Misconceptions about the course length and course speed...
Is the Mt. SAC course shorter today than it was 10 years or 20 years ago? Is the Mt. SAC course faster today than it was 10 years or 20 years ago?
Two entirely different questions with two entirely different answers!
Let’s start with the short answer (no pun intended). The Mt. SAC cross country course is virtually the exact same distance today as it was 25 years ago! When someone tries to tell you the course is shorter today than it was “on some earlier date”, simply ask, “What was the measurement of the course before the ‘date of the change’ and what was it after the ‘date of the change’.”
Simple enough, if the course is shorter today, then we simply measure it today and compare it to when it was measured at an earlier date.
Getting a measurement of the course today is the simple part of the equation. The question is can we find a credible measurement of the course from some earlier period, possibly as much as two or more decades earlier.
The answer is a resounding “yes”.
Fortunately, we do have a credible, independent point of reference for an accurate measurement of the course, and it comes from a coach that is beyond reproach.
Ken Reeves of Nordhoff High School, who has coached more state championship teams than any other coach in state history, is well known as quite possibly the biggest “stickler” there is when it comes to knowing the length of any major course his athletes raced; furthermore, he has measured virtually every year the major courses on which his teams have raced, and he has measured those courses consistently--the way each course is actually raced—that means following the tangents. This means his measurement is probably the most “true” representation of the exact course distance being run.
Coach Reeves measured the Mt. SAC Course in 1984, and he measured the Mt. SAC Course 21 years later in 2005, and he followed the exact same path on the course each time he measured it.
This is a direct quote from Ken Reeves, “In 1984 and 1985, course was at 15,467 feet. That makes it at 2.929 (or 2.93) distance, never the 2.91 distance currently listed by Dyestat. IN 1984, THE COURSE WAS 12 FEET SHORTER THAN TODAY. Would imagine, if the course was measured from the middle, it would be 2.95 or more. Calibrated the wheel that year. It was a brand new wheel, and I had to send one back because it was not calibrated correctly...Yes, I am that anal.
“Measured (the course) in 2005, it was 15479 feet. This also was a brand new wheel. I calibrated it and checked with Bill's (Tokar) wheel also. Course is now 2.9316 by doing the tangents.”
So, let’s put to rest once and for all the discussion that the course is shorter today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The course is not shorter!
Here is a coach (Ken Reeves), whose credibility is beyond reproach, that is experienced at measuring courses, a coach that used a wheel 25 years ago that was calibrated and a wheel that was calibrated three years ago, and his measurements definitively show the course is not shorter today than it was in 1984!
You can say anything you want about “changes” in the course, but the facts are the facts: the course is not shorter! Anyone who says otherwise is quite simply uninformed or not interested in the facts!
Now, let’s explore the second question, “Is the course faster today”. The answer is “absolutely”. Ask any coach whose teams raced on the course in the 80s and early 90s.
When Thousand Oaks legendary coach, Jack Farrell, was inducted into the California Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame at Mt. SAC, he made special mention of how difficult the course surface previously was and how smooth and fast it is today.
There are, in deed, several sections of the course that have been improved over the past 20 years. Many sections have been widened, and almost the entire course surface has been made smooth and hard packed and fast—the course of today is much different than the sandy, rocky trails many of us remember from the 70s and 80s.
For example, the Valley Loop section of the course used to be quite narrow— so much so that at some points it was almost physically impossible to run more than three athletes across. Coaches, in fact, use to teach their athletes that to pass on the Valley Loop you had to “jump” up on the burm of sand and rocks and “get around” the runner in front of you and then get back on the course.
Today, that same section of the course is wide enough in some locations to run seven or even eight athletes across and the surface is almost as smooth as a paved road.
Poopout Hill is another prime example of the improved surfaces. It used to be so sandy and rocky that almost every athlete who went up that hill slipped at least once, and it was usually only the leader that could find that single path through the sandy rocks and rain induced rivets that ran the length of the hill.
Today, Poopout Hill can be attacked by three or four runners racing side-by-side and all have excellent footing.
Photo # 2-Poopout
There can be no argument the course widening and improved surfaces are two major factors that have resulted in the improved times over the years. There also can be no doubt that the then-course record of 14:33 run by Jeff Nelson in 1978 was done over a much tougher and challenging course surface than the current course record of 14:20 run by Diego Mercado in 2005.
The problem with trying to establish one set of “old course records” and another set of “new course records” is all these improvements to the course surface have occurred over a sustained period of many years. There is simply not one year where the course was narrow, sandy and rocky and the next year when it was wide, smooth, and fast.
There has been much discussion over the years about specific changes in the course as far as turns being “shortened”. There is no doubt there have been alterations to make the course safer and to also deal with physical changes done to the Mt. SAC campus; however, wherever there has been a significant change made to one part of the course, it was done so in conjunction with another alteration of the course to keep the course relatively the same length.
This continuous plan to “take a little here, and give a little there” has obviously worked quite well since we are now here more than two decades later and the course is simply 12’ longer today than it was a quarter of a century ago!
