Exploring Boston’s Hallowed Cross Country Venue
In New England, the changing of the leaves in autumn is a picturesque pageant of color. Burnt reds, golden yellows, vibrant oranges; each tree a testament to the beauty of nature that borders on the miraculous. But each season is only temporary; every branch of leaves fleeting. By the end of November, only a few steadfast leaves remain. It is in the words of eminent cross-country coach Joe Newton that runners are reminded about the importance of this transition. At the end of the season he urges his harriers to “be the last leaf on the tree — that you aren’t going to fall off until you’re in the chute”.
For every cross-country runner who has battled at Franklin Park, hanging on as the last leaf is easier said than done. Franklin Park is historic. As the largest park in Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” of interconnected parks, Franklin Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a renowned landscape architect and park builder, who in the 1880s made the site his last, significant city park project, and one he considered to be the result of years of experimentation. He created a vast country meadow (now the golf course), and nurtured 220 acres of forest in the park. With a professional background as varied as the terrain he sought to protect, Olmsted was driven by the need to create a space, as he claimed: “Where [people] may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them…”
Franklin Park came into being just as cross-country running was developing in New England. The 19th century version of the sport, which took the form of the game Hare-and-Hounds, or the Paper Chase, landed at American colleges and universities along the East Coast in the middle of the century. It was in the Amherst College University Quarterly II that a Harvard graduate, William Blaikie, first touts the enjoyment of the game in 1860, and it was 20 years later that Harvard initiated its own formal paper-chasing club — introduced by Charles Brandt, a future captain of the New York Hare and Hounds Club, in 1881.
But it wouldn’t be for another 30 years that the bond between Franklin Park and cross-country running would be consecrated. In the fall of 1911 it was the “The Mystic Valley Cross Country Run for Schools” which was the first organized high school cross-country competition on record in Massachusetts. Three years later, in preparation for the New England Interscholastic Athletic Association Cross-Country Championships, the first cross-country course was established in Franklin Park. The date: November 12, 1914. It was the Boston Globe who published the 4.8-mile course map. In the 101 years since its inception, the venue is still in high demand.
Annual competitions include the USATF Northeast Championships and the wildly popular Mayor’s Cup races, plus dozens of high school and collegiate races. Seven times it was the site for the national cross-country championship. It traditionally alternated with Van Cortlandt Park as the host of the NCAA Northeast Regional championships, and it even featured the “world’s greatest footrace” — the World Cross Country Championship, in 1992. “Everybody who was anybody” ran at Van Cortlandt, as Pat Porter put it, but the greatest of all time have run at Franklin Park.
Liz Costello, a runner local to the Franklin Park course, competed at the 2015 Mayor’s Cup cross-country event on October 25th, almost 101 years to the day since the first cross-country race was contested. In a day that was overcast, cool, but “buzzing with cross-country camaraderie” as Costello said, it proved to be the perfect opportunity to avenge her sixth-place finish from the year prior. Costello was familiar with the course from her 2014 performance and from her days in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet, and the 2015 event would be her first victory as a professional runner. The 2015 Mayor’s Cup also saw top performances from Trevor Dunbar, Liv Westphal, and Mary Cain, who found the women’s 5k race to be “pretty authentic cross-country, which was nice.”
For Costello, Dunbar, Cain and others, competing in the 2015 Mayor’s Cup was literally running in the footsteps of history. The Mayor’s Cup event, with its inaugural running in 1990, reads like a who’s-who of distance running. Bill Squires, the founding coach of the Greater Boston Track Club in 1973, and member of the Boston Athletic Association (also the primary organization behind the event) started the first Mayor’s Cup to bring open cross-country back to the park. The first race drew just nine runners, but now entrants number in the thousands — from youth development runners to international caliber harriers. The New York Athletic Club’s Brad Schlapak, whose personal best in the 5k is a svelte 13:44, won the race two years in a row in ’92 and ’93. Two titles also belong to Kenyan Silah Misoi, who had range spanning from 3,000 meters to the marathon. For the women, Ethiopian Aziza Aliyli also has two titles to her name, as does Massachusetts’ own Lynn Jennings, who won twice in ’94 and ’95. The Mayor’s Cup event alone has drawn in international talent to the park, with winners representing nations as far-ranging as Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, Ireland, Ethiopia, and the U.S.
