Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Over the next three weekends, St. Olaf College's cross country course will provide the stage for three of the biggest events on the season's cross country calendar. This weekend, St. Olaf will host the MSHSL State Cross Country Championships. Next weekend, it will serve as the site for the NCAA Division III Central Regional. One weekend after that, it will host the NCAA Division III National Championships.
A lot of athletes' seasons will be made or lost on the IM fields and woods and prairie trails of the Northfield campus.
We spend a lot of time talking about athletes on Down the Backstretch, but today let's talk about a course. As a Northfield-area resident myself -- I can see St. Olaf's campus from our farmhouse north of town -- I've taken the opportunity to run over the St. Olaf course quite a few times this fall. While I haven't raced over its terrain since my college days in the 1980s when the course was less developed, I feel like I've gotten a good sense the venue which has hosted the State Meet since the mid-1990s. This year will mark the second time the D3 Championship has come to what is now my hometown.
After running the course on roughly a weekly basis this fall, I think it's a great venue for a challenging late season meet. It's a tougher-than-it-looks course that, I think, rewards smart running and alert racing. It's fair but it's not anything like a push-over.
The start is as you'd wish for a big-meet venue: wide open with turns that sweep rather than angle. Although the opening 600 meters runs across dull stretch of soccer and intramural fields, small berm-sized hills punctuate the open field providing some tough little physical tests amidst the early position-finding.
When the course leaves the open fields and enters the narrowed trails, runners meet the course's unique challenge for the first time -- balancing the desire for shortest distance between two points with the need efficient footing. The trail sections of the course often feature side-hills where you least want them. Running the tangents through the loop before the 1 mile mark means running up onto some frustrating slopes. Running in the worn paths, though, makes the course longer.
Do you run exactly 5000 meters and fight the side-hills? Or, do you run 5015 more efficient meters? Questions runners must face, and answer, turn-by turn.
In the rush-hour traffic of the first mile, the track chosen may be decided as much by the elbows and shoulders of competitors as anything else. But as the race moves forward, more and more racers will face the elemental question of where best to place their next steps.
Beyond the awkward side-hilling, there's lots of other micro-topography to the course. It's a course that's also hilly on an inches scale. Especially on the short "half-moon" loop after the mile split -- which the high school boys and girls don't run -- there's worn path, smooth grass, clumped grass, and otherwise uneven ground. Not exactly a rhythm runner's dream.
All the racers trace back across the IM fields, dropping down the berm-hills that they hustled up on the way out. Prevailing winds suggest a head-wind here -- consult the nearest wind turbine, rising monstrously in the near-distance, for race-day conditions. As often as not the leader across the windswept tundra is not the leader at the finish line.
When the racers leave the open fields -- collegians busting up a sharp hill to the pond loop, preps climbing gradually for the back loop -- the tangents-and-surfaces challenge resumes. The college runners seeking the shortest, most efficient route to the far end of the pond, before they make their own long climb to the back woods.
If you're old enough, you'll remember the two-minute stretch on space missions when the astronauts in the capsule were out of contact with the earth upon re-entry. To State Meet spectators, there's a similar feeling about the back loop. The racers -- tiring step-by-step but gaining the finish stride-by-stride -- lose themselves to observers deep in the woods. How they'll return is uncertain.
What they face back there is known: the steepest, longest climb of the course. For the high schoolers, with but a half-mile to run, the hill will separate contenders from pretenders. For the collegians, with further to race and more in the tank, it's a rough test just as matters are getting serious. They'll still race on -- the women for more than a mile, the men for two-and-a-half -- but the stronger they ran up that hill, the more likely they are to finish well in the stretch.
Even if the runners didn't notice it on their pre-race run or in the early miles, there's not a lot that's flat about the St. Olaf course. And what may have felt flat in one physiologic state might not feel so 12 hard-run minutes later. The collegians, especially, will feel the undulations as they rise and fall on their return trip through the pond loop. They'll pound down the sharp hill leading back the fields. The men will feel -- in their ankles and hips -- the berms, the side-hills, the wobbly footing as they rewind their opening miles.
And then it all culminates up that steep, IM field climb to the finish stretch. One last challenging, separating, frustrating, excruciating hill.
So close: just top it and sprint for home.
So far: Stublaski led Mead at the bottom of that climb last year; Mead led at the finish line.
Just what Minnesota's top high schoolers will paint with their efforts on Saturday on the St. Olaf canvas is yet to be seen. So too, what the best small college athletes in the region and nation can accomplish after that.
But, under clear skis or rain, wet footing or dry, the St. Olaf course itself will surely be a challenger no athlete can afford to take lightly.