San Diego, CA. — Track is back in San Diego! Hard to believe, but it’s been a quarter century since a professional track meet was last staged in America’s Finest City, and nearly a half century since its greatest days. That clock gets turned back this Sunday at 10 a.m. when Re-Run San Diego looks to recreate some of the city’s past track glory following a 5K road race through downtown San Diego and scenic Balboa Park in a unique track-follows-road-race format with $60,000 waiting on the line.
For those too young to remember, track used to be a big deal in this corner of the left coast. Not just because of people like Steve Scott and Thom Hunt, or in latter days with Meb Keflezighi and Monique Henderson. It was the meets that dotted the calendar, whether in Balboa Stadium downtown, or over at the Sports Arena for the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor meet.
San Diego Union Tribune scribe Nick Canepa has spent 40 years chronicling all things sports in this town, but as he wrote in a February 2012 column it was track that provided his most lasting memory.
“But, for me, nothing tops the night of (Eamonn) Coghlan’s mile on the Sports Arena boards during the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games. It was electrifying. He blew the roof off the joint. If you had never seen a track and field event in your life, even if you were the losers’ parents, you had to feel what it’s like to be a page in history.”
The thought of what track once was can raise goosebumps or loosen tears depending on your mood. But rather than escape into the past two young men with the future of the sport in mind hatched the idea for Re-Run San Diego over the last year.
University of Maryland grad Pete Hess and North Carolina alum James Kehaya got connected through James’ wife Alice Schmidt, the two-time U.S. 800 meter Olympian. It was after moving to San Diego two years ago from the east coast that Hess began taking up the sport again and soon became the training partner for Alice under the tutelage of 1984 Olympic 800 meter champion Joaquim Cruz.
“I’d run a 4:06 mile in college,” said Pete, “and as I trained with Alice I became close with James and Coach Cruz. We began thinking, ‘there really isn’t any attention paid to track out here, yet the fun run community is so huge. We wondered why that didn’t transfer over to the pros? So we came up with the idea, why not put on a showcase meet in a fun environment so folks who had never gone to a track meet would see how exciting it can be, and maybe we could build some new fans for the sport.”
Thus a 5K road race was proposed with the entry fee doubling as the ticket price to the track meet. And to add to the connection, there will also be a raffle staged after each of the four track events, men’s and women’s 800 meters and the one mile runs. But the raffles will be tied to the individual athletes rather than the events.
“We will have boxes out front with every athlete’s name on them,” explained Pete. “And each 5K runner will receive six raffle tickets. They can put all their tickets in one athlete’s box, or pick however they want. That way if Duane Solomon wins the 800, we will only pick a ticket from the Duane Solomon box. Hopefully, that will connect the fans to the athletes and create an extra reason to cheer.”
Re-Run San Diego is a labor love for sure, as the meet is being privately funded this first year.
“We expect a lot of race day registration,” Hess told me. “But if we can get over 500 the first year it would be a positive start. We’ll make the stadium look great. Flotrack will stream the meet live. People who see the meet will love it and tell their friends. Then we’ll start working on improving it for 2014. But we want to keep the meet under an hour and a half. I’ve been involved in track since high school, and we just need to be as inventive as we can to showcase the sport to new fans.”
You can feel the passion both Pete Hess and James Kehaya have for their event and the sport. The only sad thing is that James and wife Alice Schmidt won’t be in town to see his meet come off. After creating Re-Run and serving as its mid-wife, James re-entered the military, and by happenstance must report to his new duty station this Sunday in Florida. So he and Alice are driving across country even as many of their friends and competitors are flying into San Diego to his meet.
Besides the four pro races, Re-Run San Diego will also feature two ElliptiGO Mile exhibitions to start off the track competitions, staged by one of the event’s partners, ElliptiGO, which is based in nearby Solana Beach.
“The race I’m most looking forward to is the men’s 800,” admitted Pete. “We have (Olympian) Duane Solomon, Lopes Lomong, Boaz Lalang, and Eric Sowinski is on fire this year. Geoff Harris is another Olympian (Canada), and Charles Jock is coming home (2012 NCAA 800 champion, UC Irvine).
“But we hope the milers can take a crack at Jim Ryun’s stadium record (3:55.3). It’s one of the most historic records on American soil.
(In 1965 Jim Ryun was a 17 year-old high school senior out of Wichita East in Kansas. San Diego hosted the national AAU Championships. That evening Ryun sealed his legend when he beat 1964 Olympic 1500 meter gold medalist Peter Snell of New Zealand, silver medalist Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia and the American record holder Jim Grelle. Ryun’s 3:55.3 not only won him the national championship, it broke Grelle’s American record, and stood as the U.S. high school record for over 35 years.
One year later, local high school star Tim Danielson of Chula Vista High School ran 3:59:4 in Balboa Stadium, becoming only the second high school runner to accomplish a sub-4:00 mile. Decades later at the 1988 Michelob Games, former American Mile Record holder Steve Scott ran a 3:56:06 mile, marking the last time a sub-4:00 mile was run at Balboa Stadium.)
“We’re not having any pacesetters, just pure racing,” Hess confessed even after stating he’d like to create some sub-4:00 buzz. “People who don’t go to many track meets don’t understand pacing anyway. However, we will have a $500 bonus for the leader at the bell if the time is under 2:58 to incentivize fast running.”
The athletes and mangers have embraced the Re-Run San Diego meet, and why not? Hess and Kehaya have put this together out of their own pockets and passion, young men invested in the future of track and field in San Diego.
“I’m from New Jersey,” said Pete. “Tonight is game six of the NBA eastern conference playoffs between the Knicks and Celtics. I love the Knicks, and I hate the Celtics. We don’t have that kind of rivalry in track, and that’s what we have to try to build. I also love this city. It’s amazing. Once the athletes compete here, this could become a hub for the sport. The athletes know we’re young and excited to promote this sport. We’re moving forward, even if just one or two fans at a time.”
The Re-Run San Diego 5K begins Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. The ElliptiGO Miles roll out at 10:10 a.m. followed by the pros, beginning with the women’s 800 meters at 10:30 a.m.
In the women’s 800m, 16 year-old Bronxville, New York high school sensation Mary Cain goes against 2012 Olympians Geena Gall and England’s Lynsey Sharp who was recently named European 800m Champion due to a Russian failing a drug test. The U.S. high school record belongs to the late Kim Gallagher who ran 2:00.7 in 1982.
In the men’s 800m race there will be four Olympians from London, led by fourth-placer Duane Solomon whose 1:42.82 in the Olympic final was the second fastest 800 in U.S. history. Also on board is Iowa grad Eric Sowinski, the new 600m U.S. Record Holder who beat Solomon at the Millrose Games in March. And joining the battle will be hometowner Charles Jock 2012 NCAA 800 meter king.
In the men’s Mile, Pablo Solares and bay Area TC pal David Torrence will lead nine sub-4:00 men against Ryun’s stadium record. Solares is also going after the Mexican National Mile record of 3:58.18 (He currently holds the 1500m and 800m national marks.)
The sport is coming off outdoor season openers at Mt. Sac, Penn & Drake Relays, and the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford. Next stop, Balboa Stadium in San Diego. Nobody has been able to make that statement in 25 years. And so we welcome one and all to Re-Run San Diego, a unique combination of road and track which celebrates full participation, then identifies and rewards excellence. Thanks to Pete Hess and James Kehaya for bringing track back to San Diego.