Great Cross Country Courses: Van Cortlandt Park

This is the second in a series of posts about the USA’s great cross country courses. Yesterday the series began with a look at the Mt. SAC course in Walnut, California. The below has been edited since it was first posted to correct an error and add information.

Van Cortlandt Park became a New York City park in 1888, when the namesake family sold the land to the city. It’s the fourth-largest park in the Big Apple, even larger than Central Park, and contains the city’s largest freshwater lake. Fans of the cult movie The Warriors recognize it as the site of the gang summit at the film’s opening.

The 1968 NCAA Championships (trackandfieldnews.com)

It’s impossible to really know for sure, but it’s likely that more people have run a cross country race at Van Cortlandt Park than at any other venue in the USA or even the world. First opened in 1913, the park’s cross country course is in heavy use throughout the fall by high schools and colleges and plenty of other competitors, both younger and older. It may be the only cross country course featured in Sports Illustrated, and it even has its own hall of fame. For a season, Nike even opened up a “VCXC House” right across the street from the park.

Former USATF CEO Craig Masback called running at Van Cortlandt “a rite of passage”. Cross country legend Pat Porter won the sixth of his eight USA titles at VCP and said “anybody who’s anybody has run here”. Marty Liquori said, “the excitement of going to Van Cortlandt, I don’t know if there is anything else to equal that”. Noted running journalist Marc Bloom recently wrote a loving celebration of the course’s 100th year of racing for the New York Times.

Runners in 1922 (vcpark.org)

The IC4A championships and Foot Locker northeast regionals are held here every year, and other big meets Van Cortlandt has hosted include the NCAA Championships (1968 and 1969) and USA Championships (2006 plus at least six other times). But it’s more than just that. The Manhattan College Invitational brings in 12,000 high school runners every year. It’s the home course for Fordham, Iona, NYU and Manhattan. It hosts a five-meet series of New York Road Runners races (the last of which, a 15k, is considered the NYRR’s most difficult race).

There are several different courses at VCP. Like Mt. SAC, Van Cortlandt plays by its own rules for high schoolers and runs an odd distance for most meets, 4 km in this case.

Behind the start line lies the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest building in the Bronx. (nycparks.gov)

High School course

The start is typically at the “Parade Ground” (aka “The Flats”), a flat and open area whose first inhabitants were the Wiechquaeskeck tribe of the Lenape nation. From there, the course typically heads into a wooded area via the “cow path” (aka “the chute”).

The park was bisected by highways built mid-century, and a bridge was built specifically for cross country to join them together. Leading to that bridge is the short, sharp “freshman hill”. Once across the bridge, the runners negotiate the “back hills” before returning across the bridge. Longer races–typically 8k or more–then run the dreaded “Cemetery Hill”, named only partly for its location next to a burial plot.

Cemetery Hill at the 2006 Heps Championships

Whether coming straight off the bridge or negotiating Cemetery Hill, the finish is always back in the flats. Various combinations of this basic setup can be made for distances ranging anywhere from 4k to 15k.

As with Mt. SAC, course “improvements” over the years have made the footing smoother and faster–and, this being cross country, easier and better are terms that are fundamentally at odds with each other. An e-mail from a contributor:

There is some ambivalence toward the record for the historic 5 mile course (23:51), set by Dave Merrick in 1976 and tied by Eric Carter in the early 1980′s. In 1996 the course was, to put it mildly, smoothed out quite a bit during a renovation and then shortened to 8000 meters which is about 50 yards of running. When Martin Fagan ran 23:48, it was technically a record but on the new smoothed out shortened course. When Fagan didn’t run very well at NCAA’s, this set off a letsrun thread on how the record is weak and all the VCP haters came out.

Comparing Van Cortlandt Park to Mt. SAC is like comparing the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies. One is dry, open, and the hills are more challenging. This one is greener and lower, with unpredictable weather, and you get a sense that this place is very, very old. To run at Van Cortlandt is to be part of that history.

Tomorrow we go to the Midwest, for possibly the most spectator-friendly course in the nation.

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