Growing up along the western bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the most frequent boasts one heard was that something or other was “the oldest (whatever) west of the Mississippi”. While obviously true of many things, that designation never held for the sport of cross country. In fact, today, not a mile off the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean, San Diego’s Balboa Park hosted the oldest continuously run cross country invitational west of the Mississippi at the 69th Aztec Invitational.
The list of past champions and course record holders of the Aztec reads like a who’s who of American running. In 1967 Tokyo Olympic 10,000-meter gold medalist Billy Mills set a course record on the 4.5 mile Morley Field course after the meet had moved from its original 1.9 mile Montezuma Mesa campus course. When the Aztec Invitational moved again to the west side of Balboa Park in the 1970s, Mexico City 10,000 meter Olympian Tracy Smith became the first man to break 30:00 on the challenging new layout in 1972.
In the 1960s and 70s the Aztec Invite was a two-day affair with junior high, high school, junior college, university, and open divisions. As many as 20 races were conducted over the two day meeting. Four-time cross country All-American and U.S. World Cross Country team member Thom Hunt, today the coach at Mesa Community College, captured a rare Aztec triple, winning the junior high (`72), high school (`75), and Open (1978) titles.
Leading off the 2013 Aztec Invitational, ex-Stanford Cardinal Jon Pierce took top honors in the Community 5K with a 16:00 clocking. Former UCLA Bruin Claire Rethmeier finished in 18:24 to take the women’s win. The Community 5K was added to the Aztec schedule six years ago, and represented the third-leg in the eight-race USATF San Diego-Imperial Association Dirt Dog Cross Country Series.
“I’m probably in 15-flat road shape,” said 30 year-old Pierce who holds a 13:40 5000m PR on the track, and has built a growing physical therapy practice, Fix Body Group, here in San Diego after moving from Mammoth Lakes, California last year.
Following the community 5K were the Aztec Invitational women’s 5K and men’s 8K. Sitting by the finish line giving updates from the course was Jim Cerveny, the 1960 AAU national 800-meter champion, and the long-time coach at San Diego State in the `80s and `90s. Coming by to say hi was former UCLA head coach Bob Larsen, as the Aztec is something of a San Diego running family reunion.
But while teams from UCLA, BYU, and Arizona used to be fixtures at Aztec – in fact, UCLA’s Meb Keflezighi holds the second best time on the 8K Aztec course (24:31, 1996), and fellow Olympian Abdi Abdirahman from Arizona is sixth on the list (24:46, 1998) – today, with a new NCAA qualifying system in place and other meets at Riverside and Irvine coming one and two weeks ahead of Aztec on the calendar, the fields are shallower than in past years.
Today’s 5K women’s race was dominated by Coach Lance Harter’s University of Arkansas team, as the Lady Razorbacks took the first eight places across the line. They were led by Dominique Scott at 17:33 and Grace Heymsfield in 17:34 who cruised in shoulder to shoulder.
“It was a good tempo run for us,” Coach Harter said. “We held out our number one girl from two weeks ago (Stephanie Brown). We were hoping to find UCLA and some of those other teams out here. But we ran 17:30s today four across. The fastest we’ve ever run here is 17:22 by Megan Flowers. So I’m pleased. I told the girls to run tempo pace the first two miles, then build up the last mile.”
Biola University from La Mirada outside Los Angeles finished second with 64 points to Arkansas’ perfect 15, with USC coming third with 76 points.
The men’s 8K followed suit, as the Biola Eagle’s swept the first four places with Danny Ledesma given the win in 27:07 with teammates Bradon Berz, Kevin Horchler, and Andrew Daedler timed in 27:08. Biola totaled 20 points for the team win, with San Diego’s Cuuyamaca College in second with 35 and Palomar College in third with 71.
“We didn’t have our whole team here,” fourth-place finisher Andrew Daedler said after the race. “The team looks a little ugly right now, but we’re coming along trying to get strong for the end of the season.”
It was another day in the sun for the runners of San Diego, and those coming in for a visit. In the community race, seven year-old Edrianna Simbol of Norwalk, California joined dad Joseph for a spin over the 5k Balboa Park layout. She won her under-eight division in 34:31, and who knows, maybe a lifetime of running lies ahead.
“I did well as an athlete, so I got an education,” said Coach Cerveny sitting nearby. “And because of my education I got a job. And because of my job I got to travel all over the world.”
Not too bad, this running life.