Sonia O’Sullivan: Athletes come running to this field of Olympic dreams in California

The Sound Running Track Meet saw top runners go through their paces for Tokyo

The world of athletics has changed so much in recent years, and it seems times are all that matter. Photograph: iStock

The world of athletics has changed so much in recent years, and it seems times are all that matter. Photograph: iStock

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There was something of that oft-quoted line from Field of Dreams around the small stadium track at Crean Lutheran High School track in Irvine, California, last weekend: If you build it, they will come.

This was the venue for the Sound Running Track Meet, nestled somewhere beneath the Californian hills, all hidden away from any curious onlookers or anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the best American runners around. Plus a few internationals who have been training in one of the many altitude training camp locations around the US.

In other ways there was an aura about the place, an opportunity and event that athletes felt they would miss out on if they simply don’t come.

Altitude training seems to be essential these days, with athletes training in Park City, Utah, Flagstaff, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado to name a few. US athletes don’t think much of dropping down for a race to test themselves, but also to check their progress, as many are aiming for the US Olympic trials in just one month’s time at the newly renovated Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon – which will also host the World Athletics Championships in 2022.

I’m based in Park City with a group of Nike-sponsored athletes, and we made the trek to Irvine the afternoon before the 1,500 metres and 800 metre races were scheduled to take part.

There were a couple of 10,000 metres on the Friday night, with athletes urgently chasing Olympic qualifying standards, and also US athletes having to meet Olympic trial entry standards.

The Sound Running Track Meet is an independent race series that attracts athletes of all levels from high school runners to Olympic champions, and everyone is treated equally. Everyone must pay their entry fee, organise their own travel, accommodation and transfers between airport and hotel and track.

Logistical measures

When you are used to the luxury of similar events in Europe, where athletes have all these logistical measures taken care of, it seems even more of an ordeal for athletes to travel from all over the US just to get the opportunity to race in an environment with perfect conditions. All the races are seeded, with pace-makers aiming for specific times to help get the races under way.

You can also understand why these are not races where athletes just run around for the win, but come with purpose and determination to deliver a positive result early season. No longer are the early season races a place to come and awaken the competitive juices; they are a place where you need to be ready to run fast from the start.

I’ve previously watched these Sound Running events online from Australia in 2020 when there were even fewer race opportunities for athletes. I was curious about what it was that drew the athletes to these micro meets.

There was the added requirement of a negative Covid test result or proof of full vaccination to be submitted online within seven days of the event so you could get your name on the list. Athletes warming up and racing were exempt from wearing a mask until they were finished their events.

We left Park City at 1pm; the travel was five hours door-to-door including the one-hour time difference. The most stressful part was the line to get through security, since our last flight two weeks ago the passenger numbers at US airports have exploded. Just when I was getting used to that free middle seat, there is not an empty seat on the plane.

It was more like an organised training session where all the different athlete training groups worked together to push each other to fast times

The pre-race jog and strides were completed earlier in the morning at the Park City High School track, just dinner and sleep required before the morning races that began at 11am.

It’s unusual for a track meet to have a morning schedule, but the event was shown live on ESPN, and getting national TV coverage is a huge bonus for track and field in America; it probably helped that it’s an Olympic year.

As much as I was expecting the energy of a big track meet due to the calibre of athletes in attendance, it was more like an organised training session where all the different athlete training groups worked together to push each other to fast times.

The world of athletics has changed so much in recent years, and it seems times are all that matter. It’s nice to win, but these are not the important races; these are races with the main purpose to deliver a time that helps the athlete progress to the next level and then make the cut, as only so many can be selected to run in Tokyo this summer.

You really do miss the cheering and clapping from an enthusiastic crowd

There was some prize money, partially funded by the livestream which had a pay-per-view, hoping to attract more viewers in the knowledge that they were contributing to the prize pool.

The loud music filled the silence between races but when the music was stopped you could hear a pin drop. You could hear the athletes’ spikes sticking to the track and the breathing as athletes pushed themselves, finding some reward for all the hours and weeks of training. It may seem like early season but things are about to ramp up, with meet after meet appearing on the calendar not just here but across Europe.

You really do miss the cheering and clapping from an enthusiastic crowd. This felt like an audience of well-informed athletics anoraks, assessing the form and weighing things up for more important races down the track.

Just six weeks to the Olympic qualifying deadline, the US Olympic trials, which normally attract Olympic-size crowds, will be a more subdued affair this year for the fans. But for the athletes it will be no less important, where everything is on the line for those top-three spots. Most countries will have their national championships also in June and teams will be selected – and then the logistics of how the Tokyo Olympics will be played out will become more of a reality.

There is an obvious shift in the times athletes are running. In this one meet alone, there’s a world leading time, national records, personal bests, and qualifying times, but you do wonder how the races will play out in the Olympics when there are qualifying rounds and medals at stake. Will the lap times be so consistent, allowing greater spread of energy across the length of the race, or will there be a return to more tactical racing? It’s never easy to predict because to take on a race also takes bravery.

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