The Mt. San Antonio College Cross Country Invitational, better known to thousands of high school cross country runners over the years simply as “Mt. SAC,” has become the nation’s best-known meet for a reason.
The event is now in its 59th season, and brings together more than 20,000 runners each fall in what has become the biggest cross country invitational in the country. Over the course of two days, runners from all over California and the west compete in races every eight minutes, covering a 3-mile course that is both challenging and thought provoking for runners of all levels.
It is for many of these reasons that so many local coaches love to compete at Mt. SAC each year. This week, the girls’ team from La Jolla High School, the boys’ team from La Jolla Country Day and some individuals from Country Day’s girls squad will travel north to Walnut - east of Los Angeles - to test their mettle against some of the state’s top teams and runners.
Both schools will run in Division III and IV races on Oct. 19, with La Jolla Country Day’s boys team hoping to get into the prestigious and competitive sweepstakes race.
“We try to go up there whenever our school schedule allows it,” Country Day coach Scott Sanders said. “When the schedule works out, I definitely try to get my teams up there, because it’s the biggest and one of the best. Just to be in that atmosphere is great. I think for anybody running cross country, it’s something to see and experience at least once.
“In seasons when we’ve had a pretty good team, it’s great to see the top competition, because most of the teams are there. You can see some of the other big races and check out what some of the other top teams and individuals are doing.”
The Mt. SAC Invitational has become so big that it includes divisions for elementary and middle school, high school and community college runners and lasts a total of three days over the course of two weekends. There are 129 races in total. The event’s popularity is such that its Web site offers an interactive course map with short videos from key points on the race course, a photo gallery, a video gallery and a Webcast of the day’s happenings.
More information, including schedules and directions, can be found at www.events.mtsac.edu/ccinvite. Many coaches feel that running in the Mt. SAC Invitational can be good preparation for the state meet. Most of California’s top teams and individuals make their way to Walnut. Even though there are no team or individual titles on the line, the sheer number of runners there brings an added element of pressure that can nicely simulate the pressures of the state championships.
“It definitely can be a good preparation for the state meet, and I’m certainly hoping it will be for my guys,” Sanders said. “That’s one of the reasons I put my team in that sweepstakes race rather than a regular Division IV race, was the hope that they’d be running against some of California’s top Division IV talent. It’s not so much about seeing where they stand, but to let them know that, ‘Hey, I can be on the same course with these guys and do well.’ ”
La Jolla girls’ coach Roger Karnopp has been taking teams to Mt. SAC for years, and likes to expose his athletes to different runners and improved competition.
“The people here in town, we see them all the time, and we hear about them and read about them,” Karnopp said. “It’s a much better experience to give the kids an opportunity to race against somebody they have no clue about at all. There’s no pre-determined ideas about who you need to beat. I think it’s just a much better experience. It’s been my philosophy ever since I was coaching way back in the 1960s and ‘70s: Get the kids out of town, and it’s just a lot more fun.”
That fun includes competing against some of the state’s top runners.
“We ran up at the Stanford Invitational earlier this year to see some of the top teams and the teams we might see at the state meet,” Karnopp said. “We wanted to see some of the biggies there, and we want to do the same here at Mt. SAC.”
For many of the athletes and coaches who go to the Mt. SAC Invitational each year, it’s more about the experience than it is about finishing ahead of the rest of the competition.