Track Coach

TC226 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

The Evolution Of Progress

Years ago I was director for a race called The Bijou Mile. It was one of those straight-shot mile runs, when a road mile was a novel idea. The course had a gentle downhill, we ran the race at night and videotaped the finish. Remember, once upon a time video was a novel technology too.

The Bijou Mile was a midsummer tune-up for New York’s Empire State Games. We drew the top milers from as much as 300 miles away for a chance to charge down the gentle downhill chasing the possibility of a lifetime PR. Eventually, we became a qualifier for New York City’s 5th Avenue Mile. Our representatives always did well down in the Big Apple, especially our high schoolers and master runners.

When I was younger I did lots of road race management, over 150 races. Anyone who has been “in charge” can sympathize with the million and one details that swirl around your head as you strive to get everyone to the starting line on time. It seems even one’s problems have problems, not the least of which was traffic control.

At the Bijou Mile there were 12 road intersections. The three big ones were handled by the police with squad cars and flashing lights. The smaller streets were manned by a crew of 25 Saratoga Stryders with a red flag and a raised palm. A stray dog chasing the runners could make for a funny story; a stray car, not so much.

Over the last decade one of the solutions race directors have turned to to solve the traffic control problem is to adopt loop-type courses. With a loop course the runners pass a common start/finish point each mile or kilometer. Traffic marshals can serve their purpose several times as opposed to many marshals with a scant few moments of work. An added benefit is that the spectators get to see the progression of the race as it moves towards its conclusion. It also makes it more difficult for the Rosie Ruiz’s of the world to “participate” or at the very least easily validate their participation.

The centralization of race logistics makes sense on several levels. Aid stations, water stations and police support can all be reduced making events more profitable, safer for participants and enhancing the spectator experience. The loop method has been widely used all the way up to the Olympic Trials Marathon for both the men and women. More recently it has been adopted for fall cross country racing.

If one mentions cross country and you’re from the Eastern part of the United States Van Cortlandt Park eventually comes into the conversation. Virtually everyone who has run cross country has run at Van Cortlandt at one time or another. The all-time list for the high school 2.5 mile course is dotted with America’s legendary high school talent. The course starts out flat, disappears into the back hills, emerges with about 800m to go and finishes on a long, straight flat trail. For a spectator you literally (and only) get to see the runners going and coming.

The college 5-mile course offers slightly greater viewing with the comings and goings of the 3-mile split on the main trail. Despite the limited viewing opportunities tradition trumps repetition and VCP remains a standard and staple of many high school and collegiate programs in the East.

It seems the loop idea has taken hold of the collegiate cross country scene. With loops measured to the meter, the advent of real-time split timing, the drama of the early pacers and the late charging chasers plays out to an essentially stationary audience as the runners loop and loop and loop. The unfolding race drama and excitement is only enhanced by the digital scoreboards on courses that have routinely become flat and fast. Unless there is weather.

Imagine for a second a trench 25 feet wide and 5 miles long and full of mud. Not a muddy puddle here or there but a mud bog, all mud. That was the “course” for a league championship I attended this fall on a grass four-loop course. The men ran second and the women had chewed up the course, literally, in their three-loop 6km. Without exaggeration, there was more mud on this course than on a mud run.

Is this what cross country has become? Progress is always a compromise between the future and the past. It’s just that I have trouble justifying training all season for multiple conditions to be hit with something nobody trains for. The best people probably did what they were supposed to do but they didn’t do it very well. Maybe I’m getting jaded, longing for “the good old days” and all that but I’d still prefer to see the runners run rather than splash, slip and slide.