Benefield: Viking Opener still running strong after 35 years
It’s not the first big local meet of the prep cross country season. That designation goes to the Rancho Cotate Invitational. And it’s not the first meet at Spring Lake, where so much of the competition will unfold as the season wears on. That label goes to Santa Rosa High’s Bob Shor Invite.
But the Viking Opener, now in its 35th running at Spring Lake in Santa Rosa, is expected to draw more than 1,000 athletes from 33 schools Saturday in part because it falls at an important point in the season’s calendar, in part because it’s raced by grade and not by speed, in part because it’s a significantly shorter course, and in part because coaches for years have used this meet as a certain kind of litmus test for their athletes.
And then there is the alumni race — an event that takes place mid-meet and draws a ton of coaches and scores of former prep runners to pull on their faded singlets and give the old course a go.
It seems like a combination of all of the above that makes the Viking Opener a draw for runners from just about every program in Sonoma County, plus schools from Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Marin, Humboldt, Alameda, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties.
“For a lot of people in Sonoma and local counties, this is the closest large meet we have,” Montgomery coach and meet host Melody Karpinski said.
“We always get up for this meet,” Santa Rosa’s coach Carrie Joseph said. “We take it very seriously.”
Ask coaches why and they say there are particular reasons for this.
The first of which is that this race is run on an atypically short course. It is 2 miles, whereas the benchmark Spring Lake course used for most meets and championship races is 3.05 miles.
Why 2 miles?
Event founder Larry Meredith, the former Montgomery coach who launched the event in 1985, said he sliced a mile off for a very practical reason.
“It was the first event of our season back when it started, and I felt the whole team could probably do better,” he said. “Mainly, it was because kids were not quite in shape.”
That shortened course has a lot of impact — namely it can be an introduction to racing for less experienced runners because it’s more shoulder-to-shoulder than you’d find on a longer course.
“The field won’t thin out quite as much,” Joseph said. “You aren’t going to be running in no-man’s land. This is usually where we see the transition from running into racing happen. Especially the newer kids, that switch usually flips during this race which I find really neat to see. It’s what we want to see.”
And for the more experienced runners, it becomes a test of will. Shorter does not mean easier, Joseph said.
“For the more experienced runner, they’ll tell you it’s harder,” she said. “It’s go, go, go from the gun. You never really get a chance to settle in. With the Viking, it’s pedal to the metal.”
Still, this race can build confidence, according to Casa Grande coach Carl Triola.
“It gets some speed into their body, so they know they can run fast,” he said.
And that by-grade format? The one where the five fastest from each team in each grade compete?