More than 50 years of running on South Shore
The second Saturday in June, will be a bit quieter on the roadways that circle Lake Tahoe. There won’t be the sound of nearly 1,000 feet striding along as the runners negotiate around the 72-mile shoreline of the lake, while being honked at and cheered on by support crews, friends and bystanders.
Like so many annual events held in the Tahoe Basin each year, The DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay was canceled for 2020, because of COVID-19. However, the running scene in our area is still strong, and it seems like there have been many more people, runners, joggers, and walkers, taking advantage of getting outdoors these days.
Running in the Lake Tahoe area has been around for many years. Fun runs and racing events, ranging in distances from tadpole (toddler) trots to ultra marathons up to 200 miles, and everything in between, take place throughout the basin. Levels of runners have varied as well. From the jogger (low key, staying healthy runner) to the college level/elite runners using the beautiful scenery, clean air, and high altitude to pound out the mileage and improve on their racing abilities.
Beginning in the mid-1960’s, the South Shore started to see a number of elite athletes striding along the trails and roads. In the summer of 1968, the country’s best track and field athletes met on a newly constructed all-weather track at the top of Echo Summit.
Top finishers in all events headed to Mexico City that fall to represent the United States in the Olympics. To read more on this great event, there is a good book “The Track in the Forest” by Bob Burns.
After the Olympic Trials, the track was moved in sections to its longtime home at the South Tahoe Intermediate (now Middle) School. Many top runners continued to train in the South Tahoe area through the 70s, 80s, and even in the present.
The track continued to play host to the weekly All-Comers track meets during the summer months. Young kids might get their start in the 25, 50 or 100 meter events at these meets, while the stronger athletes might test their abilities against past Olympians like Tom Von Rudan (1968 Olympic 1,500 meter) and Tracy Smith (1968 Olympic 10,000 meter) or other elite runners, that made South Lake Tahoe their permanent home, like Jerry Jobski, Tom Smith, Greg Hitchcock (local high school star), Rick Gentry and the list could go on and on.
Any Thursday night might see a sub-two minute 800 meter, a mile (1600 meter) in the mid to low four minute range, and even a two mile under nine minutes. And remember, these are being run at an elevation over 6,000 feet.
The summer of competitive track running would end in mid-August with South Tahoe coaching legend Austin Angell’s “High Sierra 10 kilometer” (record time of 29:57, set in the 90s by one of the many South African distance runners who found Tahoe a great place to train). Angell has been working with youth sports, primarily runners, for over 50 years.
There are many running events that take place around the South Shore every year. Some events, like an event run as the “Harvey’s 10k,” run from Cave Rock to the Casino Core area (mid-80s), which included pretty good prize money, and brought some elite runners to the area, which only lasted one year. Others like the Ponderosa Ridge Run (Spooner to Kingsbury, started in 1975) Tahoe Legends Run (fundraiser for maintenance of the track), Lake Tahoe Marathon events, and the Kokanee Salmon Runs, have been going on for decades.
None of these events has the longevity and history that is the Lake Tahoe Relay.
The event officially started in August 1965, and has been run every year since, celebrating its 55-year anniversary in 2019. It is the oldest distance running relay event in the country. It was originally established by Robert DeCelle Sr., as an Amateur Athletic Union sanctioned event, with the thought that elite level runners (Olympic) distance runners would want to use the race and the Tahoe altitude to help their training and racing efforts.
“DeCelle Memorial” was added to the event title in the early 70s, following the death of Robert DeCelle Jr. He was killed in action, while drawing enemy fire during the Vietnam War. He was a good high school and junior college runner before serving in Vietnam.
Each team consists of seven runners, with each one averaging about 10 miles to complete the 72-mile counter-clockwise route around Lake Tahoe. Teams consist of all male, all female, mixed, open, master, or high school divisions.
Each year the overall winning team usually completes the loop in six and a half to seven hours. However, the overall course record was set in 1982. A group of runners attending the University of Nevada Reno, and competing on the cross country and track teams; six represented Columbia in the Olympics, and one from South Africa.
