Asphalt is a big part of the reason that Liberty Bell tends to run very fast. Photo by Jeff McCoy.
Everyone talks about how certain courses run faster or slower, but nobody has yet laid down an objective standard by which to measure the quickness of a cross country course--at least not for courses in Colorado. I hope to move a little closer to that this fall and hope for some input from many of you along the way.
For now, I'd like to offer some subjective evaluations of several of the more prominent cross country courses in the state. I've dealt with only ones I'm familiar with, whether from first-hand experience or from long experience with scratching my head over the results coming out of those courses. I've lumped each course into one of five different categories--the screamers, the merely fast, the meanies (as in average, not as in pernicious), the tough, and the brutal. Give me a little grief if you don't like the assessments.
Liberty Bell - Last year was an aberration. Aberrations come for a variety of reasons, things like temperatures in the high 80s and low barometric pressure. Both of those applied to last year's Liberty Bell race. A downhill course. A course composed entirely of asphalt and groomed, densely packed trail dirt. Add a little adrenaline from the mega meet atmosphere and you have what Liberty Bell is--the fastest heavy-duty course in the state.
Anna Banana - Anna Banana might compete with Liberty Bell if only the meet drew more teams. Frankly, though, it's hard to assemble massive sets of team entries on the western slope. AB is a little lower elevation than Liberty Bell, very flat, and has lots of hard surface for the runners to get moving on. Where it goes off the hard surfaces, the trails are flat, groomed, and fast.
Delta - I've been known to refer to Confluence Park as the Delta Speedway. Whitney Anderson once ran 16-something here. That, folks, is ripping. Very little hard surface on the course, but it's flat, it's low elevation by Colorado standards, and--once again--the trails are highly groomed and packed. The Delta heat can be a limiting factor on Labor Day weekend, however. This course is just a stone's throw from a place called "The Stinking Desert." I'm not kidding about that, either. Okay, maybe two stone's throws.
Alamosa (Don Graf) - Okay, so this one is at 7544 feet, give or take a couple feet (which is all the giving and taking there is to be found in Alamosa). Whatever people run here on the second weekend of the season takes them most of the rest of the season to match--if they ever match it. I'm guessing much of the race is run on golf cart paths, because there is no way grass should run this fast.
Monte Vista Golf Course (Eric Wolff) - Just about everything we just discussed about the Alamosa course applies to the Monte Vista course as well. Nobody will ever mistake the Monte Vista Golf Course for the home of the British Open.
Adams County Fairgrounds - I've only seen this one via satellite imagery on Google Earth, but I see some hard surface and I see very level terrain overall. I also know something of the history. It tends to produce some very fast times.
Lamar - This may be the lowest elevation course in the state that's used every year. Times are consistently very fast. There is some terrain, sort of, in the park in Lamar, but the course apparently doesn't take maximum advantage of that opportunity.
Wiggins - I've been to Wiggins, though never on race day. But I know this about Wiggins... You can run through people's yards, you can run through corn fields, or you can have a road race. Guess which of the three is the Wiggins Invitational? This one always produces very fast times. Oh, and elevation is kind of low out there, too. If you don't have a place to go on league meet weekend and are looking for a PR, this is a nice place to end up.
Brush - I think much of what applies to Wiggins applies to Brush as well, though I've not been to Brush in a very long time. The times coming out of Brush are consistently quite fast. I'm told the pig plant doesn't exist any longer, which I'm sure is a relief to the cross country runners.
Glenwood Springs - I know they moved the course last year, and I also know that suddenly the Glenwood Invitational was producing some chart-busting times. Not sure if that was an aberration or not, but for now Glenwood has earned a spot on my screamers list.
The Merely Fast
St. Vrain (Lyons) - You look at this course and think, "There's no way this course runs fast!" Yet, somehow, it always does. The big meet atmosphere probably helps spike the adrenaline a little. And, lately, the competition has become first class, too.
Monument Valley Park - Maybe if Colorado Springs was a little lower elevation, this one could edge over into the screamers category. There is no hard surface, but the trails are packed about as hard as dirt ever gets. A little grass at the start and finish has a dampening effect as well.
Canon City Riverwalk - Much the same as Monument Valley Park, only a thousand feet lower. If this one had more consistently top-tier competition, it might tilt over into the screamers category. No hard surface, no hills, a good bit of shade, very hard packed.
Fountain Creek Park (TCA and others) - There are at least five meets scheduled for this park this year. People are catching on that it's fun to run here. It's fast, and half of the route is shady. The trails are very nicely groomed. But 1000 meters of grass keeps this one in the merely fast category.
Waneka Reservoir (Centaurus) - Flat and fast, some grass, apparently. Not quite a screamer.
Fort Collins - I don't know the course, though I do know the area, and I do know what kind of times it tends to produce. A good dose of hard surface and very little up and down makes this one a mostly fast option.
Dave Sanders (Clement Park) - Hard surface on the back side compensates for whatever slowing factors this course has on the front side. The solid competition that comes regularly to this meet helps to ensure that times will tend toward fast.
Elmwood Golf Course - This is the old Pueblo state course. The level of competition this course sees on a regular basis has declined somewhat in recent years, but it's still fast despite the grass. Low elevation, some hard surface, some shade, and a mostly flat course keep this one fast.
Andy Myers - This one is almost a screamer, but not quite. Definitely some hard surface, but some grass as well. I'm not at all familiar with the specifics of the course, but it has a long history of fast times, though little in the way of exceptional times.
