Cross-country races are competitive but laid-back affairs, especially compared to your typical traffic-jammed 10K or half marathon. “I haven’t run something of this magnitude since high school.” Freeman points out. “I was expecting them to blow a gun. You get that nervous feeling right before you hear the gun. But I didn’t get that today… I kind of miss that feeling.”
Sixty-year-old Robin Paine runs with the San Diego Track Club and is familiar with pre-race jitters after 30 years of racing. A potter, Paine handcrafted the ceramic medallions Dirt Dog racers receive at the finish.
Holding her age-group winner’s trophy, Paine says steep pitches, dirt and grass make cross-country more thrilling than a curbs-and-concrete road race. “I think this course is one of the most challenging. It’s a true cross-country course. You start out on the grass, you have those big huge hills, horse trails. You are hardly on the pavement.” Paine is doing all eight events in the 2010 USATF/ASCIS Dirt Dog XC Series this year: “I did all of them but one last year.” She runs 30 to 40 miles a week. “I used to be a triathlete,” she justifies, as if 30-40 miles were not enough, along with her jobs as a college teacher and potter. To build up her miles, “I am going to have to retire. As I get older it takes longer to recover,” Paine says.
Nearby Whitney Patton probably doesn’t need as much recovery time as Paine. With the bristling posture and straight-on gaze of an accomplished runner, Patton is an assistant track coach at Cal State San Marcos.
“A group of us graduated recently; we were coached by Steve Scott (one of the greatest American milers, Scott ran 136 sub-4:00 miles in his career). We are just kind of trying to continue our running in a fun atmosphere.”
Next to Patton, 22-year-old fellow graduate Casey Evans says, “we are just having a lot of fun trying to keep our running going.” Asked about his mileage, the whippet-thin Evans says, “We just got back from Mammoth.” They were slotting in 70 miles a week at 9,000 feet. “We are just trying to keep that rolling.”
I ask about jobs. The crowd of ridiculously-fit 20-somethings toe the turf, share glances and nervous laughs. “We are looking!” Evans exclaims. “In pursuit of jobs,” Patton adds.
I suggest they not hurry, consider grad school. Their faces glow. On this pellucid early fall day in one of the world’s most glorious parks, it’s never been clearer that there will always be time for life in a cubicle.
“I just graduated in May,” Evans notes with confidence. “We’ve got options.”
Patton says that while the Dirt Dog race vibe is laid back, cross-country attracts those with a love for running fast and hard over changing terrain. Maybe it’s an atavistic yearning for life on the savannah ringing up through the depths of our DNA. “As much as we want to be relaxed about it, there’s always that competitive edge, and that’s why we are still out here,” Says Patton.
Do these young athletes recommend cross-country racing to the uninitiated, those who have perhaps done a few road-bound 5Ks and 10Ks? “Definitely,” Evans urges. “You come out to these kind of meets and you aren’t looking for the goodie bag afterwards with all the free coupons.”
“The races aren’t $110 to register,” Patton adds. “They are 20 bucks.”
“You come here to run and enjoy the scenery and the people,” Evans explains. “Everyone out here is so nice, and it’s such an amazing community.”
Paul Greer and Thom Hunt organize the Dirt Dog XC Series. Greer agrees that cross-country events are recession-friendly. “They are cheaper. Today’s event was maybe $10 to $15.”
While this Labor Day weekend race always attracts the area’s finest runners, Greer emphasizes that cross-country’s democratic accessibility opens the race genre to all. From World War II heroes to aspiring graduates, and from elite athletes in $200 racing flats to 10-year-olds in tennis shoes and Bermuda shorts (yes, they were out there plying the Balboa Park trails), cross-country is for everybody.
“Don’t be intimidated by it,” Greer enthuses. “It’s trails. It’s grass. Everyone come on out!”