They ran an average pace of just over five minutes and ten seconds per mile, to set a record of 6 hours, 16 minutes, and 28 seconds. Two brothers on the team, Domingo and Miguel Tibiduiza, made Reno their home, and gave back to the area’s running community by coaching several high school programs.
I was lucky enough to become a part of the South Shore running scene in 1977, when my family moved here. I was a high school freshman, and moved here from Bishop, where I met Tracy Smith, who was still running competitively and also coaching the high school distance runners.
Fast forward to my senior year as a South Tahoe Viking. It was 1980 (wow, where did 40 years go?) and I had set a goal of making it to, and competing in the mile (1,600 meter) at the California State Track and Field Championships (Remember, South Tahoe once competed in California’s Golden Empire League).
Just like so many others before and after me, South Tahoe High School has been blessed to have many great cross country, and track and field coaches for both the boys and girls programs, including Jim Jones, Al Stevenson, Dan Hill, Dominique Westlake, Dan Wilvers, as long time coaches, and many shorter term coaches mixed in between.
For my senior year, I was lucky enough to have Coach Jones for cross country and Coach (Chuck) Ayers for track. But I also used my good friend Tracy Smith to provide training workouts geared toward my goal.
Things paid off, and In May I was able to compete in some great meets; against some top caliber high school runners, enabling me to set a PR (personal record) time just over 4:20 in the mile. This time was a bit shy of the school record time of 4:18.5, held at the time by Greg Hitchcock, a record that stood until 2003, when Hudson Wilvers (Coach Wilvers’ son) established the present day record of 4:12.11 (1,600 meters). However, my running did allow me the final spot (third place), at the San Joaquin Section meet, thus making it to the state track meet.
To be honest, I don’t remember a great deal about the sState meet, except that it took place at Cal Berkeley, I was joined by South Tahoe freshman high jump star, Keri Johnson, my family was in the stands for the preliminary heats run on Friday, and I got my butt kicked by some very fast milers. So, I didn’t make it to Saturday’s finals.
We were the last of only six South Tahoe High Track athletes to make it to the California State meet, before the school moved into the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Administration.
After spending the night in Berkeley, my parents agreed to drive me home in time to run the final leg of the Lake Tahoe Relays, for our high school relay team. Our team claimed first place in the high school category.
This was the fourth year in a row that I had been on a team competing in this event. The event was originally run in early August, but increased summer traffic forced the race to move to early June for better safety of the runners.
I loved the event so much that I went on to run the relay a total of 20 consecutive years in a row, ending in 1996. During that time, I was lucky enough to compete with a number of college running buddies from both Sierra Junior College and Chico State. As the Cool Breeze running team, we notched three overall team victories.
I would have continued to run the event, however, my running was put on hold by a knee injury. I did run the event one additional time in 2002, when I was asked to run on a South Tahoe High alumni team that included Hitchcock (class of 77), Westlake (82), Dan Empfield (74), Roger Dix (85), John “Miyshael” Gailoson (71), and Dave Price (72).
Dave, a 1972 graduate, returned to South Tahoe as the sports editor and photographer at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He covered all the sports, but certainly his love was for the distance running scene. He went on to cover sports for the Record Courier and Nevada Appeal, and will be inducted into the NIAA Hall of Fame later this year.
I have great confidence that the Lake Tahoe Relay will return next year, and continue for many years to come.
It is in good hands with long-time local Sean Sweeney and his family, along with volunteers who always want to make it a great event. If you want more information on the event, including how to register a team, go to Laketahoerelay.com.
So, as I write this article while recovering from knee replacement surgery (Maybe I will be back on a relay team when the event returns on June 13, 2021), and watch what is transpiring with the virus, I wonder where high school sports will be this coming fall.
Since I coach the high school cross country and track distance teams, along with Nordic skiing,
I hope all the athletes in all sports are able to return to competition, even if it requires modifications.
But the nice thing about running is that so much of the training is an individual thing, the running scene around the area can continue to thrive and build. Maybe it will get back to having elite runners frequent the area. We have the perfect place.
Mark Hoefer coaches cross country, track distance teams and Nordic skiing at South Tahoe High School.
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