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It’s good to enjoy a race with little at stake now and then. Tonight was such a race. It was the Van Cortlandt Track Club’s annual 2 X 2 relay, consisting of two folks doing 2 miles each.

For this, I enlisted Ari as my partner. He agreed and then asked whether it was cross-country. Indeed it is, I told him, and he got to do his first such race, and said afterward that he’d like to come back.

From Twitter, I knew of a number of others that would be there, and also met some other folks that I know. I finally got to meet Helen, Robert’s better half (which is saying a lot; Robert ran the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday and a Firecracker 5K on Sunday in Colorado). Amy C (@runamyrun) was there and she introduced me to a number of others.

It’s pretty basic. The first runner heads out around the flats to the cowpath and up then down Cemetery Hill, with the final 1/2 along the flats. A slap of the hands and the second runner’s off and does the same thing. Ari went first.

It’s just a fun thing. Male, female, co-ed teams. All ages, all sorts of runners. I elected to run in spikes. It’s been warm recently, but today was not nearly like the last few. I planned on playing it by ear, deciding if I would go hard when the race began.

Ari came in. I went out. I hadn’t really warmed up so I felt terrible for the first quarter mile or so. One guy went whizzing past me and I slowly passed a whole bunch of people. I started feeling OK at about the 1/2 mark and pushed it relaxed-but-hard for the balance of the race. From that point on, I actually felt good.

And the point was that this was an enjoyable Thursday night run in the Bronx. Van Cortlandt itself is a real melting-pot kind of place, all sorts of different ethnic groups hanging out, playing games.

As I knew a goodly number of people in the race, it was fun to hang with them, do a short warm-down. Most of them got muffins, the award for VCTC’s races. Ari and I, alas, went home empty-handed.

Two weeks until the next 5K there. A little work between now and then, and we’ll see.

Here’s a recording I made before the race, another of the where-I-run series.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Westchester’s youths are wasting away, what with all the teen-driven, late-model SUVs one sees. And while they weren’t SUVs, this wasn’t so different from my days long ago.

But you’d probably be wrong. I posted a couple of days ago about a 5K X-C race at Irvington HS. Its purpose was two-fold. First to show-off the course. Second to raise money to try to keep an assistant coach on board.

Well I’ve run the race and seen the course (and made my small donation). I was impressed. Not just with the course but with the effort that went into it.

The Kids: The course itself is one part nature, one part nurture. Much work has gone into “smoothing” it out, by which I don’t mean it was smoothed (as shown below) but that it has been made a course with rocks and trees and hills and such. And it is a credit to the members of the Irvington HS Cross-Country team, which has put in many hours in pulling this off.

When I was in high school and it snowed, we’d shovel the track and then run on it. Only a lane or two, but all 440 yards. These kids have done more. They’ve created a quality facility right out their back door. I can’t say enough about the effort these guys put into it.

The Course: The closest I can come for comparison are parts of the Leatherstocking Trail in New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and the Northwest Trail in Sag Harbor/East Hampton. After crossing a field, one is launched into the woods and proceeds along a fairly narrow, though never single-track, winding, up-and-down adventure. Unlike Van Cortlandt, in which you have a wide trail that goes up and then goes down, with flats before and after, here one is constantly changing direction and changing altitude. Sometimes at the same time.

Frank Colella and me, after race

Frank Colella and me, after race

I ended up nearly walking down one big hill because of concerns about slipping although I wore spikes — it was wet, but not only had the rain let up, you are also under a tree canopy — which served as a strange mid-race break followed by a determined chase to finish strongly.

This trail suffers from its location, near both the Rockies and the Old Croton Aqueduct. Yet for a particular type of workout, it’s well worth a visit. This is not a course on which you stop and smell the roses. It’s a trail through the woods. It’s got roots, it’s got rocks. This and the hills require concentration every step of the way. I don’t have the measurements, but I’d say the course in the woods is maybe a little shy of 2.5 miles. One could easily make a nice 1.5 or 2 mile loop that could provide a primo tempo run. (Fortunately Sleepy Hollow is up the road a couple of miles so one need not be worried about the headless horseman.)

The Race: The race itself was much fun. Up, down, sideways (almost literally). I ended up running a bit stuttering as I had to address the downhills and turns. At one point I told myself that I had gotten plenty of rest during the race so it was time to haul ass, and I tried to do that for the duration.