Pathfinder Park (Florence) - If ever you got a nice, cool day along the Arkansas River just west of Florence, this one might run very fast. But, it's an ordeal to run that fast when you're baking in the sunlight. All dirt road and trail, sometimes a patch or two of loose dirt, but very level.
Chatfield Challenge - There must be something teams like about this meet because this may be the best-attended weekday meet in the state. The drawing card, however, is not the lightning-fast times. This course simply does not produce that kind of times.
DeKoevend Park (sans creek crossing) - Grass and a few short climbs keep this one in the average range. Paces pick up along the canal trail, but don't get to stay elevated all that long. Maybe the shifting of gears for runners further helps to dampen times.
Fountain-Fort Carson - The repeated shifting of gears on this one is definitely a factor. You have sections of grass, sections of concrete, sections of hard-packed trail, and sections of looser dirt. There's a big dip just before the finish. It's tough to establish and maintain a rhythm on this course. There's a lot of direct sunlight to be had on a warm day, too.
Bear Creek Park (Doherty) - The trails are very fast except for where you have to ascend the never-ending hill. Some iterations of this course have had a rough patch on the west end of the course as well--not sure if that's been true in more recent years. Otherwise, the course ranks as fast.
Viele Lake (Pat Patten) - I'm told this is a tamer course than the state course the one year they held the state meet there. The fact the state meet was only there one year tells you something, though. A good bit of grass. Only average times on this course typically.
Montezuma-Cortez - Okay, so when it's been raining for three days, this one becomes a bit of an adventure. Otherwise, however, you have the hill up, the hill down, and mostly flat elsewhere. One additional limiting factor, however, is the amount of single-tracking you have to do when you're above the Fairgrounds area.
Widefield - This one is harder than it looks. The more or less constant little ups and downs get to you before the end of the race. Grass keeps speed subdued as well. As meanies go, this one has more of an edge to it than most.
DeKoevend Park (with the creek crossing) - I know of two runners who've broken ankles at the creek crossing. This is a spot not to be trifled with. Everything that applies to the course without the creek crossing applies here and the creek crossing trips this one over into the "tough" bucket, but it's not one of the tougher of the toughs.
Lori Fitzgerald/State - A lot of uneven footing and two agonizing trips up Powerline Climb make this one a tough one. Whether this course lives to host runners another day beyond this year remains to be seen.
Salida - Kenny Wilcox described this one to me as flat and fast. I'm still thinking about whether or not to forgive him for that. It is a beautiful setting and he runs a nice meet, so it's (mostly) all good. But, don't be fooled, you're always going up or down on this course and there is a lot of grass (funny how golf courses work that way). Oh, and there is also the altitude factor. You're a mile or two west of Poncha Springs on this one. That's on your way up Monarch Pass. Enough said.
Air Academy - If the single tracks don't get to you, the hill will. The hill isn't that long, but it is gnarly. And it comes right before an extended double single track. You're in a bad mood after the hill and it only gets worse when you can hardly pass anyone for the next half-mile. Elevation adds to the pain factor. The course is much nicer if it's rained recently.
Chris Severy (Aspen) - There is no consistent Chris Severy course. There have been iterations that would trip over into the brutal category--like the year I ran in the citizens' race at this one. We started at the school, ran 1.3 miles uphill, leveled out for a short stretch, then ran gonzo downhill over hummocky sections of grasses. I wanted to kiss the ground when I crossed the finish line on a level patch of earth. Not all iterations have been that challenging, but they all have a pernicious bent. You're at altitude and you're going up and down. You come to this one expecting a little pain. If the course whetted your appetite a little, try going home over Independence Pass.
Loveland - I don't know how a park in Loveland can have such an unkind reputation, but this one does. Lots of grass, some rolling terrain, and runners consistently report dead legs after this one. Kelsey Lakowske once handled it pretty well, though.
Horizon Runners Roost (Addenbrooke Park) - Do I understand correctly that this one is five water crossings and a few sprints? Bill Stahl is just a little demented, I think. Nobody runs fast here, but I don't think that's the point of the event.
Lake County - Nothing at over 10,000 feet is easy. This one wasn't meant to be easy. The footing isn't so great. It has hills. And some coaches got rather up in arms a few years ago when this one hosted a regional meet.
Battle Mountain (Beaver Creek Ski Area) - This one is Battle Mountain's opportunity to make other people put up with what they have to deal with on a daily basis. It's a challenge living in the Vail Valley . Spencer Wenck ran 17:37 on this one last year and beat the field by over a minute. Wenck may have been one of the best hill grinders this state has ever seen, right up there with the Severy siblings.
Platte Canyon - Seems there was a brouhaha about a recent regional meet here as well. Not as high as Lake County, but still high enough to get your attention and to afford the home team a little entertainment watching the flatlanders deal with the terrain.
Clear Creek - Home of the Golddigger Dash, this one may provide a clue to the origins of the expendable crewman of Star Trek lore. Samantha Berggren ran 22:29 to win by a full minute last year. Flatlanders, consider yourselves duly warned. Oh, and by the way, Bill Stahl takes his team to this meet.
Creede - This meet may be done for, but it ran on private ranch property just outside of Wagon Wheel Gap. The course was ferocious, but those who ran it tended to love it. The article Colorado Track XC ran on this meet a couple years back gives you a nice glimpse into Colorado high school cross country history.
So, what courses did I miss?