Return to NeverNeverLand: The Boston Mayor's Cup
Regarded as one of the most competitive cross-country events in the eastern United States, the Boston Mayor's Cup offers a return to school-age racing and the big-meet atmosphere that goes with it.
Posted Monday, 23 September, 2002
To the uninitiated, chasing runners through the Wilderness and up Bear Cage Hill may sound more like a high-adventure tour of NeverNeverLand than a competitive race in the middle of Boston. Truth is, it's a little bit of both.
This is Boston's Franklin Park, New England's premier venue for cross-country racing -- a sport that, like Peter Pan's NeverNeverLand, has a perennially young population. Typically the domain of high school and college teams, the Franklin Park cross-country course is sometimes invaded by older runners. No such occasion is more anticipated than October's Boston Mayor's Cup.
The Mayor's Cup is one of a handful of major cross-country meets offering post-collegiate runners an opportunity to compete off-road with some of the nation's top athletes. And in that sense it is indeed a visit to NeverNeverLand, a return to school-age racing and the big-meet atmosphere that goes with it.
This year, the event is expanding to include the Franklin Park 5K, a race open to runners of all abilities. The new race is an incentive, race organizers say, to encourage mainstream runners to sample cross-country competition.
"We wanted to create an event that would be appealing to people who have always thought that cross-country events are only for highly competitive runners," said Michael Pieroni, head coach of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which co-presents the Mayor's Cup with Adidas. "The new race is perfect for runners who have never tried cross-country or who haven't run it since high school."
The new addition rounds out a day of events that has evolved into a festival of cross-country races, including the 8K men's race, the 5K women's race, 1.1-mile boys' and girls' races, and now the open 5K race. This day of racing is organized by the New England chapter of USA Track and Field and the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.
Begun 12 years ago, the Mayor's Cup is regarded as one of the most competitive cross-country events in the eastern United States, drawing teams and individuals from across the US.
"It's a major meet on a national scale," said John Barbour, the head coach of the Greater Lowell Road Runners and a five-time Mayor's Cup competitor. "One of the things that makes the Mayor's Cup particularly wonderful is that it is so competitive. It brings so many high-caliber runners together. It's wonderful to be there just as a spectator, but as a runner it pulls the best out of you."
"It gets everybody revved up," agreed Amy Lyman, an All-American track and cross-country runner at Boston College who has since run for the BAA team.
Part of the national circuit of cross-country meets, the Mayor's Cup is one of the earliest big events of the season, a first opportunity for teams to size each other up and measure the competition.
"It's a great training ground for teams looking for a championship later in the season," said Pieroni. "We give them a good test on a good course to see how they're doing and where the team stands."
The Franklin Park course itself is as much a star of the Mayor's Cup road races as the runners who come to compete. Franklin Park has been the setting for regional blockbusters for decades and in 1992 was home to the cross-country world championships.
"I mean, my gosh, it's Franklin Park, one of the really storied cross-country venues alongside [New York City's] Van Cortlandt Park," said Barbour.
Designed for racing, the course is honest, classic cross-country. While not necessarily the most demanding of courses, it does include an uphill bump at Bear Cage Hill (once home to the bears of Franklin Park Zoo) and a mix of terrain to keep runners alert.
"It's not just a park that has some trails, and it's not a golf course that is shared by runners on
certain days. It's an actual cross-country course that was designed for the community to run," said Erik "Ned" Nedeau, a five-time All-American runner at Northeastern University and since 1995 the head coach of the Amherst College track and cross-country programs.
"Franklin Park gives you the whole range of running: uphill, light grade, downhill and flat," said Barbour. "You've got trail and gravel, you've got good footing and tough footing."
The 8K and 5K courses are both multiple-loop courses, but runners experience the loops differently each time, running the segments of each loop in a different order. In the men's 8K, for example, runners circle the Franklin Park field and the venerable White Stadium twice, then climb Bear Cage Hill. The runners descend back to the field and into the Wilderness, a leafy area in full autumn color at the Mayor's Cup. Then it's back to the field and, once again, up Bear Cage Hill, into the Wilderness, and then the race to the finish.
"It is generally a course that favors faster runners because it is wide, packed down and generally flat," said Nedeau. "But when there has been a lot of rain and everything becomes wet and muddy, it instantly turns into a course that will favor a stronger, more distance-oriented runner."
"It's probably the best spectator course there is," said Lyman. "It's wide open, and you can really see what's going on."
Trying Something New
The Mayor's Cup is a high peak in the relatively low-profile landscape of cross-country racing. Although the sport is a staple of high school and college competition, post-collegiate cross-country races are typically local, low-key events. Often attended by a small, dedicated cadre of cross-country afficionados, very few of these races attract the numbers of a standard road race.
"There are not a lot of really good, post-collegiate races for cross-country, and the Mayor's Cup is one of the exceptions," said Nedeau.
To cross-country enthusiasts, the relatively low participation in the sport among post-college runners signals an opportunity for mainstream road runners to discover new challenges amid new surroundings. That's the thinking behind the addition of the new Franklin Park 5K to the Mayor's Cup roster, to provide a welcoming entry point for sampling cross-country running on one of the nation's top courses.
"There are a lot of runners out there who are interested in trying something new," said Pieroni. "People have explored marathons and triathlons, and we think that those runners will be interested in trying cross-country, too."
Brains and Brawn
"If you haven't tried cross-country, you owe it to yourself to try it," said Barbour. "It's the true vine of running. It's where we all came from; our hunter-gatherer ancestors were cross-country runners."
Indeed, it's the primitive, raw aspect of cross-country that is its primary allure. Traversing multiple terrains, slogging through mud, running among the trees, racing across fields: cross-country is about overcoming nature as well as the competition. It's a challenge that requires both brains and brawn.
"When you're used to running roads, you can get into a rhythm, but cross-country isn't a rhythm sport," said Lyman. "It requires a lot more strength. But a lot of rhythm runners can translate into cross-country if they're strong."
And a level head helps, too. With constantly changing terrain and, often, a competitive field, cross-country races can be distracting, chaotic.
"What cross-country helps you develop is to keep your head in the race for the entire distance," said Barbour. "It's very intense, constantly changing, and you have to be on your game mentally. That's an acquired skill to be able to distribute your mental and physical energy evenly across the whole race.
"I'm glad it's not easy," Barbour added. "Things that often provide the greatest satisfaction are the things that appear most intimidating at first. Anything worth doing should appear a little bit difficult. All I can say is that you just need to try it and find out how much fun it is."
Boston Mayor's Cup website
October 27, 2002
10:15am: Girls 1.1-mile race
10:30am: Boys 1.1-mile race
10:45am: Franklin Park 5K
11:30am: Women's Championship 5K
Noon: Men's Championship 8K
Women's Championship 5K: Under 21:00
Men's Championship 8K: Under 30:00
Franklin Park 5K: Open