Benefield: Viking Opener still running strong after 35 years

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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?

That structure came from races Meredith grew up competing in in Indiana.

“I thought it was pretty cool because sometimes you got a great senior and there is a junior better than him. This might be (the senior’s) chance” to win a race, he said.

Triola likes it because it injects a different kind of competitive juice into a race.

“They all know, especially the veterans, they know who they are competing against and to get them against those kids now? It’s a good time to just see,” he said.

And the grade configuration can do something for team building, coaches said. Karpinski likes it because it can shuffle kids into different teammate configurations than they are used to.

“I think it’s a really big team bonding experience,” she said. “I think it inspires the kids. If you have a good sophomore class or junior class, it allows them to win by their team.”

Joseph said the Panthers take that piece seriously.

“It’s another great opportunity to test the competitive mindset,” she said. “It’s testing yourself against people your own age.”

And that alumni race, smack dab in the middle of the meet? It’s a fan favorite.

“They love it,” Karpinski said of the athletes. “I’d say at least 40 percent of the coaches do it.”

“It’s serious,” she said. “The top crowd is still fast, but it’s all paces.”

This year, the guy who won the first ever Viking Opener senior race 35 years ago as well as the first ever alumni race two years later, Paul Cummings, is set to return and race in his Montgomery singlet, Meredith said.

“It’s pretty neat to be out there in the middle of the race and have hundreds of kids getting really loud,” Meredith said. “You wear your old uniform and the local ones get excited for whoever is wearing their uniform.”

And because the meet has been around so long, the list of top times over the years is a who’s who of area greats.

Ukiah grad Ryan Mack is seventh all-time on the list of top times and he won the Div. II state race in 1998. Piner grad Luis Luna is one of fastest guys from these parts in recent memory and he’s No. 2 on the list. Luca Mazzanti, a Santa Rosa High grad is No. 3 and he’s currently running at West Point. No. 5 on the list, Brian Schulz, is an El Molino grad now racing for the U.C. Santa Barbara.

The girls’ all-time list is ridiculous. Six of the top 10 finishers eventually ran their way to state cross country titles: Julia Stamps of Santa Rosa at No. 1, Sara (Bei) Hall of Montgomery at No. 2, Jacque Taylor of Casa Grande at No. 3, Rylee Bowen of Sonoma Academy at No. 5, Trina Cox of Santa Rosa at No. 8 and Healdsburg grad Gabby Peterson at No. 9. There are three runners in the top 10 who finished second at the state meet and one who finished fourth.

Not bad.

“There are all of these prestigious names on the list,” Karpinski said. “Definitely for local runners, if you can make that top 25 list, it’s a pretty big deal.”

But for a lot of racers, it’s not about making a top all-time list, it’s about getting their race legs and race minds set for the season.

And Karpinski said the unusual format can be freeing for coaches who are still tinkering a little bit.

“It’s a fun way to kick off the season when your varsity is not set and your team is not set,” she said.

And it’s never a bad thing to have runners test themselves, Triola said.

“Good competition is always a fun thing,” he said.

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