Comparing Liberty Bell to Desert Twilight

What are we to make of all those jaw-dropping times out of Desert Twilight last Friday?

If all this keeps up, Desert Twilight may become the new rage for Colorado high school school cross country runners. But, the economy will have to hold out enough for people to continue being able to afford the trip.

For years on end, Liberty Bell has been the destination of choice as a place for Colorado high schoolers to set their PRs and etch them in stone. And, it's worked out pretty well. After all, it's still pretty tough to find enough room to inhale on the Liberty Bell starting line.

I've heard it can still be done if you time it while the people on either side of you are exhaling.

But, there is a new rival to the Liberty Bell's throne. Never mind the rival in Wiggins, the real rival is scheduled at a time when most teams might still be willing to send their varsity squads. The catch is that the rival resides in Arizona at about 1400 feet of elevation.

That rival would be the Desert Twilight. A few folks thought last year might be an aberration. If it was, this year was an even bigger aberration.

It would seem that the Grande Sports Academy course is rapidly becoming the new destination of choice for your cross country PR. And, it looks as if running under the lights in early October might be a more effective way to get that PR than running under the sun on November morning (or, midday if you happen to be in the championship race).

If you haven't been there yet, you might be part of a newly-developing minority group. But, let me explain the general layout even so.

The course is flat, very flat. Not perfectly flat, but largely flat. There is one substantial, but very quick, dip on the way in and one on the way out.

Between the two dips lie acres upon multiplied acres of Bermuda grass with only the slightest hint of rise or fall here and there.

"But how," you ask, "can a grass course be fast? I can easily comprehend how a packed trail, asphalt, and a net downhill could translate into a fast course. But grass?!"

Believe it. The key here lies in understanding what Bermuda grass is.

In Colorado, we are accustomed to Kentucky Bluegrass. It takes lots of water that Arizona doesn't have. It doesn't stand up very well to Arizona kind of heat. It grows tall, deep green, and lush when well watered.

Bermuda grass is sort of green and sort of not, and never a deep green unless someone just spilled paint on it. More to the point, though, it grows flat to ground. Growing tall in Arizona would be an instant death sentence. Survival means hugging the ground. And, "lush" never was a word used to describe Bermuda grass. If we saw it in our lawns here in Colorado, we would waste no time rooting it out as a weed.

They work on a different definition of "weed" in Arizona.

Certainly, Bermuda grass has more give than asphalt, but it runs a lot like asphalt. Ask a golfer about the difference in how a ball rolls on an Arizona fairway versus a Colorado fairway.

Combine that Bermuda grass surface with a flat course, low elevation, night air, and a heaping helping of adrenaline-addled competition and you have a recipe for astonishing times.

How astonishing?

Consider that, of the 15 boys (and, yes, that is a small number) who ran at both Liberty Bell and Desert Twilight this year, the average was 26 seconds faster at DT. For the 14 girls who ran both races, DT averaged 24 seconds faster.

This certainly wasn't the fastest Liberty Bell on record, but not all the Colorado athletes who ran at DT this year got to run under the lights, either. If you're going down to Desert Twilight to knock a PR out of the park, you really do want to be running in one of the Sweepstakes races, or at least one of the Championship races. Otherwise, you might be mostly gathering firsthand experience in what heat does to race performance.

To build our base of data, we could try to go back to last year, but there were no athletes who ran both Liberty Bell and Desert Twilight last year. Bummer.

It would appear we'll have to grow our database in the future rather than the past. But, not to worry, I'm guessing there will be a considerable spike in Colorado attendees next fall.