I spent most of Saturday at the biggest cross country meet in the world, the Mt. SAC Invitational. Held at Mt. San Antonio College near Pomona, California, the meet takes place over two weekends, starting with college level, elementary, and middle schoolers the first week, and culminating with two days of high school level racing on the final weekend. Thousands of athletes from all over the country participate on one of the most challenging cross country courses out there. If you ran cross country in high school or college, you’ve heard of Mt. SAC. We will be there again when our girls’ varsity team qualifies after our next meet.
With our first race at 7:30, we had to hit the road at 4:30 in the morning. Yes, you read that right. With dogs and cats to care for, breakfast to eat (a must for me), even with most things ready to go, I set the alarm for 2:30. Didn’t the bars just close?
With most of our boys team staying home for the PSATs, though, there was room on the bus for the rest of us to stretch out and hopefully sleep. Unfortunately, I found that the coffee that got me going at 2:30 kept me from dozing on the bus ride. I did lay down and relax though.
When I next sat up, it was still dark of course, but it was also foggy and drizzly, something that we desert rats haven’t seen in a long time. In fact, it would stay cool and cloudy for the whole day, so temperatures were perfect for running.
Because of the testing, we only fielded one complete team (everyone gets to run, but you have to have at least five finish for a team score), our girls’ varsity. They ran very well and finished 10th out of about 24 teams. They were led by this young lady (in red – look at her fly with both feet off the ground!):
We have a pair of twins on our team. They ran very well too, and finished together.
One of the amazing things to see at Mt. Sac is how they manage to have three races going on the three mile course at one time. The races start every seven minutes, and they must be precisely timed because the course overlaps near the start line, which is also at about the 1.7 mile mark. At any given time, you can look around the course and see three separate groups of runners out there. Each area of the course has a distinctive name, so there will be some runners in the Valley Loop (the first mile), some runners on the Switchbacks (the start of mile 2), and others running up Poopout Hill and across Reservoir Hill (the first part of mile 3). The dash to the finish is along the Airstrip and through the Gauntlet. It’s pretty cool.
After 11 years of coaching cross country and taking a team to Mt. Sac, Alan and I have a routine that we follow with each race. Unless, as sometimes happens, one of our races starts seven minutes after another. Then we’re kind of scrambling. Fortunately, because we had so few kids, that didn’t happen Saturday.
After taking our team to check in, which they require be done 15 minutes before race time, we head over to a good position to watch the start. Each team is led into a little corral, where they are checked to make sure that they are adhering to the cross country dress code: matching uniforms, no jewelry, hair clips and bands must be to hold hair down only, shirts must be tucked in. They are very strict, but everyone knows and expects that, so most are prepared before they check in.
A little clip of the varsity girls start gives you some sense of the excitement.
As soon as the gun goes off, both Alan and I dash to our first lookout point, the first loop of the valley loop, which is about a half mile into the race. The runners are still pretty close together at that point. I could tell that one of my twins had started too fast, because she was very close to the front. Too close. Our fastest girl (the redhead above), is a very smart runner and paces herself beautifully. I generally don’t have to tell her anything.
After the runners do the first loop, Alan and I move a few feet away to where the runners will hit the first mile marker. The first mile is very flat and fast (which is good because then they hit the switchbacks).
After the runners pass us at mile one, Alan and I split up into different directions. He heads to Poopout Hill, where he can encourage our runners up the hill. I head to what they call the crossover, the one part in the race where the course overlaps. At that point they have completed the first climb, the switchbacks, enjoyed a downhill, and are heading toward the steep but fairly short climb of Poopout. By the time the runners pass me, their places are pretty well established. When my lead runner passes me (she has taken the lead from the too fast twin), she is in 25th place, which I yell to her as she passes.
If you’ve never run cross country, here is a quick rundown of team scoring. Basically, the place of the first five runners is added together and that is your score. It is slightly more complex than that, because they will pull out the placement of a team’s sixth and seventh place runners that have finished before another team’s fifth runner, but we’ll keep it simple for this report. So if my girls had finished 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (wish!), our score would be 15, the best you can get in cross country. So when I yell to my girls to move up, it is serious business, possibly the difference between 1st and 2nd place (or 9th and 10th).
I was happy that my runner finished 20th in her race, managing to move up five places in the last mile or so, which is typical for her. I told you she was a smart runner.
They also have sweepstakes races at Mt. Sac. These are the best of the best, both individual and teams that place well in the state meets. Our league had a team from La Quinta High School, which was where my son went to school, but a rival now that I coach for Palm Desert. However, when you are at an event like Mt. Sac, you root for every athlete, a local standout in particular. She finished sixth in her sweepstakes race, running 17:24 for the three miles course. By comparison, my lead runner, who is very good, finished her race in 19:59.
We also had a chance to see the course record, which had held for 12 years, broken by a young lady from Simi Valley. She finished the race in 16:00! Just imagine how fast that is on that challenging, hilly course! She took 16 seconds off the previous course record.
In spite of our reduced team, we had a great time at Mt. Sac. All our hill training proved useful as most of the team had very good times. Running at Mt. Sac is an experience that all of the runners will remember throughout their lives. One of our team moms ran there when she was in high school and her father ran there when he was in high school. Fortunately, her son did not have to do the PSAT test, so he was able to continue a family tradition in this 65th Annual Mt. Sac Cross Country Invitational.
This was our final invitational meet, meaning that, hurray, Alan and I get our Saturdays back! With the exception, of course, of our trip to CIF on November 10 (which is totally worth giving up a Saturday because Palm Desert hasn’t had a cross country team go to CIF in years!). One more league meet and our regular season of cross country is over. It always goes so fast, and it is always kind of bittersweet. I have so many seniors this year that will be graduating and moving on in their lives.
Here’s the full team, having fun:
Did you ever run cross country? Have you heard of Mt. Sac? I hope that you had a wonderful weekend. I know I did.