One of the changes often cited as evidence of the “shortening” of the course is “re-working” of the first big left turn on the Valley Loop at about 300 meters into the course. Some people cite this happening in 1998 or 1999. It actually first occurred in 1997.
It is an undisputed fact the first turn was “softened” in 1997, and that did, indeed, shorten the distance of the course; however, that softening of the turn was not only done to make the course more safe but it was also done specifically to make up for the lengthening of the course that had been occurring on the other side of the Valley Loop the previous few years—this is the part of the Valley Loop that now goes around the Hammer Throwing area and takes a runner from the 800 meter mark back to the spot where he or she begins the Valley Loop for a second time.
No one ever seems to mention that part of the equation when they talk about the shortening of the Valley Loop!
This lengthening of the course to make room for the Hammer Area was first begun in the early 1990s when the Hammer Cage was moved from its original position, which was at the outside edge of the northwest corner on the Valley Loop—basically, the intersection where athletes began to go up Poopout and come down off Reservoir Hill.
The Hammer cage was moved from that area to its current location inside the Valley Loop in the early 90s. As the new Hammer area was improved over the years with the adding of trees, bleachers, and additional throwing rings, the cross country course was actually continually “pushed” out to make room for those improvements.
To give you an idea of how much length was added to the course at that point, those athletes who ran on the course in the 80s and early 90s will remember that when you ran the Valley Loop and you made the left turn shortly after the first 800 meters to return to begin the Valley Loop a second time, it was a sharp 90 degree left turn and you ran a straight path to return to begin the Valley Loop a second time.
To give you a perspective today you can visualize, if you stood right at the corner after you had made that left turn at about 800 meters on the old course and were now headed in the direction of Poopout, you would notice that if continued to run straight toward Poopout Hill, you actually would end up about 30 feet to “LEFT” of the current entrance gate to Poopout.
Photo # 1-Valley Loop as seen from Poopout Hill
Today, the course takes a long, sweeping arc after the 800 meter mark that brings the runners almost in contact with the airstrip to a point where they actually are on the far “RIGHT” side of the entrance “gate” to Poopout.
The “softening” of the first turn and the correlated lengthening of the turn around the Hammer Throwing area are just a couple of the many “coordinated” changes that have been made over the years that have kept the course length in balance.
Another change old-timers will point to is the path runners follow at the “Crossover” on the air strip. Veteran Mt. SAC observers will remember there really was not a full parking lot just to the south of the road that leads you off the Switchbacks and takes you back to the Airstrip.
The left turn runners use to make coming off the Swtichbacks onto the airstrip to take them to Poopout was much “softer” and essentially made the course shorter. When the new parking lot was put in and a fence placed, the left turn onto the Airstrip made the course a bit longer at that point.
That worked out well since the post fencing put up on the inside of the U-Turns at about 600 meters into the course on the Valley Loop and at the bottom of the beginning of Reservoir Hill have both added distance to the course.
That U-Turn at about 600 meters is interesting because not only did it put some distance back on the course but it also made the course faster—that is right, more distance but faster!
That U-Turn was previously very sharp. Anyone who ran that course in the 80s will tell you that if you were not in the top ten runners to go through that “U-Turn” on the first lap of the Valley Loop, you came to an almost complete stop making that turn. Broadening and lengthening that turn actually made it faster for the vast majority of the field because more runners were able to navigate around it without slowing down.
However, even with all of these changes, one fact remains: the course is virtually the exact same distance today as it was more than two decades ago, and we have, as we mentioned earlier, indisputable measurements to prove it.
Of course, we respect the right of others to disagree. In fact, it is fun to reminisce of all the great times and races that were run; however, facts are facts, and the one fact with which no one can disagree is the course is not shorter today than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
The other fact is the improvements to the course surface have been an ongoing process that continues to this day, and no one can say with any credibility that the course became faster on any one specific date or even in one specific year.
The Mt. SAC course is legendary throughout the nation. The great coach, Jeff Arbogast from Bingham High School in Utah, once called it “one of the great cathedrals of our sport”.
Because it is so well known and so many people have raced on it, everyone has an opinion, and that’s fine. It is fun to talk about it. Old timers certainly can claim that you need to give them a break on their times because “it was much tougher in their day”. How much of a break? No one can say: does a runner who competed in 1980 get 15 a second break, one who raced in 1990 get 10 seconds, one who raced in 2000 get five seconds.
Go ahead, it’s fun and interesting conversation; however, there are many expert Mt. SAC observers that might still bet on Jeff Nelson in his prime in a head-to-head match up with the Mercados or AJ Acosta. It is certainly true the course Jeff Nelson ran on was much slower than the one we are running on today. But, is it shorter. No way!
So, in conclusion, we cannot in good conscience publish “two” or “three” or “four” all-time lists because there is no definitive date when the course was shortened (because it is not shorter), and there is no definitive date when all the improvements to the surface were made. Improvements have been made over a period of many years.
Others are certainly free to do so, but when they do, they cannot in all honesty say their new list is for the “shorter” course.