Deena started it all.
A decade ago, the then-Deena Drossin came charging out of the University of Arkansas and scooted up to Mammoth to train.
Overnight, given her dazzling performances around the world, Mammoth in the summer wasn’t just about fishing and camping.
It’s hard to imagine what might have happened around here had Deena chosen a different path. She won in London and Chicago.
No one here will ever forget watching her bronze-medal finish at the Athens Olympics in 2004, tears streaming down her face as she crossed the finish line.
Then came Meb Keflizighi out of UCLA, running right on her heels, winning the silver medal in Athens, the New York City Marathon and just about everywhere else, too.
Then they all came.
Today Mammoth is the distance running capital of North America. We just keep adding on. August is almost a traffic jam what with all the track teams up here, both high school and college.
On the streets, Olympic-caliber runners run alongside amateur and high school runners.
“Now we’ve got to throw some gas on the fire,” said Mammoth Tourism Director John Urdi.
“Deena (now Kastor) and Meb got everything started, and we need to incubate that.”
The big action is with the Mammoth Track Club, which is attracting national runners by the boatload – Olympic hopefuls such as Josh Cox, Amy Hastings and Patrick Smyth to name just two.
The High Sierra Striders running club, under the baton of Andrew Kastor, has grown exponentially over the years.
Deena has announced three running camps for this summer and fall.
It’s not unusual to see her running around town and in the mountains.
“I add trail running to my training in a variety of ways,” in a recent interview.
“During marathon season (she said she plans to train for London in 2012) all of my hard workouts are done on roads, so I do recovery runs on trails for the cushioning of my joints and foot strike.
“During cross country season, I run mostly on trails and grass to increase foot and ankle stability. During track season I take a break from running in circles and hit the trails to increase my agility over the rough terrain.”
“Whether I’m training for cross country, track or road racing season, there is nothing as refreshing as leaving my regimented schedule behind and hitting the trails to explore the Eastern Sierra. I call them ‘rejuvenation’ runs, when I forget about time and distance and set my sights on exploring new territory.”
It’s not entirely about running way up here.
Mammoth Tourism announced plans to rent an apartment at Snowcreek as a “high-altitude crib” for runners of all stripes, as well as for anyone who wants to train here in any sport, summer or winter.
(Concurrently, the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation also plans to build the Center for Excellence, a world-class training facility that will support year-round sports competitors).
It is this new culture of running, though, that is catching all the attention all over the country. It has filtered all the way down the middle-and high school level, just as skiing, snowboarding and Nordic did over the decades.
In April, Mammoth High School sent six athletes to the preliminary conference track championships. Led by winner Toby Qualls in the 1600 meters, all six advanced.
Then Qualls broke the 10-minute mark in the 3200-meter race at the CIF division prelims.
For those from afar who may wonder just what the heck is going on up here, the answer is fairly easy to grasp.
Running coach Irv Ray of UC-Riverside, is an expert in exercise physiology. Last year brought his athletes here for five weeks of training, which is about what it takes to change an athlete’s blood structure so he or she can carry more oxygen to the heart.
“Science tells us that altitude training, training in thinner atmospheres, changes the athlete’s physiology,” he said in an interview in the UC-R press guide.
“Physiology is something we can’t see – it’s on the inside. We can go (to Mammoth) for 30 days and actually change our physiology is really important.
“All the red blood cells in physiology that are created at altitude last for 100 days. So we can see the benefits all the way through (the fall) cross country season.
“So the reason for going to Mammoth is to change physiology, make the athletes stronger and more adept at distance running. Knowing that what we do is going to last until the end of the cross country season is a boost for our athletes.”
There’s more to it, too, he said.
There is Mammoth’s relative isolation, which helps athletes concentrate on their sports without urban distractions.
“Since we don’t have a team of national champions we have to train smarter and train harder to get to the levels we’re trying for. It’s a time when the athletes can focus on themselves to achieve personal development and changes.
“Running successfully is not just about the science: you have to have it emotionally, mentally and physically. “
“To have good performances you need to be in a great state of balance in life. This gives them the opportunity to learn that balance, to organize their day around training, running, and lectures. This will give them a chance to be better and focus.
“It’s really difficult once we come back and they’ve got school and so many other distractions that get in the way of elite athletes.”
At the center of Mammoth’s running culture is the Mammoth Track Club.
Founded in 2001, it is the top-ranked long-distance running group in America.
The creation of the elite team is a joint effort of two world-renowned coaches, Joe Vigil and Bob Larsen, with financial and administrative backing from Running USA.
The mission of the group is to return U.S. distance running to the dominant force it was in the 1970s and 1980s and they’re darned close to doing it.
In the seven years since Athens, Terrence Mahon has become the club’s coach and has roped in an impressive group of runners.
Among them he came out of nowhere last spring to place third in the Houston half marathon.
Then there is Josh Cox, the 50k American record holder who burst onto the national running scene by winning and setting a course record in a 50-mile ultra marathon at 22 years of age.
When he was 23, he ran his first marathon in 2:19, making him the youngest qualifier for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Since then, Cox, a four-time Olympic Trials qualifier and three-time U.S. National Team member, has won the top U.S. spot at the World Track and Field Championships and trained with the world’s best.
Mammothites can see him running all over the place, along with his other Track Club pals.
He runs 140 miles and it’s hard to imagine he has the time to write a book, but that’s what he’s up to.
He and former Track Club member Ryan Hall are writing a running book, “Soul Runners,” due this year through Harvest House Publishers.