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.
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
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 at VCP in 1922
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, 1987, and probably numerous 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.
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”, the most dreaded of which is named “Cemetery Hill”, named only partly for its location next to a burial plot.
Cemetery Hill at the 2006 Heps Championships
After going through the back hills, typically the race comes off the bridge over the highway, downhill, and back into the flats for the finish. Various combinations of this basic setup can be made for longer distances, anywhere from 5k to 15k.
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.