Off-road race series succeeds at bringing people of all ages and abilities together.
Written by: Mark Johnson
John Cross has earned the right to sleep in.
The U.S. Army infantryman was captured by Hitler’s army in December 1944. Then 19 years old, Cross was imprisoned while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge—the turning point in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
So why is it that, as the sun rises over the eucalyptus trees and crenellated Spanish towers of San Diego’s Balboa Park, the 86-year-old Cross is lining up to race the 46th Annual Balboa Park Four-Mile Cross-Country (XC) race, the second event of this year’s Dirt Dog Series? He could well be sleeping in, having a cup of coffee, flipping through the paper and savoring the freedom he preserved.
Why indeed? “When I retired,” Cross recalls from the shade of a tree after winning his age division in the event on Sept. 4, “I just wanted to get into something to stay in good physical shape. And running is the most convenient, interesting thing to do. So I started running in 1990.” The former POW says he’s raced 11 marathons but did nothing physical during his post-war working years. “No, not really. When I was in college I played tennis. That was my sport interest then.”
Now he’s a runner. Full on. Last year’s Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon was the first 26-miler he didn’t finish. Cross says he’s never been injured running—though his dog recently took him out. “I tripped on a dog leash, and I fell down and skinned up my arm pretty badly.” He points to the bandages. “It bruised the elbow. It’s still sore. That was a month ago.”
Tom Keegan approaches us. At 71, he’s a relative youngster. Keegan has been running for a quarter century. “Deteriorating each year,” he explains with a grin. Someone beat him by seven minutes, he says with dismay. “I’m always interested in watching guys from my age group. It’s just amazing.”
When he started running, Keegan did “a lot of half marathons and 10Ks.” He began training with the San Diego Track Club, a sponsor of the iconic Dirt Dog event on a course that has been hosting races since the 1940s, when soldiers like John Cross found themselves washing onto San Diego’s shores from the European front.
On this shockingly blue morning with an edge of fall in the air, Keegan says the Dirt Dog races keep him sharp for tennis, and he’s entertaining thoughts of greater tasks. “I’m thinking Ironman wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I hate the cold water in the ocean.”
Work and working out—in one form or another—define these runners’ very existence. Cross mentions his capture in December, 1944. “It was an unforgettable experience being a POW because I didn’t just sit at a prison camp for five months. I had to go out in what they called a forced labor group and work for the Germans.” That wicked Belgian winter damaged him. “After the Battle of the Bulge when I was taken prisoner, it was so cold that I got frozen feet; technically it’s called frostbite.” The nerve damage was permanent, though Cross claims that as long as he doesn’t run barefoot the injuries do not affect his running today.
I turn, and 50 yards away I find Terrance Freeman. He’s sweaty, beaming with accomplishment. Today the Navy-enlisted man is only about eight years older than Cross was when he shipped out to Belgium in the 1940s. Freeman admits that he took nearly 10 years off from running after graduating from high school. He just started training again. Literally. “I ran about four miles last week,” he admits with a laugh. “It was two miles one day, then a mile two different days.”
Freeman lives a few blocks down the hill towards downtown San Diego and was inspired to race the Dirt Dog because a Navy fitness test looms. “Have to run a mile and a half in less than 13 minutes.” Of the course that takes runners down and up a steep dirt track beneath the soaring Laurel Street Bridge, Freeman says “Ooof. It was a butt-kicker! But I’m glad I did it because I got up off the couch. I set my alarm for 6:30 and I’m like, ‘I’m not going—man, my knees!’ Then my wife said, ‘I don’t want to hear you crying about your knees.’”
Cross-country races are competitive but laid-back affairs, especially compared to your typical traffic-jammed 10K or half marathon. “I haven’t run something of this magnitude since high school.” Freeman points out. “I was expecting them to blow a gun. You get that nervous feeling right before you hear the gun. But I didn’t get that today… I kind of miss that feeling.”
Sixty-year-old Robin Paine runs with the San Diego Track Club and is familiar with pre-race jitters after 30 years of racing. A potter, Paine handcrafted the ceramic medallions Dirt Dog racers receive at the finish.
Holding her age-group winner’s trophy, Paine says steep pitches, dirt and grass make cross-country more thrilling than a curbs-and-concrete road race. “I think this course is one of the most challenging. It’s a true cross-country course. You start out on the grass, you have those big huge hills, horse trails. You are hardly on the pavement.” Paine is doing all eight events in the 2010 USATF/ASCIS Dirt Dog XC Series this year: “I did all of them but one last year.” She runs 30 to 40 miles a week. “I used to be a triathlete,” she justifies, as if 30-40 miles were not enough, along with her jobs as a college teacher and potter. To build up her miles, “I am going to have to retire. As I get older it takes longer to recover,” Paine says.
Nearby Whitney Patton probably doesn’t need as much recovery time as Paine. With the bristling posture and straight-on gaze of an accomplished runner, Patton is an assistant track coach at Cal State San Marcos.
“A group of us graduated recently; we were coached by Steve Scott (one of the greatest American milers, Scott ran 136 sub-4:00 miles in his career). We are just kind of trying to continue our running in a fun atmosphere.”
Next to Patton, 22-year-old fellow graduate Casey Evans says, “we are just having a lot of fun trying to keep our running going.” Asked about his mileage, the whippet-thin Evans says, “We just got back from Mammoth.” They were slotting in 70 miles a week at 9,000 feet. “We are just trying to keep that rolling.”
I ask about jobs. The crowd of ridiculously-fit 20-somethings toe the turf, share glances and nervous laughs. “We are looking!” Evans exclaims. “In pursuit of jobs,” Patton adds.
I suggest they not hurry, consider grad school. Their faces glow. On this pellucid early fall day in one of the world’s most glorious parks, it’s never been clearer that there will always be time for life in a cubicle.
“I just graduated in May,” Evans notes with confidence. “We’ve got options.”
Patton says that while the Dirt Dog race vibe is laid back, cross-country attracts those with a love for running fast and hard over changing terrain. Maybe it’s an atavistic yearning for life on the savannah ringing up through the depths of our DNA. “As much as we want to be relaxed about it, there’s always that competitive edge, and that’s why we are still out here,” Says Patton.
Do these young athletes recommend cross-country racing to the uninitiated, those who have perhaps done a few road-bound 5Ks and 10Ks? “Definitely,” Evans urges. “You come out to these kind of meets and you aren’t looking for the goodie bag afterwards with all the free coupons.”
“The races aren’t $110 to register,” Patton adds. “They are 20 bucks.”
“You come here to run and enjoy the scenery and the people,” Evans explains. “Everyone out here is so nice, and it’s such an amazing community.”
Paul Greer and Thom Hunt organize the Dirt Dog XC Series. Greer agrees that cross-country events are recession-friendly. “They are cheaper. Today’s event was maybe $10 to $15.”
While this Labor Day weekend race always attracts the area’s finest runners, Greer emphasizes that cross-country’s democratic accessibility opens the race genre to all. From World War II heroes to aspiring graduates, and from elite athletes in $200 racing flats to 10-year-olds in tennis shoes and Bermuda shorts (yes, they were out there plying the Balboa Park trails), cross-country is for everybody.
“Don’t be intimidated by it,” Greer enthuses. “It’s trails. It’s grass. Everyone come on out!”