But top talent is nothing new to the cross-country faithful at Franklin Park. Pat Porter won the third of his national championships there in 1984 and claimed: “This course had everything. Crummy footing, nasty hills and great competition. Now, what more could you ask?” Todd Williams managed to squeak in front of Porter at Franklin Park in 1991, winning the first of three national titles. At that same 1991 championship the women’s victor proved to be none other than Lynn Jennings, who recorded her sixth-straight national cross country title that day. Jennings may or may not be the most accomplished cross-country runner in the nation’s history, but she is undoubtedly the most cherished at Franklin Park.
Jennings grew up in nearby Harvard, Mass., and bloomed at Franklin as a teenager, running with the boys team of the Bromfield School. Later, she competed in Franklin Park in regional meets and whenever her Princeton team engaged Harvard in dual college meets. For the World Cross Country Championship in 1992, also run at Franklin, it was Jennings who chirped “I knew everyone. All the technical people and all the officials on the starting line. My neighbors were here with their two children. It was like putting on a race in my own backyard. I wanted to stop and take it all in.”
Speaking of big names, for those in attendance that 21st day of March, 1992, there were none bigger than those running at Franklin Park in the 1992 World Cross Country Championship. Haile Gebreselassie and Paula Radcliffe were there, as was Hicham El Guerrouj, Khalid Skah, William Sigei, Ismail Kirui, Sonia O’Sullivan, Gete Wami, and Gabi Szabo. Kenyan John Ngugi won his fifth World Cross Country senior men’s title that day, leading home teammate William Mutwol in the process. Kenya ended up winning their seventh straight team title over France. American Lynn Jennings was the appropriate champion of the senior women’s race, where she narrowly defeated Catherina McKiernan of Ireland and Albertina Dias of Portugal. Thrusting both her arms up in jubilation, Jennings won by only two seconds, then promptly broke down sobbing. “I was crying tears of joy,” Jennings said later. “I never did that before.” There may have never been such a collection of world record holders, Olympic, national, and international champions all present for the same event on the same day before or since.
The lead-up to the event was almost as fantastic as the participants themselves. It was only the second time that the IAAF World Cross had been held in the western hemisphere, and John McGrath, former publisher of New England Runner magazine, initiated Boston’s bid to host after directing the 1984 National Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park (the same one where Pat Porter won his third of eight consecutive U.S. cross country titles). “We pulled out all the bells and whistles,” McGrath notes. “We had things like a finish line bridge, which was unusual for cross country at the time. The whole running community came out. The crowd was huge.” One member of that running community was Fred Lebow of the New York Road Runners, who had hosted World Cross at the Meadowlands earlier in the year. Lebow watched the Franklin Park race with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who was also a runner. McGrath said, “Fred’s first comment was, ‘You’ve got to bring the World Cross Country Championships here.’” McGrath hung onto the idea and later put together a committee, pulled in City officials and worked with Ollan Cassell, then the Executive Director of The Athletics Congress (later USA Track and Field). It was the first time the city of Boston had held a World Championship.
Part of the motivation behind hosting the World Cross event was the need for a new home at Franklin Park for cross country, which had traditionally shared space with golf. “Due to the rehabilitation of the golf course with all 18 holes re-opened, conflicts between golfers and runners were becoming more frequent,” said Bill Linehan, member of the Boston Park’s Department. The cross country course had crossed fairways and looped greens for years. Some years, it consisted of a large amount of pavement encircling the golf course. Several options made neither golfers nor runners happy. “The new course was designed to try to help figure out ways for golf and running to co-exist at Franklin Park,” said Chris Lane, a local track official, and technical director of the event. “We also wanted to make the course more spectator-friendly. The theme was to think of a flower and make the loops like petals.”