The bulk of the entrants — there were about 60 — were Irvington high schoolers but there were some quick guys who disappeared into the woods well before I got there. I came in at just under 20 (my watch has me at 19:59) including a final 300 on the track. The paucity of Westchester Track Club entrants — I think there were two, one of whom I warmed down with — was disappointing, especially since Irvington HS is where its “elite” members train. Their absence — or relative lack of presence — strikes me as peculiar in the Westchester races that I’ve attended.

Afterwards I warmed down with Kate O’Hern-Lyons of WTC, who recalled nights in the 80s at this track in which they’d use their headlights to for illumination. She was the first woman, not far behind me. I also chatted with Frank Colella of RunDangerously, who planned on doing ten later in the day plus the NYRR four-miler at Van Cortlandt tomorrow, and with Bob Glover, who is steaming over developments at the Rockies — described by Tony Portera at his IRunUltras — which will likely be a subject of a later post. I also chatted with Frank beforehand, who expressed dismay about concerns Andy of Westchester Road Runner expressed about being tossed from Scarsdale’s track for being a non-resident, Frank, a Scarsdale resident, never having seen anyone hassled there except when there is a game on-going on the field.

[Edited to Add: I notice from the PDF of the course that the course itself is part of a broader trail system, albeit one fairly hemmed in by surrounding roads. Because of the limited area, however, it would seem tough to get lost there, so exploration beyond the X-C course might be in order]

I received an email from Zach Siegel of the Irvington (as in Washington) HS Cross-Country team. The club has designed a course essentially on school grounds and is holding a race on Saturday, August 29 at 9:30. It’s a benefit to try to restore some money for the team’s assistant coach. Entry fee: Whatever you want to donate.

Here’s the entry blank and course map.

He writes:

The Irvington cross country team (myself included) goes out about 3 hours earlier than our regularly scheduled summer captains’ practices and works on our trails system with rakes, shovels, etc to make our trails runnable and beautiful. Recently, funding was cut for our team to have an assistant coach, so we’re hosting this 5k to raise money for him to remain a part of our team.

We set out to have a full 5k without any road involved in the woods behind our school, and with the hard work we put in, I would challenge anyone to find better public trails in Westchester. The trails are all newly forged, so they’re all very soft and bucolic; great for running and biking.

Here’s the entry blank and course map.

The new (September) issue of Running Times has an article by Marc Bloom. Marc is a long-time follower of HS running, and publisher of the Harrier, which covers the subject. He’s also the author of “God on the Starting Line,” which details his coaching of a New Jersey Catholic High School cross-country team, from the perspective of a Jewish coach.

His RT article is entitled “Muddy Footprints” (it’s not yet available on-line.) He provides “10 Reasons to Race Cross Country” and, bless him, notes the experience of “eating the dust of the 40- and 50-year-old youngsters” in the USATF XC Champs in Maryland last February. Here they are:

  • Run in the Footsteps of History
  • Run in the Natural Landscape
  • Run with Less Injury
  • Run for Fun, Fitness and Variety
  • Run Trails with Street Smarts
  • Run for Road-Racing Prowess
  • Run for Your Team
  • Run with a Pre-Boom Mindset
  • Run with Spikes if You Can
  • Run Without the Watch in Mind

Whenever I run a 5K at Van Cortlandt, there’s a spot — it’s about at the 1 1/4 mark — where I want to stop and, as Ryan Hall said he felt at Boston, find another career. Shortly before Blacktop. But I get over it and suck wind to the finish. My older legs can’t carry me down the hills — VCP has a number of uphills going out and major downhills coming home — as they used to so it’s frustrating to have people open up on me in the last mile.

And everyone suffers over the final 1/2 mile on the flats. But for the reasons articulated by Bloom, there is a purity and specialness about it.

There are three runs that I think all runners should do at least once. (This list does not include running a marathon.)

  • a Track Race
  • a Cross-Country Race
  • a Road Relay

I have spoken about running road relays, as well as about doing track races. But I think it’s worth flagging cross-country as well.

Here in the New York area, there are plenty of races, chiefly at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It’s where you’ve likely run many an XC race if you ran for a high school in the area. Most accessible are the biweekly 5K races put on Thursday nights from May through August by my friends at the Van Cortlandt Track Club. NYRR has mostly-5K races come the fall, with a you-have-to-do-once Pete McArdle 15K (brutal is too kind), on Dec. 13 this year.

And the VCTC races: $5.

Will you finish last? First, as noted in my track post, DFL is nothing to sneeze at. Second, take a look at the results for the VCTC’s 2008 races. Third, and most important, who cares? A good time is had by all.

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