MJC Gets On Track

There was one point on which everyone wearing spikes, a whistle or a starter's gun could agree: Modesto Junior College Stadium needed a new track.

The old Chevron 400 surface was 27 years old and showing its age. Despite a series of resurfacing procedures, it became excessively hard and faded, and in some places was uneven -- a sign of structural failure.

It no longer was suitable for the daily pounding of students and the general public, and long since had outlived its days as a world-class running surface for the annual Modesto Relays.

It still had a few good times left. In 2006, Jeremy Wariner clocked a meet-record 44.84 seconds in the 400 and Jenny Adams set a meet mark with a 12.68 100-meter hurdles.

Once it was decided the old track would be replaced, the diverse opinions began to flow.

The college wanted a durable, quality track to serve everyday runners and the athletes on the Pirates' track and field teams. It also had to be of sufficient quality to serve as the host surface for the Modesto Relays.

The Modesto Relays committee made it known it wanted something more -- a surface fast enough to put the meet back on the map as an event where world-record performances can be anticipated. The brand associated with such speed tracks is Mondo, a polyurethane-based surface installed at every Olympic venue since 1976.

When the MJC Stadium track officially opens Monday, the public will see a sparkling, bright blue surface designed for daily pounding, but one not necessarily conducive to world-class speeding.

"We were hearing rumors that the Relays weren't coming back if we didn't do something about the track, but nobody told me that directly," said Tim Nesmith, the director of facilities planning and operations for the Yosemite Community College District. "We love having the Relays, but this track has to function 365 days a year as a classroom."

After receiving input from many directions, Nesmith went with the Poly 4000, a latex-based surface marketed by Atlas Track and Tennis of Tualatin, Ore. The district secured a state maintenance grant to cover most of the $350,000 installed cost, and after filing a call for bids, Atlas was the lone bidder.

"World-class athletes will be able to notice the difference between this track and a high-performance track like the Mondo," said Gary Logsdon, regional sales manager for Atlas. "But on a performance level for junior college and high school athletes, no, they won't notice.

"For everyday use, you wouldn't want to run on a performance track like the Mondo. It's too hard. Maybe a sprinter would feel different about that."

There are pros and cons for both surfaces, and all are contained in the differences between the latex and polyurethane that binds the ground rubber track layers.

Mondo is more expensive. The cost of the Mondo surface installed last spring at Cerritos College in Norwalk was about $500,000, not including the installation, according to Doug Wells, the school's director of track and field.

Latex tracks are softer, which makes them easier on the legs of athletes-in-training and weekend warriors. But they also are temperature-sensitive. They get softer in high temperatures and can turn hard in the cold.

Polyurethane tracks are built for speed and thus are harder than latex tracks. They also are more consistent and change very little in extreme temperatures. The Chevron track MJC removed after 27 years was a polyurethane surface.

But when it came down to the question of latex vs. polyurethane, Nesmith went with the environmentally friendly answer.

Latex occurs naturally and is extracted from rubber trees in the same manner as maple syrup.

Polyurethane, which was invented in 1937 as a synthetic plastic, is a petrochemical.

"The big difference for us is that there are no solvents involved in producing latex, so this is an environmentally friendly track," Nesmith said. "Any time, in this day and age, that we can incorporate sustainable materials, we have to do it. It's the right thing to do with all our building projects."

In other words, MJC's new blue track is green.

The Relays

One spring weekend each year, MJC Stadium becomes a home for world-class athletes looking for competition and a facility capable of handling their speed.

In form and function and by design, this new latex track will not be as fast as the polyurethane track it replaced, a concern for meet director Gregg Miller.

"We were not contacted for input and are a little apprehensive that it's a latex base," Miller said. "We would have preferred something similar to the Chevron 400, because historically this has been one of the fastest tracks in the world."

Indeed, in the 66-year history of the Modesto Relays, 33 world records have been set. The most recent world mark set in a running event, however, was the 9.9-second 100 meters run by Jamaican Don Quarrie in 1976 -- four years before the Chevron 400 was installed.

"I have to give them (MJC) the benefit of the doubt, but we would have loved to have been contacted about it," Miller said. "We go around the world to watch track and field and we see good tracks and not-so-good tracks. We're crossing our fingers on this one, because I've heard that this particular surface does not have great longevity and tends to turn hard. I choose to remain optimistic."

There are several Atlas Poly 4000 surfaces in California, including a blue surface installed when Sacramento's Rosemont High School opened in 2003.

"The athletes love running on it," Rosemont track coach Scott Maddox said. "We've had to do some patch jobs, but all of those have been from vandalism, not wear and tear.

"The facility is locked up, but people are running on it all the time, and you can see a little wear on the inside lanes, but that might be dirt since we power-wash it once a year -- every spring. In the next several years, we'll need to repaint the lines, but the surface is still very good."

Khadevis Robinson is the top American at 800 meters and has won that event at the Modesto Relays the last five years. He said he was happy MJC replaced the track and had no reservations about the switch from polyurethane to latex.

"It's better that the track is softer for training, because workouts are intense and long," Robinson said. "If it's too hard, we have more injuries. And as far as the competitions are concerned, I don't think the track -- as long as it's good -- makes that much of a difference.

"It's probably a bigger deal if you're a sprinter, but I've never heard anyone say they weren't going to a meet because they didn't like the track."

The college

Except for the two days each year the track is closed for the Modesto Relays, it's in near-constant use. It's used as a classroom for MJC courses in addition to the pounding it takes from Pirates athletes. And when not in use by the college, it's the site of many high school events and the track of choice for many recreational runners.

"The Relays are important to us," MJC track and field coach Mary Shea said. "But we also are committed to open our track to the public, and if you get a new polyurethane track you can't do that or it will wear out in two or three years."

Shea said several of her athletes developed shin splints from training and running on the old surface, so her main concern was that the new surface be hard enough for competition but soft enough to facilitate training.

"We thought it was our job (as coaches) to make sure the hardness was there," Shea said. "We all want it fast. This is not Mondo, but it will serve us very well. We didn't want a track like the Olympic track in Atlanta that is so hard no one will train on it, so I think we made the best decision."

Nesmith's research included calls to schools that have installed Poly 4000 tracks. One was Butte College in Oroville, where the surface hasn't needed anything more than routine cleaning and maintenance in its six years.

"I found out Mondo isn't applicable for a community college application like ours," Nesmith said. "This surface fits well in that we could afford it and it's versatile.

"Could be there be a faster surface? Yes, but it wouldn't work for the public and it wouldn't work for us. They were in the same boat, price-wise, but in the end, we chose the most sustainable material. This is a really good thing for the college and the public."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at or 578-2300.