SEVENTY FOUR YEARS of the Mt. SAC CROSS COUNTRY INVITATIONAL
The people, course, innovation & technology that made the event an iconic American fall sporting classic
In 1919, the State of California constructed a home for “Wayward boys” on the site where Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) now stands. In 1930 the home was expanded and converted to a hospital. During World War II the facility was made into a military hospital. In 1945 Mt. San Antonio College and the town of Walnut were non-existent.
If you wanted to reach what was to become the Mt. SAC campus you could not take a freeway: there were none. Your choice was either Foothill or Valley Blvd. Gas was not a problem to get here as it was only 20 cents a gallon. You had two choices in running shoes at this time, Wilson and Riddell, but that didn’t matter because the boys running cross country didn’t wear shoes most of the time”.
The Hospital was at the end Grand Avenue. A small winding road that led over the hills to Covina.
Pomona High School as located on Holt Ave in Pomona, and included Pomona Junior College. In 1946 Pomona Junior College took over the hospital buildings on Grand and changed its name to Mt. San Antonio College or Mt. SAC…in recognition of Southern California’s tallest mountain. It first opened for business in September of 1946.
As part of a 1947 bond issue a cinder track was put in on the corner of Grand Avenue and Temple (now the parking lot behind the marquee) and the college hired its first men’s track and cross country coach – Hilmer Lodge. Hilmer was an organizer and decided that in October of 1948, Mt. SAC would promote the sport of Cross Country by hosting an event for the Junior College and high school cross country teams. Ten schools attended the meet that day and met on the new cinder track near the start line. The 1.2 mile high school course would take them around the grass outfield, and then across Temple, to a small farm road now called “Bonita”. This is the same road where all the present day Cross Country races start. The runners continued up the saddle, before running north along the backside of Reservoir Hill and back to the track. “The long downhill finish run made it easy to count those runners in front of you”, stated Bob McGuire, a proud Mt. SAC alum and long-time supporter of the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invite, Mt. SAC Relays and a staple at CIF Southern Section Track and XC Championships for decades. The junior college athletes ran a 1.8 mile course that included an up-and-down section behind the hill located in Parking Lot M. (This is the hill with ‘MSAC’ spelled out at its crest and is called ‘Monogram Hill’.)
In 1963 Hilmer Lodge retired and left his replacement, incoming track and cross country coach, Don Ruh, a tradition to maintain and build upon. Don Ruh served the Cross Country Invite and the Mt. SAC Relays as well as the LA84 Youth Days in many capacities from 1963 until today. He officially retired in December of 1994 but has never left. No single person is more responsible for the success of the Mt. SAC brand than this one individual.
In 1965-66 the course was made more “spectator friendly” and brought over to its current location south of Temple. The track start on Temple was eliminated, making the course more compact and easily viewed.
Don Ruh and High School Invite coordinator at the time, Dave Casper gave us the names and locations that we now use today. “Poop-Out”, “the Valley Loop” and, the then newly cut trail just past the 1 mile marker, known as the “Switchbacks” were now a part of the vernacular and soon to become legendary.
In the mid to late 60s, barefoot running was taking a toll even on heavily callused feet. Sometimes the athletes’ calluses would rip off like tread of a tire. To fix this, a new rule requiring all runners to wear shoes was instituted and enforced. While many first ran in gymnastic / ballet type shoes, advances in the running shoe industry finally made shoes acceptable among the cross country athletes.
In 1964 the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational had about 3,500 participants. The Mt. SAC meet management needed to develop a system that would let them determine “the best overall team” among the many now competing. They came up with an all-new innovative procedure of calculating “team-times” and used that to determine the overall “Sweepstakes Champions”! (This was the first invitational that added up the first five runner’s times to come up with the ‘team time’ concept and use it as a way to compare one team’s performance with another while running in different races.)
In 1965 meet management offered the now famous Mt. SAC XC Invite T-shirts. That string of very special memorabilia has been offered each and every year from then until now. The first souvenir pin produced was for the meets 35th anniversary, and the prestigious Hall of Fame Honors were first given at a dinner on the meet’s 40th anniversary celebration. The now ubiquitous ‘cow bell’ was first offered to help with crowd control as you’ll see below.
In 1998 as the event was experiencing it’s first ‘growth spurt’, Mt. SAC instituted the COW BELL system. Older veterans’ of the event will remember that for years, no one but coaches could get onto the west side of the course. Access past the base of Poop Out required a ‘coach’s ribbon. As our numbers grew and spectators increased we could no longer contain our population on the Valley Loop side of the course. We made the decision to open up access to all and began giving away a cowbell to each event winner as well as selling cowbells at our souvenir stand at our cost and sometime at a loss in an effort to get cowbells out on the course. The goal was to encourage the runners as they came by and to WARN course spectators that runners were approaching and lessen the change of an unplanned collision. As the cow bell sound increased, unaware spectators would hear the noise and know that runners were near. It was a great system and still works well today. In addition, to a ‘warning system’ the cow bell was also given out to every Sweepstakes Champion team in recognition of a very special accomplishment and as a nod of appreciation to our ‘Farm Tech’ program who so very graciously ‘clear the course’ of the cows in order for us to run each and every year. The Sweepstakes Champion Bell is an actual cow bell that is made in Switzerland and ordered by us every year from its Swiss manufacturer!
