I went to Syracuse University, a basketball school that also played football and has a pretty decent journalism school. When those seasons inevitably ended without satisfaction, we turned our attention to the one sport we dominated– lacrosse. As far as I knew then, those were the only sports offered at Syracuse.
Apparently, I was wrong. So wrong, I didn’t even know my alma mater had won a national championship in another sport until I found the news on Runnersworld.com while searching for my own feature article on the very same sport: cross country. (Here’s my article, by the way. It’s called Cross Country Romance and it’s about my deep abiding love for the sport, which I rediscovered by running my first race since before I even enrolled at Syracuse 35 years ago!).
So my congratulations are slightly belated, but very much in order to coach Chris Fox and the Orange for topping #1 ranked Colorado, the legendary program immortalized in one of running’s great books, Running With the Buffaloes. I have that book within arm’s reach as I write this and am thrilled to know that the Boys of Syracuse could go head-to-head with Coach Wetmore’s squad and win one for homegrown New York state runners like me.
Here’s the Runners Times article on the historic victory, Syracuse’s first XC national championship in 64 years.
This year, I am among the favorites in my race, which is for men 40+. And by favorite, I mean favorite to finish last. Seriously. I’m not exaggerating. At last year’s Club Nats, in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA, I came in 513 out of 598, and of of the 85 guys I finished ahead of, only 17 were under 60. Runners over 60+ will be in a separate race this year, so if my fellow back-of-the-packer 50somethings don’t make the long trip across country to this race, I may be the 2015 Club Nats Mr. Irrelevant.
So why in the world would I plunk down $1,000 for a plane and hotel room to run somewhere around 50 minutes for the privilege of finishing last in a race?
Here’s why. Click on the link below to see my article in the September 2015 edition of Runners’ World. Hint: the article is called Cross Country Romance.
Yesterday was a perfect day for running the Philadelphia Marathon and a pretty darn good day for watching it, too. I spent the day chasing and pacing a couple friends who were running and had an especially fun time out on Kelly Drive with the signs that spectators made to cheer the runners and poke fun at the absurdity of running a marathon. Here’s a dozen and a deuce that caught my eye. (With apologies, please note I’m taking my Iphone this week for repair as part of the iSight Camera Replacement Program. Crisper photos to follow immediately thereafter).
UPDATED. Complete report now available! NASA claims these unaltered images, transmitted from the surface of Mars by the rover Curiosity, are ordinary rock formations. CNN theorized that the internet had lost its mind. But a closer examination has revealed another story. Judge for yourself these 11 Signs There is Running On Mars.
Despite mounting evidence, NASA refuses to confirm signs of running on Mars. NASA’s official positions is that the images transmitted from the surface of Mars by the rover Curiosity are nothing more than ordinary rock formations. But a closer examination of these photos by our research team has revealed quite another story. Judge for yourself these 11 Signs There is Running On Mars. More signs to follow shortly, pending NASA security clearance.
It’s not the trail. It’s not the road. Cross country racing is the middle way. Something else entirely. And it’s good.
I ran the 2014 USATF Cross Country Club National Championships at Lehigh University in December and made it a point to talk to as many runners as I could to try and find out why they were running a cross country race.
You can see from this picture why I ran: the snazzy uniform from my team, Lehigh Valley Road Runners, not to mention the excuse to buy bright orange spikes.
The runners I met at the meet were veterans of trail and road running who find cross country as either a safer alternative than rugged trail runs or as a refreshing break from the pounding of the road.
“There is a fear of the unknown. Of the unpredictability of cross country,” said a female elementary school teacher and member of Colonial Road Runners in Williamsburg, VA. “But I’ve been on trail runs and those are harder. I trip all the time on trail runs. This was all groomed and easier to run on,” said.
“Trail runs have more hazards and are more technical than cross country. Do I want to twist my ankle on a trail?” I hear from a member of the Atlanta Track Club. “At road races people are just running for faster times.”
“But this cross country race was different,” she explains. “I was going back and forth with a woman as we ran. And finally she just yelled over to me ‘Go get it,’ and we both took off. We were really going at it, but it was supportive. It was total fun. “
I also heard from Sasha Blum, a top 10 masters finisher (2013 Club Nats in Bend, OR) who found that same kind of competitive spirit, as well as blessed relief from the roads. Lord knows she needs it. When I heard her speak at a roundtable the night before the race, she was introduced as a mother of five under the age of 8.
