In 2007 Greg Lautenslager escorted two of his runners, Julian Matthews and Dominic Channon, from Nelson, New Zealand to San Francisco to compete in several meets in California. Lautenslager felt the experience would open their eyes to competition abroad and inspire them to great things in their career. Matthews competed well in the 1,500 metres at the Stanford Invitational and at the Arcadia Invitational mile. He earned a scholarship at Providence College and developed into one of the top milers in the world. He finished ninth in the Commonwealth Games 1,500, 16th at the World Championships, and was selected to represent New Zealand at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Channon used the California Tour to springboard himself to a world-class junior competitor. He finished third in the Arcadia Invitational 3,200m in 2007 and returned the next year, a week after competing in the World Junior Cross Country Championships, to place second in the 3,200m in 8:48. That year Channon set the New Zealand M18 3,000m record and broke 8:00 indoors his freshman year at Providence, ran a four-minute mile, and led his team to four successive NCAA cross country appearances.
The Tour resumed in 2011 with a group that included seven-time New Zealand discus champion Marshall Hall. What Hall learned from a coach he met at an obscure training site in Southern California he parlayed into a victory and personal best 53.77 at the California State Los Angeles Twilight Meet. On that same tour, Nelson native Matt Lambert ran a five-second personal best of 3:48.17 to place second at the Pomona-Pitzer Invitational.
In 2013 another Nelsonian, Dale Pritchard, joined the California Tour with the intention of it being the final competition of his career. Pritchard became so inspired by the mass amount of throwers in California and his own personal best performances that he went into his garage-turned-gym the day he arrived back from California and starting building for the next season. He has since re-written the Tasman record books in the shot put and discus and won New Zealand and Oceania Championship medals. That same tour produced spirited Rotorua sprinter Molly Florence, who proclaimed her goal as becoming the world’s fastest redhead. She certainly laid claim to the fastest redhead at the Mount Sac Relays, after taking out the high school girls 100m seeded section.
The tour in 2014 was a 'PB-arama' , not just with the size of the group, but with performances. Josh Browne of Christchurch started it with 12-second personal best in the mile at the West Coast Relays in Fresno. Jacob Matson of Timaru ran personal bests in the 100m at West Coast and the 200m at the Bryan Clay Invitational and placed third at Arcadia. Tapawera’s Chris Brake set his triple jump PB at Arcadia. Natasha Eady of Auckland cracked the Top-10 in the heptathlon at the prestigious Arcadia Multis. Even masters sprinter Rod Plimmer got into the act with a third-place finish at Mount Sac.
In 2015 Jemima Tennekoon of Christchurch became the first repeat Tour participant and led the most tightly-knit group in the Tour’s history. Excellent performances were achieved from Danica Davies of Dunedin and Max Attwell of Wanganui at the Arcadia Multis. Connor Davidson of Wellington produced a massive 1,500m PB at Bryan Clay. Young Auckland sprinter Delwyn Lewis showed her potential in San Jose and Pasadena.
The small group in 2016 exploded to a fast start when Oliver O’Leary of Wanganui led into the final stretch before settling for a personal best 1:58.86 at the Tiger Invitational in Pasadena. Harry Symes, Chris Dryden, and Hannah McCleod proved tenacious competitors in the Tour that stretched this year to San Diego.
Competition has been only one aspect of the tour. The groups have settled into routines surrounding training times at our base track, mainly Pomona College, in Los Angeles and excursions throughout the state. Past groups have toured scenic Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean, the heavily wooded and snow-banked roads of the Sequoia National Forest, the eerie waters surrounding Alcatraz Island, and the desert roads leading to Las Vegas. Annual trips to Disneyland and Hollywood continue to grow in popularity. The ocean always looms along the Tour, and in 2016 we discovered some magnificent beaches in San Diego and Laguna. Of course, there always has been the shopping...and more shopping.
The members have stayed in a variety of motels and have enjoyed some truly outstanding cuisine at local restaurants. The team manager has shared his love for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Schlotzky’s Sandwiches with his athletes. Then there are the professional sports. Staples Centre. Dodgers Stadium. Oracle Arena. LA Coliseum. Been there, saw it.
Perhaps the most memorable experiences have been the impromptu moments and camaraderie with new friends. Like the midnight mile challenge at a hidden dirt track in Chino, late night sprint races in a hotel parking lot, a snowball fight in the Sierra Nevadas, a 20km run down Sunset Boulevard, an impromptu tour and photo session at a high school track in Redwood City, and diving for tennis balls at a community pool in Irvine.
2017 saw the biggest group ever on the California Tour with 14 athletes in three groups over five weeks. The Tour started with PBs from Natalie Dryden, Andrea McDowell, and Jared Lautenslager at the San Francisco State Meet. Lautenslager went on to post PBs in all four of his races. Lautenslager, McDowell, Lexi Maples, Andrew Allan, and Nick Smith competed well in the high-powered Arcadia Invitational while the other athletes took part in Tiger Invite in Pasadena. The tour then welcomed masters competitor Vanessa Story and a strong group of Wanganui Collegiate runners and their legendary Coach Alec McNabb. Grace Godfrey achieved a personal best against a strong 400m collegiate field in the Triton Invitational in San Diego. The 2017 Tour was very energetic, hitting about every outlet mall in Los Angeles and venturing to Catalina Island, the San Diego Zoo, and the Santa Monica Pier and frequently dining at Taco Bell. The group enjoyed training at a high school track in Yorba Linda and enjoyed the camaraderie of the school’s athletes.
New experiences and faster and farther performances await the next group for the California Track & Field Tour.