On the right track
Under a canopy of gray skies, with rain and snow pierced by occasional shafts of sunlight, the Mammoth Track held its grand opening on Saturday, Nov. 17.
Some last-minute finishes remain before it becomes a fully functional facility, but the surface and infield were in great shape—enough for a victory lap by scores of runners and community members.
The track closed again right after the ceremony near the Whitmore Ballpark on Benton Crossing Road, but it will reopen soon to the public, pending certification.
Even so, the ceremony was altogether fitting.
“We dared you to do more and you did it,” said world-renown Olympic distance coach Joe Vigil last Saturday to hundreds of locals and athletes.
“We said if you build it they will come and you people, all of you, you did it,” Vigil said. “And they will come.”
“This is a dream that started as a hallucination,” said Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory. “You, Jim and Elaine Smith, sitting around a kitchen table, this was impossible. But it is here and it is a testament to all dreamers. It is the true measure of a community that against all odds, against the financial meltdown of world markets, that we can do it when we decide to do it together. Thank you for showing us how to do it. Thank you.”
“We’ve really had enough bad news over these past few years,” said runner Elaine Smith, one of four who championed the track project. “But today, we are joyful. Today, we are hopeful. Today, we are inspired. We dared to believe we could do it, we dared to doggedly pursue our vision, and we are here today celebrating its arrival.”
Skiing is this area’s winter brand, she continued. High altitude training will be the summer brand, especially for runners.
And the track isn’t just for elite athletes. It’s for the more than 500 kids who signed up for soccer this year, the dozens more in the football program, the fledgling track and field teams from Mammoth Middle School and Mammoth High School who have never had a good place to train. It’s for the 45-year-old community member determined to run a mile for the first time ever, she said.
“The Mammoth Track project is just one example of what we can do and it can be replicated,” she said.
In some ways, the whole thing is just getting started, she said. Although the track and infield are done, still to come in the next few years are a training center with lockers, weight room and restrooms, a seating area, a picnic area, expanded parking and more.
It all came together when runners around the globe began to realize that Mammoth is one of the best places in the world—if not the best—to train and live for elite distance athletes, a fact that became clear after residents and long distance runners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi medaled in the Athens 2004 Olympics.
The problem was there was no actual, certified, standardized running track in Mammoth. Elite athletes (and their millions of dollars) headed to Colorado or France or Flagstaff to train at altitude.
Mammoth, whose 8,000 foot elevation makes it a perfect place to live and train, was being left behind, said local runners Jim and Elaine Smith. In 2007, they sat around a kitchen table with Kastor and her husband Andrew, to stop the exodus.
Their backgrounds and experience complemented one another and the plan to construct a track fell into place. Jim Smith works for Mammoth Mountain and is an accomplished real estate developer, with a keen sense of timing and pacing and a lot of connections; Elaine Smith is an experienced project manager, who knows how to take abstract ideas and turn them into concrete, on-the-ground projects; Deena Kastor is an Olympian with a lot of momentum and brand appeal; Andrew Kastor is a coach that has helped make the local running club (then called the High Sierra Striders) the center for long distance runners in the nation.
The four of them hit the ground running—and then, in 2008, the world plunged into a giant recession.
People were out of work, homes were foreclosing, the national economy had ground to a halt, and an unmitigated disaster of a $30 million lawsuit judgment against the town looked likely to stick.
It was a terrible time to ask people and governments for millions of dollars for a project that was so far out of Mammoth’s small-town experience, it seemed laughable.
“It was the definition of insanity,” said Elaine Smith. “It looked impossible.”
The group prevailed due to one thing, she said.
“We, Jim and I and Deena and Andrew, have such a passion for Mammoth, for running, and this was the missing link,” she said. “This is what will allow us to move beyond our borders here, to bring people here from all over the world.”
The Mammoth Track project cost $2.4 million and took five years to build. Starting from nothing was not an easy sell, even for the four passionate dreamers.
“When something doesn’t exist, there is a lot of work setting it up, getting people to understand what it is you’re trying to do and get their buy in,” Smith said.
It wasn’t until Dave and Roma McCoy donated a large chunk of cash in 2009 that things really started moving.
“I can still remember where I was when I got the call from Elaine that Dave had committed” said Andrew Kastor. “I was standing at the Los Angeles Half Marathon Expo and Deena was signing autographs and I told her and her jaw dropped and we knew then we could go to the Town and ask for matching dollars and that’s what started the domino effect. Their involvement was absolutely critical.”
It wouldn’t be a dream worth pursuing without some delays. A little tiny, rare plant near the track location delayed the project for another year. An old garbage dump, hidden under the ground, revealed an immense pile of old cars, which all had to be removed before grading could commence.
But Mammoth, urged on by its tourism director, John Urdi, and sustained by the Town Council’s belief in the project even in the face of immense financial challenges, kept its focus. The Recreation Commission didn’t say no, the Measure U committees kept the light burning for the track.
Other donors came on board, and Elaine Smith ran ragged, organizing High Sierra Strider running club events to raise money.
Some money from the state for using recycled materials—tiny rubber balls that help hold the ball field grass upright—came through.
By 2011, the final details were sewed up. Finally, the graders broke ground late summer of 2012.
“Combine the track with the trails, and forest roads we have, and then also consider training 4,000 feet lower in elevation in the Bishop area on a year-round basis, then you have in a complete middle and long distance aerobic training paradise,” said longtime Mammoth skier, coach, Mammoth Mountain executive, and all around sportsman John Armstrong.
“The group of people surrounding and supporting Deena, Andrew and Elaine, as well as the trio themselves, could very well be our citizens of the year,” he said.
“They didn’t sit still with their hands out; they had a passionate vision and attacked it with a fervor that lead to success.”
“Five years may seem like a long time to fulfill this particular dream but actually it’s pretty quick and it shows the rest of us that we can take the next step, which may be to attract athletes of other sports, such as triathlon, cycling and soccer to make Mammoth Lakes their favorite high altitude training center.”