“Cross country is much easier on my body than road racing is,” she said to the group. Yet, there’s nothing easy about the races. It was at cross meets where she found the racing atmosphere she craved. “I love training with other runners on my team, and the pure competition of the race. There’s nothing else like it.”
So now is the time for you to try a cross country race– and here are three options to getting signed up.
Pick up September 2015 issue of Runners World. In it, you’ll find a nationwide list of races that are coming up. You will also find my feature article “Cross Country Romance,” about my experience running the 2014 USATF National Club Cross Country Championships.
CLICK HERE for a list of events (primarily in the Northeast) pulled together by Essex Running. This also includes ultra and trail runs, so look closely at the race descriptions. Also, this fall’s race dates have not been put on the site yet, so you’ll have to pull up last year’s race info and dig around a little to find this year’s information. But come on, a little digging for dirt can yield gold.
USA Track and Field hosts the biggest “grown-up” cross country meet of the year. This year, Club Nats is being held in San Francisco on December 12. For details on the race and to register CLICK HERE.
One story stands out when I recall my weekend at the 2014 USATF Cross Country Club National Championships (See Runner’s World, September 2015 issue for my feature article on the race, my first cross country race since high school). The story was less about running, and more about rewriting the personal stories that can haunt us.
I met Rich, a CPA who runs for a club in South Jersey, at the rowdy, drunken after-party that the local hosts of the USATF event generously threw to celebrate the run and announce the awards. Booty was slapped, pots were stirred and kegs were killed in the making of this party.
But when I approached him, Rich was looking very content to be standing off by himself, sipping a drink and taking it all in. It turns out that, like me, Club Nats was Wright’s first cross country race as a “grown up”. His last race was during senior year of college at Glassboro State, where he had left the sport heavy with disappointment.
“Oh, did you have a bad race?,” I asked, thinking may have been his own kind of Mulligan Mile.
“No. I had a great race. A fantastic race. Best I had ever run,” he said to my surprise.
Rich recalled how proud he was of the race he had run at regionals at Kutztown University, roughly a marathon’s distance from the Lehigh course where we had run on this day. Even better, so did three of his teammates. In a track relay, that’s enough.
But not in cross country.
“The fifth guy,” he smiled wistfully. “It just wasn’t his day. It was terrible. We didn’t make it. I was crushed. I literally took off my spikes that day and hung them up on a hook. Never ran another cross country race.”
But with this year’s race so close to home, Rich knew what he had to do. He actually dug out his old college jersey, and slid it under his running club’s team shirt and set out to run that bad race right out of his memory. What’s more, he was in touch with several of his college teammates, who did the same thing, representing other running clubs. Under their respective jerseys beat the true hearts of cross country runners.
“We were all so pumped up about finally doing another race. It was fantastic. “I loved everything about it. Every little bit of it,” he says of the race. “The spikes, the start. The uniform. Everything.”
Look for the September issue on newsstands now and arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes. An online version of the article will be available in a few weeks, so subscribe to TakingMulligans.com and you will be notified when this occurs.
This year, the Club Nats event is being held in San Francisco on December 12. For details on the race and to register, click here.
My upcoming article in Runners World will tell you what it was like to run in the 2014 USATF Club National Championships, my first cross country race in 35 years. But let me give you an advance hint.
The best part of running cross country isn’t the race itself—I mean there is only so much fun you can have when you are anxious, pushed to your physical limits and fighting for your dignity against fanatical men in spikes.
Let’s put it this way—no one is wearing a Turkey costume or carrying a POW-MIA flag in this race just to be seen. They have traveled a great distance for one reason: to beat you. To leave you muddy, tamed and irrelevant. To make your team sorry they brought you in the minivan.
Yet despite this dog-eat-dog mentality (or because of it?) running cross country is maybe the most alive you will ever feel as a competitive distance runner.
If you thrive on that kind of competition—and miss racing that close to the edge of insanity—then get yourself signed up immediately. This year’s Club Nats race is in San Francisco on December 12. Click here for information on the race and registration. Runners will be crushing each other like grapes on an I Love Lucy vineyard episode.
For me, the best part of cross country was the simple beauty I found in training that got me out of my rut and into the woods. I loved how the sport bonded me to a group of like-minded, hardy souls who were willing to unquestionably band together and suffer the consequences of that association for better or worse; for uphill and down; for grass or gravel. And I got a uniform.
As a guy who played on team sports from his early Pop Warner football days, running has often felt like an outsider activity. Something I did to escape, to build my own strength and endurance, to test my own will. Races were mostly just interesting ways to measure my progress, banter with my buddies and appraise the latest in tight-fitting fashion wear.
