Brian VanderBeek

New MJC track sees action

It's blue, has a nice cushion and will shred your skin like a cheese grater should you happen to fall on it.

The vast majority of the 250 or so people on hand for Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new track at Modesto Junior College weren't runners. And those who were runners don't plan to fall anytime soon.

All praised the new surface for the color, its newness and how good their legs felt after running on it. Some then bent over, felt the surface with their hands and proclaimed it something they wouldn't want to fall on.

But the most important thing that happened Monday was that the new track received the Barbara Elia seal of approval.

Elia is a weight-training and aerobics instructor at MJC and an active ultradistance runner. She puts in roughly 100 miles a week between the MJC track and the dirt trails at La Loma Park to stay in shape for the races she competes in each year in which the goal is to cover 100 miles in less than 30 hours.

She's a leader among community runners -- the group that stands to benefit the most from the new surface -- and is likely to put in as many miles on the track as anyone.

Yes, the MJC track is a classroom for the Yosemite Community College District, and yes, the money that paid for the track was from the state chancellor's office facilities maintenance fund. But, in turn, MJC recognizes its role in fostering fitness in the community and thus is determined to keep the track open to the public.

"It's great that MJC opens the track to the community," Elia said. "If you go to other places, you see that they lock the track and won't let you on it."

For the record, the first people to use the track "officially" were the students of MPEC-140a, the Exercise For Fitness class that serves as part of the fall workouts for the MJC track and field team. Until Monday, this class was forced to do sprint work on the grass field north of the stadium.

But under the eyes, watches and whistles of coaches Mary Shea and Demitrius Snaer, the class either broke in or was broken in during a grueling series of 10 timed 100-meter dashes during the 50-minute session.

"It feels nice, and it feels faster to me than the old track," said Mike Ferrell, a sophomore 200, 400 and relay runner from Fresno. "The old track was great to run on for meets but not so good to practice on everyday."

Nearby, Chad Cummings, an MJC freshman and Modesto High graduate, also gave his approval.

"It's like sleeping on a brand new bed," he said.

Like most other grand openings, there were no discouraging words and the sky wasn't cloudy all day.

Even ants showed up for the occasion, marching across the track in several places, in numbers large enough to outnumber all the relay teams scheduled to compete next spring.

"We won't know how good the track is until someone races on it, but it sure looks good right now," former MJC track coach Jack Albiani said.

The track will be busy. MJC is in its first year as a member of the Big Eight Conference and will act as host for the conference championship meet in late April, followed two weeks later by the Northern California Community College Championships.

Between those dates will be the 67th annual Coca-Cola Modesto Relays, an entity that was more than an interested spectator in the track's construction. It was the Relays that exposed the need for a new track -- MJC listened -- and it was the Relays that pushed for the installation of the fastest surface possible -- MJC didn't go that direction.

Despite that decision, Relays director Gregg Miller was on hand Monday and made it clear he was there to bestow the Relays' blessing.

"I've been in Europe, and everybody knows and is happy we have a new track," Miller said. "It's going to help the athletes' attendance next year because a lot of them who were on the fence about coming are going to be here. It's an Olympic year, and I'm excited that on May 3 we're going to break in this track."

As far as a world-class breaking in, Miller was right. That will be the job of the Relays.

But before Olympic hopefuls test their speed on the surface, the community will have its run of the place.

"I've only run a couple miles on it by now, but this is really nice," Elia said. "It has a nice cushion, and the blue color is very relaxing to the eyes."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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