Weekend Warriors

On Saturday December 12, the US Cross Country Club Nationals took place in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Traditionally one of the most hotly contested races in the country, it’s one event where amateurs, Olympians and pros go head to head.

Words and photos by Andrew Boyd Hutchinson

Dave Kyle is mid-stride. He’s well into the rhythm now, sweat forming on his brow, breathing in time with his steps. His pace feels quicker this morning, more so than usual: “Running keeps my soul at ease,” he reminds himself. He’s arrived.

While Kyle will cross the finish line at the 17th running of the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships, that is not the mission of his run this day. Dave Kyle runs to work each morning, where he teaches humanities at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. His commute begins early: three quarters of mile to the BART station in Oakland; some time on-board dedicated to answering emails and previewing the day’s events; a three mile jaunt from the Civic Center station to work. From there it’s into a fresh change of clothes (he keeps 11 sets in total: five in an Ikea dresser for the school-week, and the previous week’s set at a local wash-and-fold, with one set to wear on the “change-over” day). On Tuesdays, the day his track club, West Valley, trains at nearby Kezar Stadium, he might amass 15–20 miles of running in total.

Kyle dresses moderately for his commute to work: “Keys, wallet, phone, mini iPad with case, osprey backpack, beanie, and vest. Not much more is needed,” he claims. Kyle embodies the persona of the gentleman amateur — a runner for whom the sport is an attraction, but not a profession — a tradition that has existed in cross-country for more than 200 years.

His ritual had humble beginnings. “I grew up in Topsfield, Massachusetts, and started running cross-country my junior year in high school. Having a scrawny and gristly build lent itself well — but it was a great sport where work ethic yielded immediate results. The more work you put into it the better you did. I liked that.” It was later, living in Somerville and working in South Station in Boston, that Kyle was able to begin a three-day cycle of alternating his subway commute to and from work with morning and evening runs. Running had stuck with him: an NCAA DIII athlete at Trinity College, Kyle ran cross-country, indoor and outdoor track through undergrad — then connected with the Greater Boston Track Club and Boston Athletic Association once he returned. A career decision brought him to San Francisco; marriage and the arrival of a family prompted his move to Oakland. It was there he resumed his running ways to and from work: “Running, BART, weekly laundry and the occasional breakfast pastry saves me $40 a month over driving.”

Kyle’s track club, West Valley, is one of the largest in the Pacific Association, USA Track and Field’s west-coast branch of operations. Kyle started running with them almost immediately after arriving in the Bay Area. But this story isn’t about one man and his affinity for running — the Club Cross Country National Championship took place in Golden Gate Park this year — and Kyle, along with thousands of fellow athletes, lined up to test their mettle over well-worn soil. As Kyle says: “The championship is something I’ve trained for. Not necessarily for a performance goal, but just being able to get out there. My wife and my daughter will be there, which means a lot to me. The event is worth it for the sake of the sport and the community. It justifies itself.” Plus, his story is not unique. An event with a storied history, this race saw runners of all walks of life dedicate sweat and pain for a just cause: an egalitarian opportunity, elite status, and motivations to get back to the essence of going fast.

USA Track and Field — and official governing bodies before them — have hosted a Winter Cross Country National Championship on American soil since 1883. Club teams first kept score in 1887; sanctioning came in 1905, when it turned into an annual event.

In the decades since, as the sport grew in popularity, variations appeared on the calendar. The first spring World Cross Country Trials were held in 1975 — an attempt to offer an American qualifying race for the IAAF World Cross Country Championship — closer to the date of the event. In 1994 the trials race disappeared, but the winter championship persisted. Finally, in a move designed to keep pace with strong East African and European nations in international events, USA Track and Field moved the national championship to the spring permanently, and split the event between a short and long course variation (temporarily). With the move came a vacancy on the calendar — the National Club Cross Country Championships filled that void in 1998.