The historic park already had many outstanding features and the ones that didn’t work were fixable. “We had to reverse civilization — we tore up concrete and put down grass,” said McGrath. Other short pavement crossings were covered with Astroturf, repurposed from when Boston College built a new football field. “The City of Boston built a new facility for cross country in and around Playstead/White Stadium,” said Linehan. “$350,000 in removal of old roadways replaced with natural turf, paths cut throughout the sections of the park, including bringing the runners up and around the old bear dens.” The appropriately named Bear Cage Hill, a wooded mass of rock rising 194 feet over the field below, was a natural consequence.
The park’s natural features were part of the attraction for the IAAF: “We already had the hills, so we didn’t have to add anything. We had all natural landscape which was a big selling point,” said Lane. Because of the field size and density at World Cross, the IAAF had strict rules about the length of straightway after the start. The start used today at Franklin Park, with less than 400-meters before a sharp, right-hand turn, did not fit the bill. Thus, the start needed to take place on the golf course side, with the runners completing more than a mile before crossing the road, near the driveway to Playstead Field. In order to make this crossing possible, the road was closed for a week, pavement removed and crushed stone was graded to make a smooth and suitable running surface. “Without the total and complete support of the City, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Lane. In all, over $500,000 was spent in designing and landscaping for the event.
Today, the course starts and ends in the wide-open “playstead” area, and the race is generally comprised of three loops. They are the Stadium Loop, which goes around the park’s White Stadium; the Bear Cage Hill Loop, which goes up a decent-sized hill where the Franklin Park Zoo used to house its bears; and the Wilderness Loop, which goes into a wooded area before coming back into the open playstead. Liz Costello, who won the 2015 Mayor’s Cup, knew that the terrain would not be easy: “As those familiar with the Franklin Park course know, there are some small inclines over the third mile that are tiring, coming as they do late in the race. At this point, I was feeling the fatigue start to set in and all I could do was focus on getting myself through this last loop as efficiently as possible. I tried to be conscious of my form and concentrated on holding my pace. My goal became to simply get back to the Playstead, where I knew the energy of the crowd would help me to finish the race.” After earning three podium finishes since 2010 for the men and women’s senior teams combined at World Cross, the future is bright for the next generation of American runners in their quest to make cross-country relevant. Costello, herself a winner of the North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletic Association Cross Country Championship could find herself a big part of that, despite the challenges that courses like Franklin Park provides.
It was one of these notable features, known as Schoolmaster Hill, pinched in between the 7th green and a stand of pines, that the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived. As Emerson wrote, “Each man must think for himself and act on his own instincts.” Running on instinct is what cross-country runners know best. Yet, for the challenging terrain amidst the beautiful New England scenery, it’s nature that always wins.
1: Matthew Arnold; Brady Hallongren; LGL Productions (Firm) “The Long Green Line”, 2008. worldcat.org
2: The Franklin Park Coalition
3: Emerald Necklace Conservancy
4: Ronald A. Smith “Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics”, 1988.
5: Chuck Martin, “The History of Massachusetts Cross Country”, 2011.
6: Liz Costello, “My First Win as a Professional”, Runner’s World 2015.
7: Mary Cain Interview, Boston Mayor’s Cup October 2015
8: Greater Boston Track Club
9: USA Track and Field New England, History of Mayor’s Cup.
10: Craig Neff, “Mr. Shorter, Say Hello to Mr. Porter”, Sports Illustrated 1984.
11: Mearell Noden, “Leader of the Pack Lynn Jennings charged to the front to win the worlds in Boston”, Sports Illustrated 1992.
13: Jean Cann, “Work of Many Leaves Lasting Legacy at Franklin Park”, New England Runner, 2012.
15: Jesse Squire, “Great Cross Country Courses: Franklin Park”, 2012.
16: Costello, Ibid.
All words by Andrew Boyd Hutchinson of TheRealXC.com. Andrew is author of The Fascinating History of Cross Country Running, due out in 2016, the book is a 700-page compendium intent on tracing the history of the sport from its earliest beginnings.