Great Cross Country Courses: The West

When I first started looking into the nation’s great cross country courses, I thought it would be a short list, maybe ten deep. It turns out that I was very wrong. The number of courses that are beautiful, challenging, well-managed, and historic is virtually endless.

After this week’s individual attention to the true classics, I thought I’d take a look at the best of the rest. Since I’ve been to only a few of these courses, I’ve often taken the advice of others for nomination to the list. Today we go to the western part of the country.

If you think I’m missing something, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Southern California: Balboa Park

This course is little-used by collegians or pros, but it belongs on the list of the classics for one reason: for 26 of the last 33 years, it’s been the home of the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.

Balboa Park itself is a huge area and much-used community resource, with museums, theaters, the San Diego Zoo, a golf course, and much more. Set aside for public use in 1835, it’s one of the nation’s oldest parks and has been declared a National Historic Landmark. The cross country championships are in one small part of the park, known as Morley Field.

As you can see from the course map, it’s more or less two laps of a 1.5-mile loop. The left-hand side is basically flat, but the right-hand side includes some decent hills. Here’s a course preview made a few years back for Flotrack’s coverage of the meet:

The Foot Locker website has some history on the best times ever run at the championships.

Northern California: Crystal Springs

Nominated by Albert Caruana,

Albert told me that “here in the bay area, the best xc course by far with the most history is the Crystal Springs course” in Belmont, and that it has been in use since 1971. The course is a single loop, dry, open, and has some pretty tough hills. Besides heavy use by high schoolers, it was the site of the 1974 AAU Championships (landing it on the cover of the January ’75 Runner’s World) and the very first Foot Locker West Regional in 1979.

The course has a Hall of Fame and a page with all kinds of other info on the course, plus a 176-page e-book on its history.

Pacific Northwest: Lower Woodland Park

Nominated by Paul Merca,

Especially in the fall, the Pacific Northwest appears perfectly suited for cross country: cool, damp, hilly and green. But neither of the two leading collegiate powers, Oregon and Washington, have a course they call home. The classic course in the area, according to Merca, is at Seattle’s Lower Woodland Park, getting heavy use by high schoolers, age-group competition, and open runners, and acting as the home course for Seattle University.

The course most often used for collegiate and age-group competition is a “notoriously hilly” 2-kilometer loop. The 5k high school course is a bit different, or at least was when the Seattle Times described it some eighteen years ago:

“It usually takes a person two or three runs on Lower Woodland to get a feel of what they are doing,” [Sea-King District] Meet Director Charles Wandler said. “It’s hard to get accustomed to . . . there are so many things to account for.”

The race begins in an open field along Green Lake Way North. The runners travel into the park for most of the course and emerge on a paved road along 50th Northeast Street just before the finish.

It’s impossible to neglect the three hills that is Lower Woodland’s trademark.

The first hill, Soap Box Derby Hill is the shortest but must be traveled twice. The next major obstacle is Suicide Hill considered the most difficult climb of the course and Metro Hill, nearly a quarter-mile long signals the race’s end.

Another notable course in the Pacific Northwest is one at Fort Vancouver National Historic Park, which will host its third NAIA Championships this year, and also hosted the 2001, 2002 and 2005 USA Championships. The course is described as “a rolling, European-style layout consisting of 2 kilometer loops on grass” with “sections of flat, uphill and downhill grades”. It’s one of the few courses within a site administered by the National Park Service.

Mountains: Cascade Golf Center

Nominated by Joe Franklin, New Mexico head coach, and Rich Ceronie, UNM director of operations

This is just a golf course, so what’s so special about it? I think the photo at the right explains it all. The Cascade Golf Center hosts BYU’s annual Autumn Classic as well as a few Mountain West Conference championship meets. The Rocky Mountain region is hardly wanting for fantastic views, but Ceronie and Franklin say this is their favorite.

Western Canada: Jericho Beach Park

While this series was originally limited to the United States, I see no reason to exclude the Great White North. Jericho Beach Park is located on the waterfront in Vancouver, with stunning views of downtown and the mountains, and has hosted several Athletics Canada championships (and will continue to do so through 2014) besides the usual assortment of university, high school and age-group competition.

The view from the park

Cam Levins won his second national championships here, in true cross country weather: “crazy muddy”, “so slippery you felt like you were running on an ice rink”, “You didn’t know if your foot was going to land on solid ground or sink down into a foot of mud!”

Real cross country at last year's AthCan Championships

Monday: more of the best of the rest, this time in the heartland

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One Response to Great Cross Country Courses: The West

  1. Brian Goff says:

    This is a great list! At the risk of announcing my bias, I’d like to suggest Franklin Park in Yakima, WA. The course itself is challenging in terms of hills – laid out over 3-1/2 slightly-varying loops – and is host to the yearly Sunfair Invitational, one of the largest High School meets in the Northwest. It was also my home course, hence the bias. Here is the homepage for the meet:

    Thanks again for the series, I’m really enjoying it!