Not since my high school, cross country and track teams had anyone given me a team uniform with the expectation that I would do something important while wearing it.
And it’s not just me.
The shared love of team drives the sport at every level, including a boys and girls high school team from Orchard Park, N.Y that I met last fall. At the time, we were in the same New Your City subway car after I watched my old high school team, Notre Dame High School (Batavia, NY) compete in the Manhattan College Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park, the capital of American cross country racing.
“How are the cross country guys different than the football guys?”, I had addressed to the girls on the team, as I pondered what girls in my class may have thought of me back then. Laughs all the way around. A few whispers and giggles into each others’ ears. No one wanted to speak up. Except the boys, of course. “We’re smarter!”, exclaimed one boy.
“Smaller arms,” I heard from a girl behind me. More laughs all the way around.
There was apparent unanimous agreement that they preferred cross country to track. “It’s not just going in circles like in track,” said one of the more logical boys. “We have parties together with the girls every week,” said a wiser one, with noticeably greater enthusiasm. “You can’t not love cross country!” he added. His English teacher may have not approved, but he had found his tribe early in life and was loving it.
You think this is just a kid’s game? You couldn’t be more wrong. Masters runners, including athletes who have already tasted running’s greatest rewards, are lifted by the spirit of a cross country team. “It was the best team experience of my life,” said Amby Burfoot, who was a member of the Wesleyan University track and cross country teams when he won the Boston Marathon in 1968 (and famously, at least in the legend that I heard during my daughter’s campus tour at Wesleyan a few years ago, attended class the next day).
But the team that Amby thinks about as his greatest experience wasn’t at Wesleyan. And that was no ordinary team– it included future fellow Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers and Jeff Galloway, one of the most famous running authors and icons of the running boom. For Amby, his dream team came than 40 years later than that.
“It was an over-60 cross country team that I ran Club Nats with a couple years ago. We were all cut from same cloth. Brothers competing as one in big national meets,” he explains. “Add to that, knowing we have all shared running for so long in our lives. How much running meant to us. And at that age, at least one person is always hurt. Everyone trying to help each other. Being there for each other. You overcome so much and it is a very powerful team experience.”
To read more about the love of cross country running at any age, get your copy of Runners World on August 4 when it hits newsstands across America. The online version will be available several weeks later through a link here at TakingMulligans.com
Early on in my training for last year’s USATF Cross Country Club National Championships, I began to realize something was different about the sport. But I couldn’t quite articulate what it was.
The event was held in my adopted hometown of Bethlehem, PA on the campus of Lehigh University in December. To help prepare for the race and to better understand what goes into the training of a collegiate cross country runner, women’s track and cross country coach Deb Utesch, invited me to a tag-along for a practice run on the Lehigh course.
Now this is not just your typical cross country course. The course, at the Goodman campus looking out on South Mountain, holds a unique place in American running lore. It was the site of the 1979 NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships, thought by many to be the greatest field in collegiate cross country history– – and quite possibly the most historic national sporting event ever held in the Lehigh Valley.
In the race that day was a field of runners that had already set or would go on to break the half-marathon world record (Michael Musyoki), the course record for the Fifth Avenue mile, which is unbroken to this day, (Sydney Maree), and the American records in the 10,000m (Mark Nenow), 3,000m (Rudy Chapa) and 2,000m (Jim Spivey).
And those guys weren’t even close to winning.
That’s because the field included the defending NCAA champ Alberto Salazar, who would go on to set the world marathon record not long after this day at Lehigh, his final college cross country race.
And Salazar, who came in second, wasn’t even close to winning.
The title went to the indomitable Henry Rono, who wasn’t just the best American college runner of 1979, but singularly, the world’s top distance runner of his day.
How good? He arrived at Lehigh with four different world records that he had broken in an unparalleled span of 81 days. He beat Salazar by a full 8 seconds.
Ed Bosch recounts the race in this excellent blog post from MileSplit.
The Lehigh women’s team I ran with didn’t concern themselves with all that history. They were more intent on the present moment: preparing for the Patriot League Championships, which were less than a week away.
They generously took turns slowing down and running with me for a stretch, sharing their thoughts about their running careers and what cross country meant to them. These women were dedicated and hearty. Real runners, committed to their training and tougher than I was or ever would be.
What made cross country so compelling to them?
“It’s so raw,” said one team member as we previewed the Club Nats course, the same one that they run their meets on. “It’s not about hitting a time. It’s just, ‘get out there and go’.”
