Fast Times at Mammoth Track

High-altitude training post attracts elite runners from around the world

Olympic marathon runners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi made a name for Mammoth Lakes, Calif. when they moved to the High Sierra town to train with coaches Joe Vigil and Bob Larsen in 2001. The move paid off for Kastor and Keflezighi. At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece they each stood on the podium—Keflezighi with a silver medal and Kastor with a bronze.

“I have traveled the world for this sport and haven’t found a place I like better than my home here in Mammoth Lakes,” Kastor said.  “I love living here because town is only four-square miles and surrounded by open space with trails.”

Mammoth Track Club’s impressive history includes 12 Olympians, 12 world cross country medals, 23 national records, 64 national championships, and two Olympic medals. Historically it’s considered one of the most accomplished distance running groups in the United States, but until recently it was missing a track and field facility to lure additional athletes to the region. Now, with a new high-performance, all-weather, 8-lane polyurethane track, Mammoth has taken another stride to become the premier high altitude-training destination for world-class runners and a ­new generation of athletes hope to carry on the track club’s legacy.

Kastor, 40, and her husband Andrew, 36, took over management of the Mammoth Track Club (MTC) full time when Coach Terrence Mahon left to coach the UK National team last year. (Mahon has since returned to the U.S. and accepted a position with the Boston Athletic Association.)

With Deena as the president, Andrew has filled the head coach position. The MTC is currently recruiting elite members to fill out the maximum 12-person roster, according to Coach Kastor. Meanwhile, the current athletes have already started recording impressive times. Three of the MTC runners—Josphat Boit, Lauren Jimison, and Gabe Proctor—have already run qualifying times for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and there are a number of other athletes chasing the same goal who  are all well on their way to recording qualifying times.

Boit, 29, moved to Mammoth full time in January after the Kastors took over management of the track club and less than a year later he ran to a second place finish at the 2013 U.S. Marathon Championships. His 2:13:14 marathon was a personal best and a ticket to the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“The support from the Mammoth Track Club is incredible, it’s a great community,” Boit said. “Andrew and Deena are amazing people; they are always positive. It makes it easy to train here.”

Mammoth Lakes is situated in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains at an altitude that distance runners consider ideal for training—8,000 feet. With its high elevation, abundance of trails, and rugged mountain scenery Mammoth is a paradise for Kastor, Keflezighi, and other world-class distance runners like Josh Cox.

“My favorite trails are all around here; I just leave from the house, get on the trail and go for a couple hours,” says Cox, 37, the American 50k record holder. “With the addition of the track, Mammoth offers everything for endurance athletes. The synthetic turf is amazing, and fast—there is no better track; there is no better place on the planet.”

After taking a year and a half off of racing to take care of his ailing father, Cox knew that Mammoth was the place to get fit and get back in shape. He moved to Mammoth in 2007 to train with Coach Bob Larsen and set the American 50k record two years later in 2009. He broke his own record in 2011, just missing the world record by seven seconds.

The Mammoth Track Club’s rich history has drawn a new generation of Olympic hopefuls like Boit, Jimison, and Proctor to Mammoth.

 “I looked into lots of different training groups and programs, and Mammoth Track Club was by far the best fit,” said Jimison, 23.  “I really connected well with my coach, Andrew Kastor, and Deena is someone I have always looked up to; she's done so much for our sport.”

“Not only do Andrew and Deena love running with a passion, but they also love people,” Jimison said. “That is so important to me.”

When Mammoth High School ripped out their football stadium seven years ago and rebuilt it without a track, the Kastors dreamed of a new facility that would be open to the public.

“Andrew and I wanted to bring a track and field facility to Mammoth Lakes so we could share our passion for running with the community we cherish,” Kastor said.  “We also wanted to bring runners from around the world to our slice of running paradise here in the Eastern Sierra.” 

The Kastors created the non-profit Mammoth Track Project and worked for six years planning and fundraising for the new facility. They partnered with the town of Mammoth Lakes and used funds from the local tax Measure R, which secures an estimated one million dollars each year for trails and recreation.  With the Measure R contribution, a donation from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s former owner Dave McCoy, and a corporate sponsorship from ASICS America, the funds were raised for the first phase.

On any given day at the track, a mix of Mammoth locals and international elite athletes train for upcoming races or general fitness. The craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada create a stunning and dramatic backdrop for the track, which was designed by landscape architect Brett T. Long. The design incorporated more than 31,000 used tires into the track’s surface and ground into the synthetic infield. The facility is part of a sports complex managed by the town of Mammoth Lakes and is located ten-miles south of town at a 7,100-foot elevation.

Since the track’s opening last November, the facility has garnered the attention of elite athletes from around the world. British Olympian Julia Bleasdale and Australians Collis Birmingham, Ryan Gregson, and Brett Robinson trained in Mammoth last spring in preparation for the European track season and the World Track and Field Championships.

 “As you lead into competition you need more specific training that you want to do on the track,” said Birmingham, 27.  “The trails and surroundings make it a great place to come and train. It’s amazing to travel half way around the world, have world class training facilities and be treated so well; there really is no reason not to come to Mammoth.”

Even Oregon Track Club’s elite runners (including Olympian Shalane Flanagan) made their way south to train in Mammoth for a few months last spring.

According to Coach Kastor, other top high elevation running destinations include Albuquerque, New Mexico; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Park City, Utah. But what these other towns don’t have that Mammoth does is the ability to train low and sleep high.

Mammoth is uniquely situated because of the extreme variety of elevations within a forty-minute drive, Cox says. Athletes can train anywhere from 4,700 feet to 9,000 feet and still sleep at altitude.

“The benefits of high elevation training will last for thirty days, so when you leave altitude you are basically supercharged for a month,” Cox says, “but then you have to come back to Mammoth before you turn into a pumpkin.”