Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 10 Jan 2014 05:23:17 -0500

Grass Roots

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from October 1988.)

Cross-country was my first running love. Right after the final bell ended each school day in fall, my teammates and I ran over grassy hills and fields. We raced at distances that seemed long to us then but were only approximate. It was racing at its most elemental – against the competition and the conditions, not against the clock.

Like most first romances, this one didn't last. I outgrew my small-town roots, moving to the city to start college and leaving the old, soft training ground behind. This type of racing all but ended my final autumn at Drake University (when I finished about 200th of 220 at the snowy NCAA meet).

Opportunities to run cross-country dried up after graduation, but the memories have never dimmed. They bring back cool autumn days, damp grass, crunchy leaves, mud that pulls off shoes, hills so steep you can reach out and touch them.

This fall I got to be a love-struck kid again at 45, if only for a half-hour. That chance came in Jackson, Michigan.

Scott Hubbard, Paul Christman, John Parker and I were a long way from being kids. At 35, Hubbard was the only one of us under 40.

We had come to Jackson as writers covering the road and track gruelathon known as the Ultimate Runner. This five-event race (10K, 100, 400, mile and marathon) appealed to none of us as participants. But when the organizers added a five-mile cross-country race in the empty hour before the last event, we reporters eagerly signed up.

Hubbard won the 30-39 division. Parker, Christman and I placed 1-2-3 in 40-49, but honest reporting forces me to add that the three of us made up almost the entire age-group. More to the point, this race reminded us again what we once loved about this branch of running.

I often appeal at this time each year for more cross-country opportunities for non-kids. Runner Fred Lawrence wants me to intensify what he calls this “rabble-rousing.”

“Encourage the big wheels of the sport to put more time and money into this aspect of distance running,” says Lawrence. “Talk to them about how wonderful it would be to get a grass-roots cross-country program going.”

Sadly, I detect no great demand for more of these races. Runners who grew up on the roads don’t trust surfaces that aren’t smooth and hard, and don’t choose routes that aren’t billed as “flat and fast.” Today’s shoe manufacturers design most of their products for road running, and their bulk discourages using them anywhere else.

No one called splits in the Jackson race. Miles weren’t marked. The actual distance may have been short of its advertised five miles, or longer.

That’s how cross-country should be. Concerns with exact times and distances are best left to the roads and the tracks.

The brave few novices in the Jackson race approached it with caution, even trepidation. They looked awkward on this unfamiliar ground and confused by the lack of time landmarks. They seemed afraid of falling and timid about getting their shoes dirty.

Then once the newbies finished, comments included, “That was fun,” and “When can I do this again?” It might not have been love at first sight, but they liked cross-country enough to want another look. Now we need more places to do this kind of dating.


Locally I see two opposite trends in cross-country. The high school sport, which thrives in Oregon, has placed increased emphasis on yearly and all-time performance lists statewide. These try to compare the incomparable (times on courses that vary widely in degree of difficulty, and sometimes even in actual distance) and reward routes that are flat and fast.

Older runners in my town have more chances each year to try trail races. These are scaled-down ultras, on similar rugged terrain but at mostly shorter distances. In November we have the Autumn Trails with races of 3.5 to 16 miles, and in December the Frozen Trails at 5K to 15 miles (plus a 50K). These events look more like traditional cross-country running than the current cross-country races do.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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