Off-road race series succeeds at bringing people of all ages and abilities together.
Written by: Mark Johnson
John Cross has earned the right to sleep in.
The U.S. Army infantryman was captured by Hitler’s army in December 1944. Then 19 years old, Cross was imprisoned while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge—the turning point in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
So why is it that, as the sun rises over the eucalyptus trees and crenellated Spanish towers of San Diego’s Balboa Park, the 86-year-old Cross is lining up to race the 46th Annual Balboa Park Four-Mile Cross-Country (XC) race, the second event of this year’s Dirt Dog Series? He could well be sleeping in, having a cup of coffee, flipping through the paper and savoring the freedom he preserved.
Why indeed? “When I retired,” Cross recalls from the shade of a tree after winning his age division in the event on Sept. 4, “I just wanted to get into something to stay in good physical shape. And running is the most convenient, interesting thing to do. So I started running in 1990.” The former POW says he’s raced 11 marathons but did nothing physical during his post-war working years. “No, not really. When I was in college I played tennis. That was my sport interest then.”
Now he’s a runner. Full on. Last year’s Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon was the first 26-miler he didn’t finish. Cross says he’s never been injured running—though his dog recently took him out. “I tripped on a dog leash, and I fell down and skinned up my arm pretty badly.” He points to the bandages. “It bruised the elbow. It’s still sore. That was a month ago.”
Tom Keegan approaches us. At 71, he’s a relative youngster. Keegan has been running for a quarter century. “Deteriorating each year,” he explains with a grin. Someone beat him by seven minutes, he says with dismay. “I’m always interested in watching guys from my age group. It’s just amazing.”
When he started running, Keegan did “a lot of half marathons and 10Ks.” He began training with the San Diego Track Club, a sponsor of the iconic Dirt Dog event on a course that has been hosting races since the 1940s, when soldiers like John Cross found themselves washing onto San Diego’s shores from the European front.
On this shockingly blue morning with an edge of fall in the air, Keegan says the Dirt Dog races keep him sharp for tennis, and he’s entertaining thoughts of greater tasks. “I’m thinking Ironman wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I hate the cold water in the ocean.”
Work and working out—in one form or another—define these runners’ very existence. Cross mentions his capture in December, 1944. “It was an unforgettable experience being a POW because I didn’t just sit at a prison camp for five months. I had to go out in what they called a forced labor group and work for the Germans.” That wicked Belgian winter damaged him. “After the Battle of the Bulge when I was taken prisoner, it was so cold that I got frozen feet; technically it’s called frostbite.” The nerve damage was permanent, though Cross claims that as long as he doesn’t run barefoot the injuries do not affect his running today.
I turn, and 50 yards away I find Terrance Freeman. He’s sweaty, beaming with accomplishment. Today the Navy-enlisted man is only about eight years older than Cross was when he shipped out to Belgium in the 1940s. Freeman admits that he took nearly 10 years off from running after graduating from high school. He just started training again. Literally. “I ran about four miles last week,” he admits with a laugh. “It was two miles one day, then a mile two different days.”
Freeman lives a few blocks down the hill towards downtown San Diego and was inspired to race the Dirt Dog because a Navy fitness test looms. “Have to run a mile and a half in less than 13 minutes.” Of the course that takes runners down and up a steep dirt track beneath the soaring Laurel Street Bridge, Freeman says “Ooof. It was a butt-kicker! But I’m glad I did it because I got up off the couch. I set my alarm for 6:30 and I’m like, ‘I’m not going—man, my knees!’ Then my wife said, ‘I don’t want to hear you crying about your knees.’”