San Francisco had hosted the National Cross Country Championships seven times before, and while Golden Gate Park didn’t carry with it the prestige of a Franklin or Van Cortlandt Park, it was an honest venue. Naturally sharp inclines, gradual descents, and hard-packed cinder around the famed polo fields made for a fast course, plus it has history. The Pacific Association has been conducting championships there for over 30 years; high schools had been conducting invitationals for over 40. In 1989, Pat Porter set his record eighth-straight national championship amidst stormy conditions at Golden Gate Park, in a day so wooly and wet that gusts of wind exceeded 50mph. The park was the perfect backdrop for a modern iteration of the event that featured the nation’s best amateur runners, in addition to seasoned veterans, Olympians, and professional elites.

On Saturday, December 12, 2015, over 1,700 runners competed across six events, with premier races — the Open Men’s 10k, and Open Women’s 6k — attracting talent from elite development clubs like Brooks Beasts, Bowerman Track Club and Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite, whose members included Olympians and World Champions. Other teams read more familiar: the Jamul Toads, Greater Boston Track Club, Boulder Track Club and Club Northwest. Rosters filled from all corners of the nation; athletes who travelled thousands of miles just for the chance to compete. Among them was three-time Olympian Jen Rhines, two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds, American mile record-holder Alan Webb, and Garrett Heath, who has won the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country and competed internationally. With the champions came countless weekend-warriors, vying for a spot among the greats as amateur enthusiasts. It would be a spectacular assortment of talent that would not disappoint.

The festivities would begin the night before. In an opening ceremony fitting of the talent in attendance, Dr. Joe Vigil, the eminent coach and sport-scientist gave a 45-minute presentation on the nature of running cross-country: “It’s alright for you people to dream,” Vigil began, “you dreamt to come here — you’re going to dream about the race tomorrow. You don’t have to be asleep to dream, people. And once you dream, you develop a passion for something. Follow your passion. I talk to runners about following their passion to be runners. It’s a great trip.” There wasn’t a soul who was left unmoved by Vigil’s speech.

Conditions on the morning of the race were perfect — 50 degrees Fahrenheit: sunny, cool and crisp. A palpable energy hung in the air; the thousands in attendance could feel it. Masters races led the morning. Women and men of various ages, all over 40, combated with the course still fresh underfoot. By the Open elite races — the women first, the men second — mud had spread, puddles were seeped in wide lanes, and the sun was poking through intermittent clouds.

The runners in the open event took off with a start. The women, being first, only had six kilometers to run, effectively one loop of the course. Just before the polo field, on the steepest incline of the course, eventual champion Amy Van Alstine of the Northern Arizona Elite separated herself from Laura Thweatt of the Boulder Track Club, the defending champion. They would cross the finish line a half-mile later one second apart.

The Open Men covered 10 kilometers and endured a race of attrition. Jonathan Grey of the Boulder Track Club was at the front for the duration, dropping runners every kilometer. Former high-school phenom and Texas University graduate Craig Lutz, running for the Northern Arizona Elite, rabbited the field of 400 athletes through the first mile: “I found myself bouncing around and racing like an idiot but at least I helped the field to a 4:28 first mile,” Lutz later reported. Lutz would finish 16th — and the race came down to Grey and Brooks Beast Garrett Heath, who had been stalking Grey until the final quarter-mile. In the final stretch it was Heath who had an ounce more in the tank, out-kicking Grey and winning by four seconds.

“I’ve never been in a race that has been that big and that competitive,” said Jacob Smith from the Run’n’Fun Track Club out of Saint Paul, Minn. “I had a teammate who said he was in 200th place and his first mile was in 4:40!” Thus was the range of emotion — a pace that was frighteningly fast from the start. For 800 meter Olympian Nick Symmonds, it panned out well. As one of the pre-race celebrities, it was unknown what a middle distance specialist could do over six miles cross-country: “It felt good. I just wanted to keep moving up,” Symmonds said afterwards.

But the true ethos lay on the shoulders of those enthusiast runners who lined up against the elites. Athletes like Dave Kyle who ran to and from work every day, fitting in training when it was convenient: “When we’re all finally out there on the course, and in the mud, the amateur status just doesn’t matter. We’re a bunch of runners going after the same goal,” Kyle would note. And much like in life, once the gun fired, status no longer mattered. Elite, veteran, weekend-warrior; they all found themselves on the same course facing the same challenge. It was alright to dream with their eyes open, after all.

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