DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay returns to Lake Tahoe for 52nd year
The Lake Tahoe Relay began in 1959 an outgrowth of a New Year’s gag by a group of runners from San Jose State College. They circled the lake in 8:47:05 that evening.
The relay has since evolved from those humble beginnings, but still keeps its small, family feel. In the beginning years, Robert E. DeCelle, Sr. — known as “Bob” — would fire the gun and then go fishing until he thought the first teams would arrive seven hours later. There were no porta-potties, very small ribbons and sometimes no timers at the handoff zones.
Currently the oldest distance relay in America, the 52nd edition of the DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay will return Saturday, June 11. It starts at the “Y” at 7 a.m., and finishes at the same spot with the course closing 13 hours later — relay teams consist of seven people, each running eight to 12 miles.
The course is hilly with elevation up 6,500 feet, as competitors run along the highway around scenic Lake Tahoe. It is open to traffic, which can be a little intimidating for unseasoned runners. The only traffic control is on the first leg, with the help of Boy Scouts from a local LDS church.
The original course record was broken on a beautiful Sunday morning in 1964 when Sierra Nevada Track Club runners Skip Houk, Stan Hayes, Bud Forman and Ron Eller out of Reno, Nevada, broke the 72-mile mark with a time of 7:22:10. Though blistered and bloody by the end, Houk thought the relay had the potential to be a great event.
Houck spoke with his friend, Bob, then chairman of the Amateur Athletic Union’s Long-Distance Running Committee. Bob encouraged and sanctioned the relay through AAU hoping to give potential Olympic runners a chance to run and train at altitude — the training center was at Echo Summit in advance of the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
In 1971, Capt. Robert E. DeCelle, Jr. was killed in action in Vietnam while drawing enemy fire away from troops on the ground; he had been an excellent high school and junior college runner. Robert Jr. left behind a wife and 8-month-old son Aaron, who is now a major in the Army.
In Robert Jr.’s honor, AAU Long-Distance Running Committee chairman Peter Matti asked if he could change the name. It became the DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay, as it is known today.
In 1982, the Stereoscope Loafers erased the existing record for the 72-mile relay with a time of 6:16:28. The team of University of Nevada, Reno runners featured Columbian Olympians Domingo and Miguel Tibiduiza, Jairo Carrea, Henry Carvajal, and Joaquin Leano along with Derek May from South Africa. Their record will likely never be beaten.
For the past decade, Chico Track Club has dominated the relay’s open men’s division — only being beaten in 2011 by Brigham Young University. McFarland High out of Bakersfield, California, has similarly dominated the boys high school division. Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders have set records in the men’s 50-, 60- and 70-year-old divisions while being great supporters of the relay.
When Bob passed away two weeks after the 1997 relay, his family had to decide if they would continue putting it on. Given that none of the DeCelle family lives near Lake Tahoe, they wondered if it was worth the effort considering an absence of sponsors and the red tape involved with working with two states and five counties.
The family ultimately decided to continue the race and make the second weekend in June a DeCelle family reunion. The relay is a labor of love and a memorial to their father and brother, with all proceeds going to high school and youth running programs within California and Nevada — the 2016 relay will benefit Running For a Better Oakland.
The early registration deadline is Monday, May 15. Registration prior to the deadline is $700, and it increases to $875 after. For more information, visit http://www.laketahoerelay.com.