Welcome to the history-making San Diego Track Club, which was founded in 1953 by a dozen San Diego State University track & field juniors and seniors in search of more inclusive, post-graduation competitions that didn’t require long drives to Los Angeles.
Called the “San Diego Track and Field Association” to distinguish it from the then Del Mar Track Club, the group selected blue and white uniforms because no other school or military teams claimed them and the conquistador won more votes than a friar, sailboat and other runners up.
In 1954 founding member Bill Gookin invited an LA distance-running rival and his friends to come to Balboa Park for an “L.A. style” race that included flat pavement and hilly cross-country miles. It had a unique distance – 8 miles, which was the average between the popular 10k distance that Bill tended to win and 10-milers that his rival usually won. Thus the longest running road race on the West Coast, the Balboa Park 8 Mile, began with 56 runners.
Within a few years, the San Diego Track Club, as it would eventually be known, held a race every month and at almost every distance. Some were more competitive than others, and one free trail series in the late 1980s and 1990s known as the Nightmare Races featured “off-road encounters with San Diego’s best running terrain.” The Your Worst Nightmare 10k, for instance, ran up and down ruggedly steep, preferably muddy trails on Palomar Mountain, Black Mountain and Mission Trails – and all exceeded the 10k distance, sometimes by many miles.
A Field of Firsts
It may be difficult to comprehend if you grew up after 1972’s Title IX that mandated educational equity for women, including sports, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the USATF prohibited women from distance running or running in races with men for fear their “fragile” bodies would give out. However, when Donna Gookin (Bill’s wife) joined the club and brought in other female recreational runners, they all were welcomed to join in races and at longer distances than allowed at the time. This also helped to set the SDTC apart from other track clubs.
In 1962, marathoners had very few options nationally and no 26-milers locally so the club, led by Bill Gookin, created the Mission Bay Marathon that included two long laps that began and ended at SeaWorld. To get around regulations prohibiting women from running with men, the club created a separate Women’s Southern California Marathon that just happened to take place on the same course, same day and same time as the Mission Bay race. That first year, about a dozen women ran the course. Four years later, another San Diegan woman, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibbs, would make headlines as the first unsanctioned female to finish the then all-male Boston Marathon.
As a frontrunner in racing, the SDTC is believed to be the first in the nation to provide jackets and T-shirts as premiums for race finishers – when entry fees were $5. But the track club is perhaps best known for sponsoring the nation’s first triathlon.
Conceived by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan and built on the biathlon, the Fiesta Island competition at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25, 1974 was billed simply as “Run, Cycle, Swim: Triathlon Set for 25th” in the SDTC Calendar. It included a total of 6 miles of running, 5 miles of bicycling riding and 500 yards of swimming. Though it isn’t documented, Johnstone believes the entry fee was $1 and people were reminded to bring their own bikes, which turned out to be mostly beach cruisers and three-speeds. Forty-six people, including a large contingency from the SDTC, took part in that historic race. The organizers used car headlights to help guide those who finished after the sun went down.
Birth of Rockin’ ‘n’ Runnin’
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the SDTC remained a preeminent track club in southern California, with members frequently winning overall and age group awards at all distances—across the county, state and even the country. It’s also remained true to its track and field roots with events like the annual Chuck McMahon Track & Field Masters Meet, which draws former Olympians and nationally ranked masters athletes, and the more recent Summer Nights all-comers track series.
The club’s growing influence in marathons gained momentum in 1998 when it formed a training group to help runners prepare for the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, a race that itself changed the shape of long distance running by promising musical entertainment all along the course and encouraging people to run for charity. It remains a favorite for Team in Training runners across the country who have raised millions of dollars for cancer research since the race’s inception.
That first year’s Rockin’ ‘n’ Runnin’ program sold out almost immediately, with 300 people training every Saturday from January to June for the big race. At its peak in 2009, 713 runners registered for the program. To date, 9,000 runners have been a part of the Rockin’ ‘n’ Runnin’ community during the past 17 years, including a rare few who have done all 16 previous Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons. Select alumni are invited to serve as YeHas (short for the “yellow hats” the early run leaders all wore). The popularity of RnR produced two other, shorter programs: the summer Half Mad Training Program from June through August and Whatever Training program from September to mid-December. Both of those programs were the brainchild of the track club’s Stephen Burch.
The RnR program then and now is coached by Paul Greer, who will celebrate 30 years as the SDTC Metro coach in 2015. In addition to customized training schedules, runners receive course support during increasingly longer runs on routes all over San Diego. Guest speakers include professionals and Olympians and American record-holders who share tips and their experiences.
In the early 2000s, to better accommodate runners north of the 56 freeway, a North County RnR group was started by Joe Crosswhite. Other North County coaches throughout the years have included Marc Davis, David Kloz and the current coach, Ken Myers.
“People come to prepare for a marathon, but they leave the program with something far more valuable: lasting, often lifetime friendships,” Coach Paul Greer said. “The best compliment I ever received was from a man who did our program for several years. I ran into him later and he told me that even though he wasn’t running marathons anymore, he would always be grateful for what the program did for him because some of the people he met became his best friends.”