Organizers hoping to build off success of 2008 event at Mission Bay Park.
Written by: Mario Fraioli
San Diego is known as America’s Finest City, but it’s also establishing a reputation as one of the finest places in the nation to host a major cross country championship.
On February 5, 2011, the USA Cross Country Championships will return to Mission Bay Park – the second time in four years the venue will play host to the best harriers in the land.
“We’re happy to have the championships back here in San Diego,” said Thom Hunt, who serves as event co-director along with Paul Greer. “Anybody you talk to who was here in 2008—whether it was an athlete or a spectator—will also be glad that we have it back. The running community of San Diego is looking forward to hosting this event again in 2011.”
Hunt and Greer, who respectively serve as Men’s and Women’s Long Distance Running Chairs for USA Track & Field-San Diego, are hoping next year’s event can build off the success of the 2008 Championships, which recorded the highest number of participants in the meet’s 20-year history. With its spectator-friendly, loop-style layout, along with favorable weather conditions that mimic the ones qualifying athletes will face a month later at the IAAF World Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, hosting the Championships in San Diego for a second time in four years was an easy choice for USA Track & Field.
“Getting back to those kind of (participation) numbers is certainly a goal of ours,” said Hunt, the 1977 IAAF World Junior Cross Country champion. “And being a place where people want to come, I think we can make the event even more runner-friendly than it was in 2008.”
Taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, the 2011 Championships will feature the same 2,000-meter, European-style loop as the 2008 event. The open men will run the loop six times; the masters, open women and junior men will each run four loops, while the junior women will run three. While dizzying for the runners going round and round the park, it will be delightful for spectators who will get to watch entire races unfold right before their eyes.
“It’s the same exact same course as 2008,” said Greer, a former sub-4:00 miler and Olympic Trials qualifier in the 1,500 meters. “It is definitely spectator-friendly. You can see about 90 to 95% of the course, which is very unique for cross country.”
“The spectator part is what makes it unique,” Hunt added. “It’s very easy to see the runners multiple times per lap and it helps the spectators feel like they’re part of the event. That’s something you can’t have in road racing. If you’re out on a marathon course, it’s tough to hoof it around and see the event and you’re likely to miss key moments in the race. This format really makes it spectator-friendly and that’s really the key to this event.”
The course, while mostly flat, features one small hill, a few tight turns and enough disruption to make it anything but easy for those running on it. Greer said that after the 2008 race, national champions Dathan Ritzenhein and Shalane Flanagan both admitted that they were fooled by the flat-looking layout.
“It is not as fast as people think it is,” Greer said. “Everyone thinks it is, but you see, part of cross country, part of the allure of cross country, the challenge of cross country, is not so much the traditional hills or the things you normally get but rather the disruption you receive when you run. It’s a course you just don’t quite get your footing on. It’s not a track. Ninety-nine percent of the course is all grass; there’s a part of the course where you’re running near the water where it’s slanted. There’s enough disruption from the course itself to slow people up and make it very challenging. And when you’re doing loop after loop after loop of that it gets tough. Even the little hill that’s in there by itself isn’t much, but after the fourth or fifth time going over that thing, it’s just enough to be a disruption.”
Being a non-Olympic year, both Greer and Hunt expect a lot of the country’s top track runners, as well as marathoners, to come together and contribute to deep fields in both the men’s and women’s open races. Given the influx of American records and top performances at major marathons and track competitions over the last two years, the recent resurgence in American distance running only adds to the overall excitement of this annual event.
“Running in this country is very exciting right now,” Greer said. “I’m excited for the exciting competition that’s going to occur that morning, and I’m excited for the spectators. They’re going to see the best runners in the nation in probably one of the best eras of U.S. running, so for San Diego to stage the national championships for cross country is very exciting. We’re looking forward to it.”