NCAA Cross Country Running: The Rain, The Park & Other Things

Runner crosses finish line at NCAA West Region Cross Country Championships

In 1959, British writer Alan Sillitoe published a short story entitled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It was made into a movie in 1962, and ultimately received enough acclaim to land it on the British Film Institute’s list of the greatest British films of the 20th century.

I never read the story nor saw the movie. In fact the only thing I’ve ever known about the plot line is that it revolved around cross country running. And that one small nugget of knowledge has always framed my perception of the sport. Cross country = lonely.

Hey, I never said it was a rational perception.

Intrepid Fans at Springfield Country Club

With that thought lurking in the back of my mind, I recently rose very early on a Saturday morning and embarked on a drive from Portland to Springfield, Oregon. In the pitch dark. In a steady rain. With a temperature hovering somewhere in the low 40’s. So was it any wonder that I expected to be one of…oh, maybe a dozen fans on hand to witness the NCAA’s West Regional Cross Country Championships?

I was prepared to experience the Loneliness of the Long Distance Watcher.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived at Springfield Country Club and was redirected to a separate Spectator Parking lot at a local elementary school. And then my shock when I pulled into that lot and saw a line of people queuing up to board a luxurious shuttle bus. And then my absolute disbelief when I was dropped off at the Club and found hundreds of people already present for an event not scheduled to begin for almost an hour.

Lonely? I was beginning to feel downright crowded. And confused. Why in the world would so many people show up on a cold and misty morning at a venue that, if it wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere it certainly shared the same ZIP Code.

The answer…because this is Oregon, and if anybody is running anywhere in the Web-Foot State, there will most certainly be people on hand to watch. If you happen to find yourself somewhere in Oregon and running to catch a bus, it’s more than likely that a small crowd will gather to cheer you on.

I had been fully briefed by the RV Goddess, the world’s foremost ambassador of all things running and Oregonian, but even then I wasn’t prepared for the beautiful build-out and pristine environment for what has to be one of the lowest profile sports in the NCAA lineup. Yes, this is the land of Nike and Prefontaine, but still…

As I navigated my way down the 18th fairway toward the event’s hub in the center of the course’s back nine, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another event that brought me deep into the countryside early on a misty morning and charmed me equally as well – the whitewater slalom nationals. If nothing else, the IGTS Tour has shown me in no uncertain terms that if an event is not shown on TV, it’s much more likely to be worth the effort to see it live.

Once I arrived at the Start/Finish complex, it occurred to me that, from the runner’s perspective, it would’ve been impossible to carve out a small moment of privacy, let alone loneliness. I learned that the male competitors would be sharing the course with 178 close associates, while the ladies would start their race elbow to elbow with 221 others. Add to that over 1,000 highly-engaged spectators, and you had an atmosphere that was about as supportive and inclusive as could be imagined for a solitary pursuit.

As if I needed another reason to be transfixed by the spectacle, I was captivated by the colors. Against the emerald green background of the golf course was a bright kaleidoscope of the tints and hues of each team’s warm-up suits and knapsacks. With 31 women’s and 25 men’s teams competing, all of the colors of the rainbow were well-represented. Call me easily amused, but I get a kick out of stuff like that.

       

UC Santa Barbara had by far the best student cheering section, sporting “outfits” that would qualify as outrageous even for a football or basketball game. There were others, albeit somewhat less dramatic in dress, more than willing to demonstrate that school spirit extends beyond the reach of a television camera and out to a golf course located miles from any campus. On a Saturday morning in November. In the rain.

    

The rules were straightforward. Each team could send up to seven runners onto the course, with the top five performances counting toward the team’s score. Runners brought home to their team the number of points equivalent to their finishing order. In other words, the winner of the race scored one point for their team, the runner-up two points, and so on throughout the field. In the final tally, the team with the fewest number of points would win the meet. The first and second place teams gained automatic entry into the NCAA National Championships and the next two or three put themselves in the mix for an at-large bid.

The women went first, touring a 6,000 meter course (3.73 miles) that consisted of two and a half loops around a carefully laid out route that traversed mostly fairways. As I watched them leave the starting line it struck me that there are fewer things more basic to athleticism than running. And running when well done is beautiful in its grace and form, particularly when exhibited by women, who – this may come as a shock to you – have a huge head start on men in the grace department anyway.

For their part, the guys ran much the same course, but added two loops to make it a 10,000 meter (6.2 miles) race.

If the men and women competitors ran 10,000 and 6,000 meters respectively, the fans probably logged a couple thousand meters themselves, dashing back and forth across the interior of the course in order to see the field go by multiple times in each lap. That had to have created for the athletes the feeling that the crowd was two or three times its already impressive size. There’s just no way they weren’t inspired by that.

And as for those that were running back and forth, their faces bore the exuberance and glee that you normally see in little kids on the playground. They were having a ball running as fast as they could to see others running as fast as they could.

It all went by way too quickly.

Jordan Hasey (far left) On The Way To Her Winning Performance

Sophomore Jordan Hasay of the University of Oregon added to her growing legend by winning the women’s race, with a time of 20:01.90 – followed eight seconds later by teammate Alex Kosinski. Deborah Maier of California sandwiched herself in between the two Ducks, crossing the finish line in 20:06.81. Despite taking the individual gold and bronze though, Oregon fell short of the University of Washington, who sent five Huskies across the line in 21st place or better. Stanford and Arizona took 3rd and 4th place and earned their way into the Big Run as at-large teams.

Runners Make The Turn Into The Finish Chute

Shortly thereafter, the guys came thundering down the 16th fairway to start their race, and when it was all over some 37 minutes later, the men Ducks had one-upped their sisters in spikes, slipping past Stanford by a score of 63 to 65. The University of Portland’s Trevor Dunbar took individual honors, outsprinting Stephen Sambu of Arizona by a mere third of a second.

Poignancy usually lives at the tail end of endurance contests, and to be sure, this race had its moments. I watched Luke Tonnemaker of the University of Idaho finish his run in obvious pain. After crossing the Finish line he stood hunched over, grasping his shorts and attempting to collect himself. After several long moments he rose to scan the crowd of runners for a friendly face. None appeared, so he went back to hunching over.

This repeated itself several times, to the point where I wanted to go out, pat him on the back and tell him “you did good”.

I think I understand that loneliness thing now.

Next Up:  The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating

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