The last few years have not gone smoothly — certainly not according to plan — for the Mt. SAC Relays.
The tradition-rich track meet, displaced while its home stadium concludes a longer-than-expected renovation, has survived mostly by perseverance, shifting from one temporary venue to another.
On Saturday, at the end of its long road trip, Mt. SAC got rewarded with an unexpected gem at El Camino College as former USC teammates and current training partners Michael Norman and Rai Benjamin ran a 400-meter race of historic proportions.
Norman burst to an early lead and held on down the stretch, winning in 43.45 seconds, tied for the sixth-fastest time ever and startlingly fast for early in the season.
“I felt like it was a pretty good opener,” he said in something of an understatement.
Finishing just behind at 44.31, Benjamin added: “We’ve been going at it all week in practice.”
Their performance came late in a Saturday schedule that saw meet director Doug Todd walking the infield, eager for a highlight, saying: “I hope we get fast times.”
Todd has struggled to keep the meet going since Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut embarked on a major restoration of its Hilmer Lodge Stadium that is finally scheduled for completion by year’s end.
“Now that it’s done, I don’t need to put a pretty face on it,” the director said. “It has been difficult.”
The relays, which began in 1959, originally planned to stay at UCLA for a while but, when that fell through, Todd went to school administrators suggesting they go dark for a year. He recalls his college president responding: “Unacceptable.”
The meet relocated to Cerritos College in 2016, then to El Camino in 2017. The road show continued when Walnut homeowners began expressing concerns about the scope of construction on campus and negotiations stretched for more than a year.
In the process, U.S. track officials chose Mt. San Antonio for the 2020 Olympic trials, then changed their minds, concerned about construction delays.
“I’ll be honest … that hurt,” Todd said.
So there was a sense of celebration this weekend as the meet opened at El Camino with the knowledge that workers in Walnut were drawing close to finishing a state-of-the-art facility.
“They deserve it,” said Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist and University of Houston coach who figures he competed at Mt. SAC 15 times over the course of his career. “This is a meet that has survived because it treats the athletes well.”
As usual, the relays drew a field of top high school and college talent for three days beginning Thursday. Most of the attention Saturday focused on elite-level athletes.
World-record holder Kendra Harrison won the women’s 100-meter hurdles in a time of 12.63, fastest in the world this year. In the men’s 100, Paulo Andre Camilo of Brazil outsprinted Olympian and former NCAA champion Ameer Webb.
“To me, this meet is big because I’m from California,” Webb said. “It’s a tradition.”
There was also a premier matchup in the women’s 400 between former USC star Kendall Ellis and Olympic gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad, with Muhammad pulling away at the finish line.
“I’m disappointed,” Ellis said. “Tried to go but there was nothing left.”
That race was followed by the men’s 400, which generated the loudest buzz in the stadium.
Norman holds the indoor world record at that distance and Benjamin is a three-time NCAA champion. Still, their dual did not figure to produce such a fast time.
This season, the world championships have been pushed to late September to avoid the summer heat in Doha, Qatar. Athletes have planned accordingly, looking to peak later in the year.
But there was no hint of Norman or Benjamin pacing themselves as they broke ahead early and finished well ahead of the field.