I heard this over and over—how pure the sport was and how it was running reduced to its most natural and competitive. These women were a new of generation runner, but with an old school mindset.
Yet when I asked what was the #1 reason they liked cross country so much, it wasn’t the challenge of the course that I heard about most. It was each other.
“It’s a real team, not like the track team where everyone kind of does their own thing and then they add up the points at the end. “We all are in it together. We do the same thing, run the same distance.”
It’s that team experience that bonds them to the sport and keeps them committed to each other. “I have sciatica, but that’s not the kind of thing that would stop me. It’ll hurt but I can get through it.” Every single team member I spoke to told me of some kind of injury or painful condition that comes and goes.
“The toughest girls I’ve ever met,” explains one team member. No one wants to let her teammates down by giving up.
As we come back to the starting point and I catch my breath, I am glad that it is they who are doing the talking and me the listening. It is here that the toughness I witnessed in them gives way to something else. The team pulls together for a group hug and cheer before departing. For some, their next race will be their last home meet of their college careers.
It was then that it hit me what made these runners (and with them, the sport) different than the good people I run with at 10Ks and half-marathons.
“I’m gonna miss my team,” I hear rise from their huggy huddle, along with a chorus of giggles. “I wuv you guys!”.
Seeing these stone cold, rock hard athletes melt like they were again little girls at a sleepover, it was clear why runners like these women endure the pain and cruelty of the sport while their college classmates are off partying and studying and partying. It’s not about the money (fewer than half were on athletic scholarships) or the fame (this isn’t beach volleyball). It’s not even about feeling good (every team member I talk to described some kind of injury or medical condition they had to overcome to keep running).
It’s about wuv.
My experience at the Club Nats meet, as well as an in-depth look at why the love of cross country races isn’t just for high school and college kids, will be published by Runners World in the upcoming September issue.
At the end of last year, I ran my first cross country in 35 years, the USA Track and Field Cross Country Club National Championships held in Bethlehem, PA.
I covered the race for Runners World and got to meet an incredible variety of inspiring runners, from the elite to the everyday, that came to the Lehigh University campus to participate in the event.
Over the next few weeks, in anticipation of the article being published in the September 2015 issue, I want to introduce you to my own little “cross country club,” some of the runners whose story didn’t make it into the Runners’ World article.
They are probably not unlike the nameless, numbered people that line up next to you in any race you will run this summer or fall. Keep this in mind as you wait in the crowd behind your next starting line with awkward anticipation, just wanting everyone to get out of your way: every runner has a story.
I have to start with Heather Hawthorne, a fellow member of the Lehigh Valley Road Runners, our local running group that both helped host the event and sponsored men’s and women’s teams in the races.
Heather ran the race, not for glory or ego but to simply recapture a little piece of herself that got put on the shelf during adolescence.
As an eighth grader, she was recruited to join the high school team.
“I was really excited to sign up, but my mom had other ideas,” shares Hawthorne. “She was a single mom and wanted her only daughter to be a ‘girly girl’, and running cross country wasn’t very girly.”
So though she’s run 3 marathons and the women’s open race is only a 6K, she’s a nervous bundle of energy when I talk to her the night before. Long held dreams that are about to come true have a way of doing that. “This is my chance to finally do it. I’ve waited so long to run this race,” she says. “To be that girl again.”
And she was. Heather survived the women’s open race. She did not come in last, which was one of her outcome goals, but let’s just stay Heather never threatened Laura Thweatt, who won the race for the second year in a row, in 19:14.41.
But competing at the front of the pack was hardly the point. Heather won plenty that day.
“Running Club Nats helped me let go of something I wish I had been able to let go of when I was younger, but couldn’t,” she said. “And it showed me how important it is to be patient, have faith, and pay attention. Sometimes missed opportunities have a way of manifesting again later on in life, as this did for me,” she said.
And Heather just keeps going.
On August 2, two days before my article about the Club Nats race will be published in the September issue of Runners World, Heather will be putting her toes in the water of her next “personal project” as she has come to call her athletic challenges.
She will be competing in her first triathalon, the Jersey Girl on August 2, in Long Branch, NJ. Heather’s race may be even more daunting, for a number of emotional and physical reasons. But I’ll let Heather tell that story herself another day.
What’s exciting to know is that a running race like Club Nats can not only provide a unique racing experience and invigorating physical achievement, but can also be part of a healthy psychological approach to personal growth and fulfillment.
What kind of emotional challenges has running helped you face?