History Lessons from Cross Country

I’m currently working on a project to compile results of past USA Cross Country Championships. Of course, the main source of data is back issues of Track and Field News; between my own collection and some scans sent to me by Garry Hill, I can get back to 1948. That much will be ready for publication by February, when the 2013 national championships will be held. Getting results of earlier editions will be a bit harder, but I’d like my compilation eventually to go all the way back to the first national championships in the 1880s.

In going back through all these results, I’m coming across some interesting things. Here are three that I’ve noticed.

Tom Derderian was right about when the running boom began.
Derderian is the coach of the Greater Boston Track Club and was recently elected president of USATF’s New England association. He also wrote the book on the Boston Marathon’s history.

He bucks the conventional wisdom on the origin of the running boom. That conventional wisdom is that it began with Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic marathon victory. Derderian says it began about a decade earlier than that, and points to Boston Marathon participation numbers. They had been more or less flat for forty years, but steadily began to rise in the early 60s.

You can see the exact same trend in participation numbers at the USA cross country championships. In the old days, the meet was an all-comers affair; any AAU member who paid the entry fee could run. Through the 1940s and 50s, the number of competitors was usually about fifty or sixty, never more than seventy, and many finished the 10k in well over 40 minutes. Looking at the results gives you the feeling that there couldn’t have been more than a few hundred post-collegiate distance runners in the entire country.

But in 1961, the participation numbers began to rise. It hit a record 108 finishers in ’61, and participation records were again broken in ’63, ’66, ’67, ’69, ’70 and ’71—all taking place prior to Shorter’s Olympic victory. This rate of increase basically mirrors the expansion of participation in the Boston Marathon at the same time.

Clearly, the running boom began around 1960 or ’61. It didn’t begin in the ’70s, it just took a decade of expansion before the media noticed. This also means it was not exclusively a baby-boomer phenomenon. Exactly why it happened is anyone’s guess, and the reasons were probably many and varied. But we can definitively say that competitive distance running as a mass-participation American sport has already had its fiftieth anniversary.

The winners are rarely the most interesting people.
It’s fascinating to see some of the names associated with the meet over the years. A lot of influential people were associated with it, but few champions had much influence beyond their public image (Frank Shorter being a notable exception).

Many of these back-in-the-pack runners became writers. Hal Higdon was a staple at this meet for a decade, and then wrote the story on the 1970 race for TFN. He is now the longest-running contributor to Runner’s World and penned the 70s classic On the Run From Dogs and People. Other great writers who ran in this meet include John Parker (Once A Runner) and Frank Murphy (A Cold Clear Day, The Last Protest, The Silence of Great Distance). Amby Burfoot ran several times and later became editor-in-chief at Runner’s World.

The name of one truly influential person popped up on a few by-lines instead of in the results: Bob Hersh. He’s now the IAAF’s first vice president, which makes him the highest-ranking American in the history of the organization.

Norbert Sander finished 44th in 1963, and now directs the Armory Track and Field Foundation. That same year, a U.S. Marine named Lawrence Rawson finished 34th; later he became an announcer who fought to get track and field on ESPN in the 1980s.

Lots of coaches ran in this meet. In 1964, a young Irishman living in New York named John McDonnell finished eighth in the championship meet held at Chicago’s Washington Park. While he never won the title, he coached eleven NCAA champion teams at Arkansas.

Some names are a little more esoteric, just good guys who shared their running knowledge. Names from the early days of Let’s Run include Orville Atkins, Bob Hodge (“Hodgie-San”) and George Malley (“malmo”). Some names are more famous because of their relatives: Charley Vigil (Joe’s son), Steve Flanagan (Shalane’s father), Matt Centrowitz (Matthew’s father).

Sometimes there are some famous great runners, but connected in a way you never would have imagined. Joan Benoit, the 1984 Olympic marathon champion, and Lynn Jennings, a three-time World Cross Country champion, were both on the same Liberty Athletic Club team as juniors. Neither ever won an age-group national title, by the way.

A foreign influence can be a good thing.
Back in the late 50s and early 60s, cross country in the USA was dominated by foreign runners (which goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same). Back then, the AAU Championships allowed foreigners to compete, and many times they won. The top college teams were full of Australians and Englishmen and Canadians. The University of Houston had a stretch in which they won both the NCAA and AAU titles with all-foreigner teams.

This didn’t turn out as badly for American runners as you might think. One of those Australians who ran for Houston was Pat Clohessy. He was never the star in cross country, with tenth being his best-ever finish at the USA championships. He learned a few things from Arthur Lydiard in his travels and passed some of that on to Billy Mills in the summer before his victory in the Olympic 10,000 meters—to date, the only one ever by an American.

Clohessy was in no way Mills’ coach, but his international knowledge helped him out. And remember my point #1 above: when Mills was still developing, in the late 50s, there were basically no long-distance runners in the USA, and thus few to learn from. Mills needed to learn from those same guys who were beating him, the foreigners.

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4 Responses to History Lessons from Cross Country

  1. pjm says:

    As recently as 2003 the USATF championship was still an all-comers affair, with anyone eligible to represent the USA at World Cross allowed to enter. This meant any senior athlete with a USATF membership, and a blue passport. Beyond that, any random schmuck with no fear of humiliation (e.g. myself) could line up and get schooled by the elites. I did so at least three times, maybe four, between 2000 and 2003.

  2. gh says:

    Growing up in the Pacific Northwest as I did, I always rejected the “conventional wisdom” about Shorter’s win being the starting point of the running boom. Those who were around at the time know that it all began with Gerry Lindgren’s win over the dastardly Russians in the ’64 dual meet 10K. That changed everything.

    And if you need further proof that things were well under way before Shorter came on the scene, you need only look to Bob Anderson’s being able to move to California and make Runner’s World a viable entity in 1969.

  3. rsb says:

    The Bannister/Landy epic race and the 4-minute mile in Vancouver in 1954 got a lot of we kids interested in the sport. Carrying on from that, as far as Canada was concerned, coaches in the Toronto area such as Paul Poce and Fred Foot started developing world-level runners – Bruce Kidd, Bill Crothers, Abby Hoffmann, Jerome Drayton through the 1960′s and into the 1970′s, that also kept distance running near the front pages in Canada.

  4. Bruce Kritzler says:

    Agree that Lydiard (and Bowerman) had a big influence on US runners in the 60′s, and may have initiated the running boom.