It was in the late 1960s that a “University Division” was also included in the Invitational. USC, UCLA, Occidental, San Jose State and Stanford, (among others), all took part. As the universities slowly increased their distances into the 5 and 6 mile range it was difficult for the organizers to come up with “fewer hills” for them and thus this division was discontinued.
In 1970 cross country was gaining popularity and it was decided junior high and middle school warranted inclusion as well. Starting with one race that year with about 30 runners, this division has grown to include more than 20 races for over 90 to 100 junior high / middle school and elementary schools. This division numbers approximately 5,000 runners each year. In the early to mid-1970s, girls and women started running as individuals and on newly formed teams. Finally, in 1976 the High School Girls Division was large enough and strong enough to proclaim a “Sweepstakes Winner” among the girls. In 1978 the Community College women reached that same stature. The Men’s and Women’s Combined Sweepstakes Title was instituted for the Community College division in 1988. The winning school is determined by adding the two team times together and compared to all other participating schools. This title continues to be awarded to this day.
By 1981 the High School Invitational had grown to well more than 6,000 participants and with it the need to group schools into “large” “medium” and “small” school divisions. In 1983 it went to four divisions, and in 1996 it moved to a CIF Divisional format of five divisions. Ninety races were being run with an estimated 10,000 participants involved. The late 1980’s brought the CIF-SS Prelims and Finals to Mt. SAC. Both CIF and HS coaches felt then and still do today that the course was challenging, fair and, by this time, now legendary. In addition, as the Southern California population grew and expanded, Mt. SAC’s location placed it pretty much in the middle of the Southern Section as well as being very spectator friendly so athletes can be cheered on almost the entire race.
In December of 1994, Coach Don Ruh (formally of Dominguez High) retired, but thankfully stayed on to oversee the Youth Divisions of the Invitational until 2019. In January of 1995, Doug Todd (formally West Torrance and Artesia High) became the Director of Cross Country and Track & Field and took on the task of directing the Mt. SAC XC Invite. That same year, Coach John Norton (formally of Bonita High) moved out of coaching and Special Event involvement to become Kinesiology Department Chair and eventually became Dean and Athletic Director. In his new administrative role John was able to guide and mentor the coaches who now replaced both he and Don Ruh. John’s coaching and teaching position, left vacant by his change in title, was filled in August of 1997 by Mike Goff (formally El Rancho and Ayala High). Goff’s ability to drive both tractor and water truck, coupled with his love of Cross Country and the Mt. SAC event has given rise to the amazing consistency of the trails on our course from the early 2000s to today. The ever changing ‘ruts’, ‘divots’ and ‘wash-outs’ are now relics of the past. His tireless effort and attention to detail greatly improved our event. The Gauntlet in now known as “Goff’s Gauntlet” in his honor.
In 1998 new ideas and technology moved the event from “finish card” system of scoring to computerized bar-code scoring and to our now current system of chip timing. Breakthroughs in technology allowed for meet info and results to be placed on our website and for all to view immediately after a race. Chip timing also allowed us to move away from the colored bib system of Red, Yellow, Green and Blue. A very efficient system in its day but also very time consuming and sometime problematic in both preparation and execution. Since that time we have moved to “online” registration and payment and we were able to now list every runners name, place and time in our results. That was not always the case as the ‘veterans’ will recall.
This explosion of technology, has been led over many years by Brian Yokoyama, Ken Walter, Bill Reiner, Kevin Jordan, Brian Sparacino and Chris Drescher to name just a few. It allowed us to keep up with the explosion of our participation numbers. Below, note our participation benchmarks numbers over the years. It is very easy to see why Runner’s World magazine once called Mt. SAC “the largest cross country event on the globe.”
- 1981 = 6,000
- 1995 = 8,600
- 1996 = 10,000
- 1998 = 13,000
- 2001 = 15,000
- 2005 = 16,000
- 2008 = 18,600
- 2009 = 24,000
These numbers only represent the High School Division. The weekend before the high school teams show up, we host another 4 to 5 thousand Community College, Jr. High, Middle School and Elementary runners. This event really is the Super Bowl of Cross Country!
