History runs deep in Lake Tahoe just like the still waters of Big Blue. While most know about the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, few realize that the oldest relay race in the United States is held in Lake Tahoe. On June 8, the DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay will be running its 55th edition, and just like in Squaw Valley, the race has Olympic roots, as well — but of the summer kind.
The race has been officially run since 1964, but it was in 1959 that the idea was born. Like many college students before them, a couple of runners from San Jose State University were visiting Lake Tahoe for the New Year’s festivities. Instead of partying the night away, a hairbrained scheme came to life: Hey, we should run around Lake Tahoe. Because the lake is more than 72 miles in length and 6,000-plus feet above sea level, the idea seemed crazy. After they had finished, they reflected back on their accomplishment and decided it was a run every runner should have a chance to do. Little did they know that their idea would spark a tradition lasting the test of time.
Over the next few years, the race was an informal one with only a few teams; then in 1964 everything changed. Four individuals from the Sierra Nevada Track Club of Reno ran the race and saw the potential of a great event. One of the runners was Skip, a friend of Robert E. DeCelle, the chairman of the Amateur Athletic Union’s (AAU) long-distance running committee.
It was around the same time that Mexico City won the bid to host the 1968 Summer Olympics at an elevation of 7,382 feet above sea level. To help prepare for such a high altitude, the U.S. Olympic Committee chose Echo Summit, 15 miles from South Lake Tahoe, as the training camp. At 28 feet higher than the venue in Mexico City, it was the perfect place in which to train. DeCelle saw the Lake Tahoe Relay as the perfect opportunity for potential Olympians to run and train at altitude with a bit of fun mixed in. To encourage them, he sanctioned the relay through the AAU. The record for the race that stands today is 6 hours, 16 minutes and 28 seconds, which was set by six Olympians from Columbia.
Three years later in 1971, tragedy struck. Robert’s son, Capt. Robert E. DeCelle Jr., was killed in action in Vietnam while drawing enemy fire away from troops on the ground. The younger Robert had been a good high-school and junior-college runner and ran the relay before serving in Vietnam. Peter Matti, who succeeded the elder Robert at the AAU, requested the name of the relay be changed to the DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay in their son’s honor. To this day, the race’s name still stands in memory of the younger Robert and all veterans who have helped protect the nation.
The stories about this race are a like quilt; an amazing patchwork of teams and families continue to participate. A great example of this is the McFarland High School cross-country running team, portrayed in the Disney film “McFarland, USA.” Back in the 1990s, a gentleman by the name of White realized that his students were incredibly strong runners. With his guidance, the team went onto win not one state title but 11. This gave its members an opportunity to escape poverty and be the first in their families to go to college or into military careers. This celebrated team from McFarland High School has been coming to the event since the 1990s to help train and build camaraderie.
The DeCelle family helped make sure the event continued until two years ago when April DeCelle retired. A new family, the Sweeney’s, have taken the reins to keep the legacy alive. The race consists of teams of up to seven runners, each running 8 to 12 miles around Lake Tahoe. Instead of a heated competition against potential Olympians, it’s transformed into a reunion of friends and family with a relaxed party atmosphere. So, when you’re out and about on June 8 and see runners racing around the lake, be sure to give them space and cheer them on. | laketahoerelay.com