Embrace the mud

Bend's Max King is hoping cross-country racing is reinvigorated by returning the sport to early beginnings

By Beau Eastes / The Bulletin / @beastes

Published Nov 4, 2013 at 04:00AM

Bend's Max King wants to take cross-country running back to its roots.

Inspired by the surge in popularity of cyclocross — a sort of obstacle-course racing on bicycles — King, one of the country's top trail runners and a former U.S. Olympic hopeful in the steeplechase and the marathon, is hoping to get cross-country off the smooth, manicured fairways of golf courses and back to the mud and muck of its early heyday.

“Cross-country (racing) comes from a background of running through plowed fields, going down dirt trails and maybe even hopping over a couple of fences,” says King, 33 and the race director for the 2013 USA Track & Field National Club Cross-Country Championships, which will take place in Bend on Dec. 14. “Somehow we've gotten away from that. It's become more of a grass track meet.”

Not this December.

King has been carving out this year's national championship course at River's Edge Golf Course — the past few weekends he literally has been trailblazing, clearing sagebrush and making trails between fairways — and runners will have plenty of short uphills, some hillside scrambles and maybe even a hay bale or two to clear. King's course is a 2,000-meter loop on which competitors will run a number of circuits, depending on their racing division.

“A lot of people will be yelling at me in December,” jokes King, who was an All-America cross-country runner at Cornell University. “I had an old cross-country coach in college who talked about taking in the landscape (when designing a race) and letting a course present itself. ... I took that philosophy with me when I started walking around the golf course and let it come to me.”

King and the Central Oregon Running Klub (CORK), the local running organization that is helping stage the race national event, hope to make next month's race a gut-wrenching blast that is accessible to anyone with the will to run. The men's open and masters races at the USATF nationals will be 10-kilometer competitions, while their female counterparts will be 6K events. CORK is also hosting what it calls a “community” 4K race that will kick off the national championship festivities.

With racers competing on a loop, the event should be especially spectator-friendly, King says. Food and beer will also be on hand to enhance the atmosphere.

“I did my first cross-country race last year and had a blast,” says Kari Strang, president of CORK. “It was all the fun of trail running or ultra running shrunk down to a short distance. There's all these different components and challenges. ... Hopefully, this (King's USATF event) will ignite a little bit of passion in the sport and grow some enthusiasts.”

Based on past results, plenty of runners should be in town to spread the gospel of cross-country. Last year's club nationals in Lexington, Ky., drew more than 1,200 runners from across the U.S. As the host club, CORK is looking to field at least two full teams — seven runners per squad — in each race and race division.

“We're well on our way,” says Strang, who encourages anyone who wants to race or volunteer for the event to contact CORK. “We have some racers that are really competitive and others that just want to give it a try. We really want that full range of the spectrum.”

While the club cross-country nationals are likely to be in Bend this year only — CORK and the local tourism organization Visit Bend won a one-year bid from the USATF — King is looking at December's event as a springboard for future cross-country races in the area. He plans to continue his fall cross-country series and possibly bid for more USATF national events like the Junior Olympic Cross-Country Championships. Mainly, he wants locals and tourists alike to have a blast next month, all the while reinvigorating the sport in Central Oregon and beyond.

“The race will be good and challenging,” King says. “We want to take that cyclocross mentality and put that into cross-country running. ... Announcers, fire pits, beer vendors. It's a ton of fun and people love that stuff. More than anything, we want to help the sport grow and make it more interesting again.”

2013 USATF National Club Cross-Country Championships

When: Saturday, Dec. 14

Where: River's Edge Golf Course, Bend

Schedule: Community 4K, 9 a.m.; masters women's 6K, 9:45 a.m.; masters men's 10K, 10:45 a.m.; open women's 6K, noon; open men's 10K, 12:45 p.m.

Cost: $35 on or before Dec. 6; $60 on or before Dec. 9. All competitors must be USATF members. Registration closes Dec. 10.

Website: www.usatf.org or www.centraloregonrunningklub.org

•Want to run and/or help out?

If you are interested in racing or volunteering for the USA Track & Field National Club Cross-Country Championships, email the Central Oregon Running Klub at centraloregonrunningklub@gmail.com.