We all know what fall means: football, a crazy-quilt of leaves, winking jack o’ lanterns, and pumpkin-spiced everything. But to those of us lucky enough to have discovered it in school, fall also means cross country. Cross country is what happened when someone said, “Hey, I’m tired of racing in circles! Let’s run over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house and back.” Cross country is what turns an individual sport into a team effort, with its attendant bonding experiences. I discovered the sport early in high school and continued through my freshman year in college, when money troubles, injury struggles, and priority shifts led to a premature retirement. But the itch never really goes away. And once I started running again, I found myself newly hooked as a spectator.
For a few years, Running Buddy Mark and I would make a pilgrimage to Mt. SAC to see the CIF Southern Section meet—that’s the regional qualifier for the California state high school championships. Both of our alma maters were regular contenders, so we’d root them on, check out the next wave of college talent, and then run a workout while we were still pumped up and remembering our old, faster selves. But last year the regional meet got moved to distant, dusty Riverside, so we skipped it. A week later, both the boys’ and girls’ teams from my old school won state championships—but that was even farther away, in Fresno. Clearly, we had to do something this year to get our cross country fix. And that’s when I turned my attention to the college scene.
As I freshman, I ran for Willamette University in Oregon, making all-conference in my one and only college season. From time to time I check out their website, just to keep up with the latest, and that’s when I noticed the November 11 entry on their schedule. It read, “NCAA Division 3 West Regional, Pomona College.” Pomona College is only a half-hour down the freeway, and just happens to be in my old hometown of Claremont, California. Running Buddy Mark was game, so off we went. And as a bonus, we decided to run afterward in the same foothills where I trained in high school.
The teams were setting up their canopies next to the Pomona College track when we arrived. We quickly spotted the cardinal-and-gold uniforms of Willamette on the sunny side of the field. Situations like this are always a little awkward; do you walk up and say, “Hi, I’m a faded black-and-white photo from the 1973 yearbook?” Or do you just fade into the background and privately call upon your memories? I mean, I’m not sure the Willamette coaches were born when I went to school there. Fortunately, I spotted a gentleman nearby who clearly looked like a parent. Now there’s someone from my own generation! So we walked over and I introduced myself.
His name was John, and he had driven up from San Diego to see his son race. The son, Michael, was Willamette’s #2 runner, and had recently finished 4th in the Northwest Conference meet—just as I had. With the ice broken, we also spoke to a couple of assistant coaches, who were at least familiar with my own coach (now deceased), a legend in WU circles. Since I had procured a spare course map from one of the meet officials, John decided to hang with Running Buddy Mark and me as we pinballed among the good vantage points.
The men’s race went first. A Pomona-Pitzer runner set a hot pace and quickly began pulling away from the pack. Running Buddy Mark and I marveled at their speed; even at the D3 level, college kids can move. We cheered for Willamette, winners of six straight conference titles and hopeful of a berth in nationals. Unfortunately, it wasn’t their day. Young Michael stayed doggedly in the top 20, with one other Bearcat in front of him.
But the rest had fallen too far behind to keep the team in contention. In the end, Willamette finished sixth, leaving Michael to hope for a spot as an individual. He was 18th at 26:06 on the 8K course. Naturally, I did a little math in my head, comparing him to the ghost of my 18-year-old self. That year I ran 26:39 in our conference meet on a hillier course of 5 miles—almost exactly the same distance as an 8K. When age slows you as much as it’s slowed me, such thoughts are comforting.
The women ran next, but the Willamette team wasn’t as strong as its male counterpart. One female Bearcat made nationals as an individual, and we had to wait until the next day’s announcements to find out about Michael. After wishing them luck, we got back into the car and headed three miles north to the Claremont Loop.
When I ran in high school, we used quite a network of trails and fire roads snaking through the foothills above town. As I recall, none of them were designated as “official” trails—in fact some of them required us to hop fences, trespass, and outrun barking dogs. But in later years, one of those trails was christened “Claremont Hills Wilderness Park,” allowing us to feel rustic and frontiersy even as we availed ourselves of drinking fountains, port-a-potties, and a pay parking lot. I’d heard of this route from various people, including a couple of Loopsters. Alice in Running Land had used it before moving north and getting married. And a long-lost Loopster named LosLondonLaw, who had also grown up in Claremont, had written about it on trips home to see her parents.
I didn’t recognize the trail, which was just as well, because I was too trashed to enjoy the homecoming. The first two miles are almost entirely uphill, and it nearly killed us. It’s supposed to be a 5-mile loop, but as we approached the 2-mile mark, I suggested that we turn around unless one of the many hikers could confirm that we were near the summit. One of them finally did, and we pushed on to finish the full loop. Running Buddy Mark said that he felt virtuous for having stuck it out. I was just glad that it was over. Then we went to the Claremont Village for a burger and beer in a restaurant that was really too nice for people in sweaty running clothes. But it was a good morning overall. The next day, we found out that Michael did indeed make nationals as an individual. And that left me with just one more task before completing my cross country fix.
The We Run the City race is an annual charity event pitting UCLA against USC in 5K/10K competition. It’s the closest I’ll get to a cross country race, since you get to run for a team. You choose your affiliation upon registering; since I went to grad school at UCLA, I got a blue race shirt. And this time, it was the bad guys who wore cardinal and gold. Since the UCLA campus is fairly hilly, time isn’t much of a factor, and that allows you to focus on the team aspect. I resolved to start at tempo effort, then hope to speed up and pick off as many Trojans as I could.
Unfortunately, the worst hill is in the first mile, and it left me struggling to hold pace and cursing the fact that I’d chosen the 10K over the 5K. I tried to maintain form and stay just this side of the puke threshold--which wasn’t hard, because my legs wouldn’t go fast enough to test my lungs or stomach. After an arduous first half, the 5K runners peeled off toward the finish, and the rest of us hardy souls began the second loop. That’s when I got the opportunity I wanted: a young woman in Trojan red, gradually fading back to me. I caught her around the 4-mile mark, but she seemed determined not to let a Bruin pass her. Perfect! We ran stride-for-stride for a while, feeding off the competition. But then, on another hill, she began pulling ahead and I couldn’t respond. And to think that hills used to be my best friends! Fortunately, her surge didn’t last. She began fading again, and when I caught her she couldn’t stay with me. There was a hairpin turnaround at 5 miles, and as I doubled back, I saw that she was well behind me. There was nothing left to do but look for more Trojans, but with the 10K field spread out, there was no one within striking distance.
With about a half-mile to go, we made a left turn around Melnitz Hall, where I used to take film school classes. The rest of the way was mostly downhill. I tried to make a run at a Bruin-Trojan couple (it’s more common than you’d think), but they sprinted away from me on the home stretch. I finished in an embarrassing 55:20, but I did manage a negative split and won my age group practically by default. Strangely, I still haven’t found out who won the team competition. But it didn’t matter. I enjoyed a pretty day on a beautiful campus, got a solid workout, and finally felt satisfied that I had my cross country fix.