If you build it — and design an old-school course and offer out-of-this-world beers at the finish line — they will come.
More than 1,000 runners from across the country competed Saturday in the 2013 USA Track & Field Club Cross-Country National Championships at River’s Edge Golf Course in Bend, racing on a course designed to emphasize cross-country’s muddy and colorful roots.
“This was a real cross-country course,” said Bend’s Ryan Bak, who finished seventh overall in the men’s 10,000-meter national championship running for the Central Oregon Running Klub (CORK). “So many times you go to a cross-country race and its just a grass track. This is how it was meant to be.”
The brainchild of local endurance standout Max King, the 2,000-meter course at River’s Edge featured long uphills, fast downhills, lots of mud, and several off-camber turns.
The open women’s 6K national championship race consisted of three loops, and the men’s 10K title event was made up of five laps around the course.
Joseph Gray, 29 and from Seattle’s Club Northwest, won the men’s national championship in 31 minutes, 5 seconds. Bak, 32, was the top local finisher in the men’s race in 31:23, while King placed 15th in 31:42 on his own course. Laura Thweatt, a 24-year-old with the Boulder (Colo.) Track Club, claimed victory in the open women’s race in 21:43.
“This is exactly what I was shooting for,” King said regarding the throwback design of his course. “Making it hard, having technical and strategic elements that make people think a little bit about racing and pacing. Hopefully (the course) got people thinking about racing and having fun instead of going out there thinking about what a grind the race is.”
King, who has won multiple USATF and Xterra trail and mountain running national championships, admitted that serving as the race’s course designer took a physical toll on him. But, he added, helping Bend host a USATF national championship event is bigger than his own personal performance goals.
“Yeah, I’m exhausted,” said King, whose pre-race routine Saturday included running around the course making last-minute fixes and painting the start line. “The last few days, hammering posts, it feels like I’ve been doing an eight-hour CrossFit workout. I’m not at my best, but that’s not the point. The point was to come out here and have fun racing my own course, a true cross-country course, and get back to loving the sport of cross-country.”
For the most part, competitors on a seasonably cool but dry Central Oregon Saturday seemed to appreciate King’s vision for a challenging national championship course, which included a beer garden and food vendors centrally located inside the 2K loop.
“Great course, not boring,” said Bob Landry, a 45-year-old racer who ran in the men’s masters race with his Greater Springfield (Mass.) Harrier teammates. “It favors the strength runner, a guy from Colorado who trains at altitude.”
“Max is a little crazy, that’s why we like him,” added Courtney Braun, a 30-year-old CORK racer. “There were some great mud spots, some tight turns, a killer uphill, some really fun downhill. It had everything.”
With more than 100 clubs from all corners of the country — teams came from places such as Atlanta, San Diego, Boston, New York City, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Phoenix, to name a few — the meet was a true national championship for the post-collegiate crowd.
“Joining a (running) club is great for someone who has the passion for running more than just recreationally and enjoys the team atmosphere and competitive side of running,” said Natty Plunkett, a 23-year-old who competed in the open women’s race with Seattle’s Oiselle Running Club. “This was great. It’s more low-key than college and you don’t have as many nerves, but you still get the enjoyment of competing.”
According to King, this year’s 16th annual national club championships ideally will serve as a springboard for Bend to host more elite running events in the future. The USATF’s Junior Olympic cross-country, mountain running and winter cross-country national championships are all events that could be targeted by Bend, according to King.
“Hopefully, USATF and other host cities take a look at this course Max put together and try to make their courses a little harder too,” said Bak, King’s CORK teammate, on the big-picture effect he hopes Saturday’s meet in Bend will have. “This is real cross-country. … It definitely takes more strength to do a course like this, but this is what you’re doing this time of year. You’re doing long (runs), you’re doing strength stuff. It’s the kind of course where you’ve got to go out a little more conservative and be smart working your way up the field.”
Notes: Beasts TC of Seattle won the open women’s team championship with 34 points, placing three runners among the top 10 finishers. Colorado’s Champions League Athletic Performance squad took the open men’s team race with 127 points, just beating out ZAP Fitness Reebok, which ended the day with 128 points. Kenyon Neuman, a former standout at Bend’s Summit High and the University of Colorado, ran with the Champions League Athletic Performance team and finished 17th overall in the open men’s race. … Lisa Nye, Bend High’s cross-country coach, took second in the masters women’s race.
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