Great Cross Country Courses: Franklin Park

On a single day in 1992, fans got to see the two greatest runners of all time, Haile Gebreselassie and Paula Radcliffe, competing right here in the USA. The supporting cast was star-studded itself: Hicham El Guerrouj (six-time World/Olympic champion and umpteen-time world record holder), John Ngugi (Olympic 5k champion), William Sigei (10k world record holder), Ismail Kirui (2-time World 5k champion), Sonia O’Sullivan (World 5k champion), Gete Wami (World 10k champion), Gabi Szabo (4-time World/Olympic champion), and more. Such a collection of distance running talent has never been seen in one competition in this country save for the Olympic Games. The USA’s Lynn Jennings came away a victor.

This was for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, held in Boston’s historic Franklin Park. It was only the second time that the IAAF Worlds has been held in the western hemisphere (its predecessor, the International Cross Country Championships, never was). That it saw an edition of the meet nicknamed “the most difficult race in the world” automatically makes Franklin Park one of the all-time greats.

Out of the "Wilderness"

But it gets plenty of other use. Annual competitions include the USATF Northeast Championships and the wildly popular Mayor’s Cup races, plus dozens of high school and collegiate races. It traditionally alternated with Van Cortlandt Park as the host of the NCAA Northeast Regional championships, and it has hosted the USA Championships four times. “Everybody who was anybody” ran at Van Cortlandt, as Pat Porter put it, but the greatest of all time have run at Franklin Park.

Franklin Park is the largest park in Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” of interconnected parks, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s to offer the outdoor comforts of the country to city dwellers. According to the Franklin Park Coalition, races first began here in 1914.

In 1984, Franklin Park hosted the USA Cross Country Championships for the first time since 1950. From that event came the idea of hosting the Worlds–and the suggestion came from that notorious dreamer, Fred Lebow of the New York Road Runners Club.

John McGrath, former Publisher of New England Runner magazine,initiated Boston’s bid to host after he had directed the 1984 TAC National Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park. “We pulled out all the bells and whistles,” he said of the 1984 nationals, where Pat Porter won his third of eight consecutive U.S. cross country titles. “We had things like a finish line bridge, which was unusual for cross country at the time. The whole running community came out. The crowd was huge.” One member of that running community was Fred Lebow of the New York Road Runners, who had hosted World Cross at the Meadowlands earlier in the year. Lebow watched the Franklin Park race with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who was also a runner. McGrath said, “Fred’s first comment was, ‘You’ve got to bring the World Cross Country Championships here.’”

The story of how it all came to pass was told in New England Runner Magazine, and it might be a more fascinating tale than the races themselves. Follow the link, the seven pages are well worth your time.

Bear Cage Hill (gbtc.org)

Prior to hosting the Worlds, cross country races often looped around or across fairways on the park’s golf course, and sometimes ran along a lot of pavement. Today, the course starts and ends in the wide-open “playstead” area, and the race is generally comprised of three loops. They are the Stadium Loop, which goes around the park’s White Stadium; the Bear Cage Hill Loop, which goes up a decent-sized hill where the Franklin Park Zoo used to house its bears; and the Wilderness Loop, which goes into a wooded area before coming back into the open playstead.

Standard 8k setup (usatfne.org)


Much of this was made possible by hosting the 1992 IAAF Worlds. The City of Boston essentially created the current course by removing old roadways and putting in earth and turf, cutting paths into the woods and creating the Bear Den loop. Approximately $350,000 was spent.

But for the Worlds, the start area needed to be much wider and much longer before the first turn. It was backed up into the golf course, and a roadway was closed, pavement removed, and crushed gravel put down. The finish, of course, took place in the White Stadium, packed with spectators.

The Worlds were held on March 21, and of course it snowed. This didn’t stop the Kenyans, who won both men’s and women’s senior titles and the men’s junior title. Gebrselassie, Radcliffe, El Guerrouj and Szabo weren’t yet famous, as all four ran in the junior races, with only Radcliffe coming out a winner. The men’s senior race went to John Ngugi, the 1988 Olympic 5000 meter champion, giving him a then-record five World Cross Country titles.

Going into the women’s race, the USA’s Lynn Jennings was the two-time defending champion. How did it turn out? Just watch.

Construction in the park has halted racing for 2012, but it should be back next season–the 100th year since racing began at Franklin Field.

Over the weekend: we hit the best of the rest around the country.

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One Response to Great Cross Country Courses: Franklin Park

  1. pjm says:

    Lynn Jennings. What an animal. And how about Vicky Huber in 4th? Runner’s World ran three or four pages of photos from that meet. Imagine them doing that now, even on the web.

    I first ran at Franklin Park in fall ’92, and a lot of that renovation (notably the road crossings, where they rolled out swaths of astroturf recently removed from someone’s football stadium) was still in place. It’s not quite as nice now, but it’s still a great place to run cross country.