would suggest that the meet organizers usually do a good job at getting the fields right.

Atmosphere

Just watch Chris Solinsky’s American record over 10,000m to see what we mean by saying that these meets generate atmosphere.

Knowledgeable crowds situated very close to the action, and very excitable track announcers just help add to the occasion. Whether it be the lights shining down on the athletes, the drummers setting the beat on the infield, the settings at Mt SAC and Stanford could not be more perfect for a night of world class distance running.

Watching professional top tier athletics in Europe can be very exciting, though there are huge differences in the ways these meets are run compared to the likes of Mt SAC and Stanford. Top European meets are often catered to the needs of the four or five superstar names that will bring in the crowds and attract mass TV audiences. This is a sharp contrast to somewhere like Stanford where there are no appearance fees, no official meet hotel, everyone has to pay to race, and there is far more to talk about that seeing a Gay v Bolt showdown over 100m.

 Summary

There you have it folks, these are some of the reasons we believe the magic happens. Key dates to look out for this year in the Californian track calendar are:

March 30: Stanford Invitational, Palo Alto

April 18-20: Mt Sac Relays, Walnut

April 25: Brutus Hamilton Invitational, Berkeley

April 28: Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, Palo Alto

Whilst following our ramblings or watching the races online gives some idea of what to expect, really both Stanford and Mt Sac are places you need to see to believe. What are you waiting for…

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