Before we leave our discussion of technology we have to also mention Mt. SAC’s amazing and innovative use of the ‘Jumbo Tron’ and the ground breaking ability to ‘broadcast’ a race from almost start-to-finish and present it on our big screen for all to see. Beginning in the early 2000s and with the help of our on campus ‘Broadcast’ team lead by Bill Eastham and company, Mt. SAC was the very first to make this type of presentation happen. We moved from producing our own webcast to eventual partnerships with the now well established professional media companies like FloSports and RunnerSpace. The meet has been broadcast online for several years now and with stellar announcers and spotters, spectators, both online and in attendance, are kept abreast of each race throughout the course. The journey from a rented big screen and two or three cameras to the very polished and professional production and ‘show’ we now offer has been exciting and has helped the sport in many ways as others have also taken up the challenge of a ‘broadcast’ over the years and what once was unique is now almost considered a ‘must have’.
No history of the XC Invite would be complete without mention of the very important role our High School Coordinators play. Dave Casper from Baldwin Park and Jim Polite of Walnut set a high bar for our current High School Coordinator, Tim O’Rourke, formally of Arroyo High. All previous HS Coordinators have played pivotal roles at crucial times in the development of the Invite to be sure. Tim’s tenure however has proven to be nothing short of extraordinary. Taking to heart the example set by his predecessors Tim has been a key player in the success of the event for decades now. We have been fortunate to have Tim’s knowledge and love of the sport assisting us in every step of this journey. His creativity and analytical mind has helped the event move through and manage many challenges as well as the incredible growth spurt experienced over the last 20 plus years.
This brief history brings us somewhat up to-date and ends with the construction and COVID years. Mt. SAC went through a complete and total tear down and reconstruction of our historic Hilmer Lodge Stadium in anticipation of hosting the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. Even in the midst of this construction period, (2016-19), we were able to host our XC Invite event on our course with only the relocation of our finish line.* This was challenging and changed many of our logistics and manner of doing things. Thanks to a flexible and creative meet staff and coupled with participating coaches and teams understanding that ‘better days’ were ahead we all came through this difficult time unscathed and now have a wonderful new stadium and facility designed with the needs of our XC Invite in mind!
2020 was supposed to be our ‘return’ to our newly completed facility and grand opening but a little thing called COVID had other plans for us all. For the first time in 73 years the ‘World’s Largest’ XC Invite had to shut down. We, like all of the sport, did just that. We weathered the storm and came back strongly in 2021 ready to present our new facility for all to see. The 73rd Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational was back home and the new facility performed in amazing fashion. Improved team and spectator access up front, more parking, more restrooms, a shaded team camp area, bridges over the course to improve spectator and participant access, a wider Gauntlet, better sound system, easier access and communication for our course cameras, a brand new education center to be used for various ‘day of meet’ activities, a closer, better equipped and more responsive medical area and many other new amenities and improvements’ were added.
The 2021 event was also the last XC Invite for long time Meet Director Doug Todd. Serving in Director’s capacity from 1995 until 2021, he supervised the successful completion of 27 Mt. SAC Cross Country Invites. He started at Mt. SAC as an assistant coach in 1991 and during his 31-year tenure he has helped navigate the many changes in the sport and in the technology available to the sport. He also found ways to help deal with the massive growth the event experienced during his tenure. The event not only survived but thrived through all of these changes, the construction years and the COVID year. The event is as strong as it ever was and is in a good place right now for a transition to a new Meet Director.
Taking over the reins in 2022 is long time Mt. SAC fixture Brian Yokoyama. Known to all and intimately involved with the technology portion of the Invite for decades, Brian’s knowledge of the event and deep affection for the history and tradition will be a tremendous advantage for him in this undertaking.
With so many of our long time meet staff and volunteers, as mentioned earlier, still in place, coupled with a strong and supportive Mt. SAC coaching staff led by Giovani Lanaro and Jenna Bird, the future looks as bright as ever for our iconic and much loved, Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational.
Today, as in the past, we find a very special and unique group of individuals involved in this annual event. Like the Mt. SAC Relays, the Cross Country Invitational maintains the philosophy of its founding. Both are known around the world as an “Athletes Meet”. In all of its planning and organization, efforts are geared to encourage and provide as many young athletes as possible a fair, positive, and quality competitive experience. Many of the coaches are proud Mt. San Antonio College graduates; while many more are “graduates of the Mt. SAC Course” via the schools they once attended and competed for. Those who are spectators must stand in awe at seeing so many youth with so much energy and enthusiasm, challenging themselves while working as a team to do their very best. The Cross Country athlete is “living proof” of what’s good about our nation’s youth and our future.
Let us encourage those here today and those to come, in the tradition of those who have gone before.
History brought together by Don Ruh and Doug Todd (updated October 2022)
Cross Country / Track & Field Coach, Emeritus
Mt. SAC Cross Country / Mt. SAC Relays Director, Emeritus
*The course was exactly the same during construction except for Goff’s Gauntlet and the Finish Line area. We measured the distance from the Gauntlet to the Finish Line and created a new finish line farther north on Bonita Road. Because of the gain in elevation, (runners were running farther ‘uphill’), many felt our temporary ‘construction years’ course to be more challenging.