It takes 40 minutes on the number 1 train to travel uptown from Times Square to Van Cortlandt Park. The park sits at the end of the line, just over 10 miles north of midtown Manhattan, stretching out from the heart of the Bronx to the border with Yonkers. When you leave the train you can be under no delusion that you’ve escaped the city: this is the real New York, all noise and dirt and clashing humanity. Surprisingly perhaps, this humble oasis is widely regarded as one of America’s finest cross country courses – in fact, ask a New York runner and they’ll tell you it’s unquestionably THE finest.
For a hundred years Van Cortlandt Park has played host to some of the greatest cross country races ever witnessed on US soil and it’s this heritage that inspired us to credit the park when we named our race singlet and shorts. In September we travelled to the Iona Meet of Champions, an early season skirmish that attracts many of the big schools. Alongside pictures of that race, here we look back at some of the history of the park and what it’s meant to different people through the decades.
Legendary coach Frank Gagliano is currently Head Coach at the NJ★NY Track Club
“I started in 1960/61 and Van Cortlandt Park is to me and many others THE greatest cross country course because of the legends who have run there. It hasn’t changed, the courses are the same whether it’s 3 miles or 5 miles, whatever, but the terrain has changed. It’s very groomed now, very smooth – it’s faster now and the times have changed. It used to be much rougher, all the rocks sticking through. It’s still very tough though – the back loop, cemetery hill. It’s a great spectator course too, whether you’re jogging across as I used to do, or you’re standing on Broadway.
“Van Cortlandt Park has this tremendous tradition, especially in the east, really tremendous. I couldn’t even choose a favourite memory there are so many. It’s been so much fun watching the racing there, men and women – because we have some very good women in the east – whether it’s the National Championships, the NCAA’s or even the HEPS. It’s simply a tremendous venue.”
Pat Tyson is Director of Cross Country and Track & Field at Gonzaga University in Washington. An esteemed athlete himself, he was a roommate to Steve Prefontaine before he embarked on a successful coaching career. Over the course of two decades he turned Mead High School into a distance running powerhouse, and then, moving into college running, he coached at the Universities of Oregon and Kentucky before settling at Gonzaga.
“Pre loved Van Cortlandt! So much tradition! I’ve worked out there but I didn’t compete there – as a West Coast guy though, I think I have a very good perspective on what might be the most pre-eminent cross country courses on American soil. As long ago as 1969 my teammates competed in the NCAA Division 1 Collegiate Championships placing third. That was the first National Championship in which Steve competed. It was an epic battle between Pre, the two time NCAA Champion Gerry Lindgren of Washington State, and Michael Ryan of Air Force who had won the title in Van Cortlandt in 1968. Pre faded to third place, his only loss in an NCAA Championship. Fast forward to October 2011 and Oregon junior Edward Cheserek became the first high school kid to break 12:00 with his 11:55.4 performance. Running for St. Benedict’s Prep (Newark), Cheserek ran a time that would blast previous great high school competitors who have tested the 2.5 mile layout: Alan Webb by 23s; Alberto Salazar by 27s; Marty Liquori by 28s. All three have American Records, were Olympians, and continue to be icons in American Distance running. Cheserek is on track to win his third NCAA Title for the Ducks this coming November. Most runners would say that running in Van Cortlandt is a rite of passage and so much of the energy comes from Van Cortlandt itself. The sixth of Pat Porter’s USA XC Championships came at Van Cortlandt, so this is the place – it’s the Wrigley Park, Hayward Field or Bislett Stadium of distance running in America.”
In 1987 Pat Porter won his sixth consecutive National Cross Country title at Van Cortlandt Park. “The footing is difficult,” he told Sports Illustrated at the time. ‘‘There are rocks and roots and things sticking out. If you‘re not careful, you could bust an ankle real easy.” He told the New York Times: “‘I thought coming into the race that if someone was with me, I‘d take them at Cemetery Hill.” The plan worked and he crossed the line in 29:58, a course record. Thirty yards behind was second place. That man was James Farmer from the University of Carolina. In the finishing funnel Porter turned to him and asked: “Who are you?”
Porter trained out in Alamosa, a small town at 7500 feet in Colorado, away from the noise of the big city. “It’s out of the way, people don’t know what I’m doing here. It’s secluded – that’s one of the reasons I like it. And I enjoy working out with Coach Vigil.” It took till 1990 for Porter’s winning streak to come to an end. With eight titles to his name, and with the race back in the Bronx, he was the odds-on favourite. Bob Kempainen, however, had other ideas. ‘‘That‘s usually my strong point, the hills,” Porter told Sports Illustrated, ‘‘but I got to the top and I just didn‘t have it. I got buried on Cemetery.” And with that, Porter’s streak was over.
In 2012 he died in an air crash. His record breaking eight years of wins mean he’ll forever have a place in American cross country. Will anyone ever match that record?
“At New York Road Runners, we want to encourage people of all ages and abilities to be healthy, active, especially the youth of our City. With the support of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, we have been able to utilize spaces such as Van Cortlandt Park to give us the opportunity to put on youth running events that help kids. NYRR serves more than 200,000 kids, including more than 120,000 kids in New York’s five boroughs. We have seen a tremendous increase in youth participation in our cross country events over the last few years and have responded by adding additional free youth running programs. We developed the NYRR Youth Running Series, a three season program for kids during the school year with race distances varying between three-quarters of a mile to two miles. Within that series, we have our youth cross country races in the Bronx and Staten Island boroughs which give kids the opportunity to take part in a grassroots running event, experiencing the green spaces and running trails which are available to them in New York City.
“The beauty of cross country is the varying terrain and race distances that are available. Van Cortlandt Park has undergone considerable landscaping over recent years – we hope that any improvements give runners of every age and ability level the encouragement to take on new challenges and try out cross country.”
“My first race at Van Cortlandt Park was as a freshman at Yale. It was the Junior Varsity race of the Heps Championships and honestly, of the 100+ cross country races I‘ve run in my life it was one of my most memorable races. I got off the line pretty hard and slowly worked my way up to make sure I was near the front of the pack before it headed into the woods. I kept pushing through the back woods and was in 10th before Cemetery Hill. I came off the hill in 5th and ended up finishing 4th. It was a great way to cap off my first collegiate cross country season.
“For collegiate cross country runners in the northeast there really are just two courses that matter - Van Cortlandt Park and Franklin Park. Van Cortlandt has hosted the Heps Championships forever so the history of the course is instilled in you from the start. Everyone knows how fast people have run and which teams run well there and what strategies they use. In fact, Van Cortlandt always hosted the first cross country meet of the season, the Fordham Fiasco. For most freshman that is your introduction to both cross country and Van Cortlandt Park.
“As an athlete, traveling to New York City meant there was a sense of occasion to racing at Van Cortlandt Park. It was the peak of our cross country season. Tracksmith’s Van Cortlandt singlet and shorts were designed for race day, so when we were thinking about the name, we wanted to evoke that sense of occasion we associate with race days. We wanted to recreate that feeling: “I‘m wearing this to race, not to jog around the block”. Given my history with Van Cortlandt as a runner – which is shared by thousands of runners up and down the east coast – it felt like the perfect name for our debut race kit.”