Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Westmont to retire its track


Thousands of miles have been run over the years on the crushed-brick and clay track at Westmont College.
Storied local races have been held there, Olympians have sprinted its straight-aways and today, for the last time, athletes will dart off the starting line and with loose gravel crushing beneath the weight of each swift step, will officially and ceremoniously send the iconic surface into retirement with an event dubbed the “Retro Meet.”

The distances will be measured in inches, feet and yards, the races will be timed with hand-held stopwatches and many of the athletes will be decked out in Westmont garb dating to the 1950s.
Westmont head track coach Russell Smelley said the event will mark the end of an era, as the school is planning to break ground on a new, all-weather track in October.
“It’ll be a great atmosphere,” Smelley said yesterday while his team prepped for the meet. “It will be better when it’s set up. It’s a gorgeous situation.”
The situation Smelley referred to is something few young track athletes have had the opportunity to experience, or even see in real life; a competition track with lanes marked by powdered chalk.
It will also be the first track meet held at the facility in the past five years — a statistic Smelley hopes will change when a modern surface is installed.
Smelley, who has been at the helm of the Westmont track and field program for 29 years, said it’s difficult to find schools who want to compete on a loose track surface because athletes and coaches are more focused on times these days than on competition.
He said in the olden days, two schools would come together for a dual meet and the focus was on winning that meet event by event regardless of the conditions. Now, the emphasis is on timing in part because that’s what it takes to qualify for bigger meets, such as the conference championships.
But that didn’t stop John Smith, head coach at George Fox University in Oregon, who Smelley said came up with the idea of having a retro meet.
“As we talked about it and thought about it, the retro idea became a 70s theme,” Smelley said. “So you might expect to see facial hair, long socks and bandanas.”
While Smelley is excited to have a more modern track to train and compete on, he’s a little sad to see the old one go. He said he doesn’t mind the hundreds of miles he’s driven around the track in various vehicles attempting to smooth the surface out, or the manual task of marking the lanes.
“I believe in tradition and carrying things over,” he said.
John Larralde, who has coached track and field at local schools for more than three decades and has been with Westmont for five years, said he likes the old surface so much, he wished the school could find a different spot for the new track so the old one could remain.
“Rock and clay is a great surface,” he said. “It’s fast when it’s properly groomed.
“This is just a great spot. This is beautiful.”
With mountains on one side and an ocean view on the final turn leading into the homestretch, it is that, but will likely maintain that beauty with or without an ancient surface, which was installed in 1960 by former Westmont track coach Jim Klein.
Smelley said one race that sticks out particularly well in his mind was a match up between Westmont half-miler Dennis Savage and UC Santa Barbara quarter-miler Jay Elbel.
Savage, who still lives in Santa Barbara and plans to attend today’s meet, said it was one of his favorite memories as well.
He said Elbel, who had clocked a 46-second quarter mile time, was moved up to the half mile by his coach for the meet and the local papers picked up the story.
On race day, Savage said he feared the finishing kick of Elbel, so had one of his teammates get the race off to a quick start. But the pacing was off and the pack slugged through the first 400 meters, or in the terminology used at today’s meet 440 yards, in about 57 seconds.
After hearing that, Savage said he blew through the next 200 meters and was barely able to edge a gaining Elbel to finish in 1-minute, 50.88-seconds.
“It was just amazing because the whole team was out there yelling and screaming and so forth,” Savage said. “It was really fun.”
Lorin Milotta, who specializes in the 100-meter hurdles, said she trained on cinder tracks in her home state of Hawaii, but today will be her first race.
She said the loose rubber and gravel creates problems for hurdlers because when the foot hits the ground, there’s not as much rebound as there is on an all-weather track.
That being said, she’s excited to compete at home for the first time in front of her friends.
In the long run Smelley, who also teaches kinesiology classes at the school, said the new track, which he hopes will be completed in 2010, will improve an already spectacular classroom.
“I call this the most beautiful classroom in the world,” he said.
The meet begins at 2 p.m.

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