The Eternal Magic of Van Cortlandt Park

In mid-May, just as New York City was finally seeing a decline in its COVID-19 infection rate, the New York Times ran a story about how some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods had emptied out by “40 percent or more” after the pandemic hit. Unsurprisingly, the mass exodus of the well-to-do inspired contempt among those who didn’t have the option of motoring out to their second home on Long Island or in the Catskills. For my part, I took the sour grapes route and decided that it was better to be in New York. The approach came in handy while Strava-stalking my defector runner friends in their various idylls. Let them have the world, I thought. Steadfast New Yorkers still have Van Cortlandt Park.

If you know, you know. Van Cortlandt, or “Vanny” for insiders and posers, is home to what is surely the most storied cross-country course in the United States. The 1,100-acre park in the Bronx has hosted races for more than a century; generations of runners have stampeded over the flats of the parade ground and into the gnarlier, wooded sections of the back hills. The first significant climb on the course is alternatively referred to as Vault or Cemetery Hill—a reminder that before it became a public park, this land served as the private burial grounds for the Van Cortlandt family. The place is also haunted by the ghosts of runners past. For certain macabre souls, to race at Vanny is to engage in a little jock necromancy, to feel a supernatural connection with anyone who may once have felt the sting of the back hills, or the sense of being hunted as you emerge from the woods and start pushing for home.

The park was the site of the men’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in 1968 and ‘69, the latter year resulting in a third-place finish by an Oregon freshman named Steve Prefontaine. More recently, Van Cortlandt has been a venue for the high school triumphs of titans like Edward Cheserek, Mary Cain, and Katelyn Tuohy. Depending on the competition, the distance may change—the traditional high school course is 2.5 miles, while college and club level events might be anywhere from 5K (3.1 miles) to 15K (9.3 miles)—but every Vanny race includes the treachery and topographic variation that is the mark of a “true” cross-country course. You run on grass. You run on crushed gravel. There are plenty of spots to trip and smash your face. 

But not as many as there used to be. In 1997, the city of New York spent $1.5 million to resurface Van Cortlandt’s trails and install a drainage system to help mitigate the effects of erosion. The improvements were badly needed, but the project also severed a connection to the past; old-timers became wistful about the days when racing on Van Cortlandt’s trails included additional hazards like exposed roots and ankle-busting divots. There’s a coach on my local running team named Anthony “Tony” Ruiz. Now in his late fifties, Ruiz grew up in the city and was a high school standout in his day. I’d always assumed he was solely an 800-meter guy, but when I recently brought this up he corrected me by proudly pointing out that he’d once run 15:51 on the Vanny 5K course, “back when Vanny was tough.”

Vanny still felt pretty tough to me when I ran a 5K time trial in the park earlier this month on my 38th birthday. I ran my first race in Van Cortlandt ten years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, and have returned countless times. It doesn’t get easier. What better way, I thought, to celebrate the passing of another year than with some quantifiable measure of my physical decline? (There’s also a bakery directly across the street from the finish line that makes a transcendent carrot cake.) After a brief warm-up, I lined up on the north end of the parade grounds and set off across the grass. (As part of the ‘97 renovation, sections of the Van Cortlandt course were demarcated with a series of white, tortoise-and-hare-themed signposts—very useful for such solo efforts.) I was already feeling depleted by the time I veered into the woods for a trundling ascent of Vault Hill. My second mile was a minute slower than my first. Things were not going well. 

There’s a point, however, in the traditional Van Cortlandt 5K when you crest the last real hill and begin a series of descents before returning to the flats for the final 800 meters. Runners who have saved enough juice can ride the momentum all the way to the finish. Even though it was obvious that I wasn’t going to produce anything stupendous on the day, I was still able to accelerate on the downhills. My discomfort gave way to elation as I was briefly transported back to those vanished years of racing on forest trails in early September. Invigorated, I even managed to sprint the last 100 meters.

“Youth,” Martin Amis once wrote, “can perhaps be defined as the illusion of your own durability.” Sooner or later, the jig is up. But for the aging cross-country runner, fall is the season of eternal return—a chance to wallow in the past and, perhaps, regain the illusion once more. In New York, we are lucky, because the ghosts of Vanny are always waiting. 

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