The USA’s Great Cross Country Courses

Apologies for allowing this space to fall silent for a while, as other things took precedence for the last week or so.

One of those things is coaching a high school cross country team, and we have now entered the true cross country portion of the year. The leaves are turning and coming down, the weather is consistently cool, and the most important races of the year have begun.

While stadiums vary, most tracks are pretty much the same. There’s some variance in indoor facilities, but they still mostly fall within three or four different types. Not so with cross country; every course is different. Some are truly classic.

I thought I’d examine the best of those classic cross country courses across the country in a series of posts. I’m not presenting them in any particular order, nor is there much in the way of criteria for inclusion: they must be used with regularity and have hosted major competition.

The first of these courses is being used this weekend: the course at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California, hosting the 65th annual Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational.

Mt. SAC gets use by junior college teams, and little to none by open runners, but by far its heaviest use is by high school runners. The massive Mt. SAC Invitational might be the nation’s largest cross country meet, with 23,000 runners from more than 600 schools in 129 races. The best of these runners come back in November for the CIF’s Southern Section championships, and the best of those come back in December for the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships west regional.

The course dates from 1948, the year of the first Mt. SAC Invitational, a time when cross country in California was still in its infancy. The course has changed in many ways over the decades — it predates Hilmer Lodge Stadium by eleven years — but its 65-year history of continual use makes it the classic west-coast cross country course.

Most great cross country courses have names for different sections, and Mt. SAC is no different. Starting next to historic Hilmer Lodge Stadium, home of the Mt. SAC Relays, athletes run “The Valley Loop” twice, head up the “Switchbacks”, come back down by the start and head up “Poopout Hill” and “Reservoir Hill”, and then finally come back down and finish either next to the stadium (for the 4.71k course) or in the stadium on the track (for the 5k course).

If a course includes switchbacks, it’s got some elevation chance. You can tell this is Southern California, because there’s little grass for athletes to run on but plenty of hills. The switchbacks aren’t even the hardest part; “Poopout Hill” didn’t earn its name for nothing. The course has had only minor changes in the last three or four decades (although meet management takes great pains to explain that it has never been shortened). Originally, some parts had rocky and sandy footing that made fast running difficult, but over the decades these have been smoothed out and compacted in course “improvements”. I put that term in quotations because while safety is a good thing for high schoolers, this is cross country, which means that easier does not translate to better.

Mt. SAC has an entire page on its site dedicated to the course, and a series of videos about the course and how to attack it. For example, click for the clip about the famed Switchbacks.

Tomorrow: we go to the other side of the country for another classic course with history and character.

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2 Responses to The USA’s Great Cross Country Courses

  1. Pingback: Great Cross Country Courses: Van Cortlandt Park | The Track & Field Superfan Blog

  2. Steven Moore says:

    Any serious discussion of great cross-country courses should include the one in Augusta, Maine. Much of the run is through beautiful pine forest. You can get some flavor of that in the video here:

    ..but really better to see it for yourself.