Remembering a track legend

LAGUNA BEACH — It was a sunny day Saturday, in so many ways besides just the weather.

Former high school cross country and track teammates from nearly 40 years ago meet again, and it was like they had never left.

Laguna Beach High’s track was officially named after Laguna legend Eric Hulst, maybe the best distance runner in Orange County prep history.

And, oh yeah, the Laguna Beach Trophy Invitational returned after more than a 25-year absence for its 42nd incarnation.

Hulst was a 1975 CIF state champion at Laguna, and part of a national championship team at UC Irvine two years later. And yet, his memory for many was how hard he worked, and what a competitor he was on the track.

"He would be humbled by this experience," said Jim Toomey, Laguna’s head cross country and track coach from 1974-76.

His voice wavered just for a second, perhaps thinking of Hulst, who died in 1992 at age 34 after suffering from brain cancer.

"He would be very proud to have his name on the track," Toomey said. "It’s amazing, because it seems like ever since Eric ran here, Laguna Beach High School has been known for cross country and distance running. I think that’s his biggest legacy. And now, with his name on the track, for generations kids are going to read that name and say, ‘Who’s Eric Hulst?’ They’ll look it up on the Internet and see pages and pages about Eric and what he’s done."

Toomey and former Laguna Beach and UCI Coach Len Miller were in attendance. So were some of Hulst’s biggest rivals in high school, the biggest one being Ralph Serna. Serna starred at Loara High and later teamed with Hulst at UCI. They were the big rivals, the strong Hulst versus the short and skinny Serna.

In that 1975 race, Hulst finished in 8:44.9. Serna was just a second behind. He brought DVDs with him to Saturday’s meet that he created, titled "One Second Back – A Perspective of Eric Hulst by Ralph Serna."

"It was a perfect thing to watch," Serna said. "Eric was this big, strong guy who broke all the laws of distance running by being this gigantic guy, strong and powerful. I was really as little as a whippet, believe it or not, standing like 5-foot-6 and weighing like 110 pounds or something. My deal was speed. So if I could hang with Eric, I might be able to out-sprint him [at the end]. His whole deal was to try to run the sprint out of me. Eric would get in the front, and the question was, was he going to be able to knock out our kicks or could we stay with him long enough?"

Hulst’s family was also in attendance, including his mother, Sharon, and sisters Heidi and Julie.

Sharon was the first to speak at the dedication ceremony.

"He was a very humble man," she said of her son. "But he had a competitive spirit out on the track. That just permeated, that love, that’s why we’re all here today. It’s not just the records. It’s who you choose to be in the world."

Soon after, girls’ and boys’ races were held in the inaugural Eric Hulst Memorial 3,200 Meter Run. Participants each received a special backpack and T-shirt.

Toomey and Miller, along with several of Hulst’s contemporaries in the 1970s, had a dinner with many of the Laguna runners on Friday night before the meet as well.

"That was really inspiring," said the Breakers’ Natasha Strickland, who finished third in the girls’ 3,200.

For much more on this year’s Trophy Invite and Eric Hulst, see Friday’s edition of the Coastline Pilot.

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