The Discreet Charm of the Suburban Cross Country Course


On Sunday afternoon, I found myself in Framingham with an hour to kill. I had been on my way home from a trip to Western Massachusetts and had planned to pick up my son from his job in a restaurant at the Natick Mall. But I was an hour too early. It was only 4:00 p.m. when I got off the Pike at Route 9, and Loren wouldn’t finish up until 5:00. What to do? It would be silly to drive 20 minutes home, wait 20 minutes, and then drive 20 minutes back. And I had no desire to join the Mother’s Day crowds in shopping at the mall.

It’s for emergencies like these that I keep a backpack with running clothes and shoes in the trunk of my car. The afternoon was fine, so why not go for a little run? After a week of rain and drizzle and after an overcast morning, the sun had finally broken through, and I longed to be outside moving around. But where would I find some peace and open space on amidst all the congested roads and acres of asphalt?

Then I remembered that Framingham High School was only a mile or two away. Back when I was coaching at Newton North, we competed against Framingham in cross country, and I still remembered the funky course that began and ended at the high school. It would be a hoot to revisit the scene of those long-forgotten meets, and muse on the races I had witnessed there. A few minutes later I was in the FHS parking lot, changing into my running gear, reminding myself of the layout of the course.

But before I write any more, a disclaimer: the opinions herein expressed are not intended to disparage or give offense to any past or present athlete or coach from Framingham High School. Many fine runners have come through that program. Many athletes have benefitted, no doubt, from their experience on FHS cross country teams. Memories for a lifetime have, no doubt, been formed on the FHS cross country course. It’s all good.

Having gotten the disclaimer out of the way, this is how I described the Framingham course ten years ago: “[It] has an uncomfortable and dangerous start, confusing loops through a dreary suburban neighboorhood, a poorly marked section through woods with treacherous footing, and a badly laid out finish area.

Nothing in the past ten years has changed my opinion that the Framingham cross country course is an amalgam of design flaws. The course begins behind the school on a service road where (as I recall) cars are parked. In the first 50 meters, runners go over a speed bump. A speed bump would be fine anywhere else on the course, but having it at the beginning when runners are packed tightly together and don’t see it coming is unfortunate, to say the least. After another 50 meters, the runners pass through a traffic gate and take a fairly sharp left-hand turn into a parking lot. They run through the parking lot, exiting onto a main road. A couple of right-hand turns and a few hundred meters on local streets bring the runners back near the start where they head up into one of those “dreary suburban neighborhoods” I wrote about before.

I regret and apologize for some things in my description of that area. Running along those streets yesterday, it seemed a perfectly pleasant place to live, and not dreary at all. However, it’s still not a great place to run, with so much asphalt and so many turns. To make matters worse, the course has the runners run four sides of a small neighborhood block. If memory serves, there is even one section where leading runners — if they are far enough ahead — can pass trailing runners heading in the opposite direction. The main thing, though, is that over a mile into the race, runners have already negotiated about a dozen sharp turns, without having experienced an inch of soft surface.

At some point, the course down a random street for a bit, and emerges onto a larger road. Arrows make it clear that runners are supposed to stay off the road and instead follow the sidewalk, which features slabs of concrete that aren’t flush, so that every few meters there’s a chance to trip or stumble. A right hand turn takes the runners back onto a side street, then another right onto a dead-end street that leads to a trail-head into the only woods section of the course.

Why anyone thinks it’s a good ideas to have woods surrounding a high school is a mystery to me. It seems like it would only encourage students to sneak away between or after classes to smoke, make out, or leave lewd messages in the trees. But ignoring that, the cross country course is marked with painted arrow on the trees, some of which are more distinct than others. Although the entire woods section is only 600 meters long, I counted three spots where a tired runner might easily miss a turn and head off into the bushes. In fact, when I was coaching at Newton North I attended three meets at Framingham, and in every one, multiple runners got lost. But even if they manage stay on course, runners need to cope with poor footing, sharp narrow turns, and sections of the course where they are basically running along the side of a slope. Adding insult to potential injury, runners escape the woods only by having to clamber up a steep embankment that brings them to the athletic field.

The final few hundred meters wasn’t marked, but I remembered it involves a kind of three-sided route across the field into a chute set up kind of randomly to be far enough away from the nearby baseball field. The total distance was a little less than 3 miles, I believe, although no one really knew for sure.

And yet for all that… I really enjoyed my tour of the course on Sunday. I found that without having to worry about anyone but myself, I relaxed a bit and found the course rather quaint. I saw neighbors out doing yard work, appreciated the fact that the side streets were mostly free from traffic, and had no trouble following the many scrawled arrows and encouragements on the pavement. The many turns and obstacles didn’t strike me as they once had as dangerous impediments to a fair race, but rather as local landmarks, to be handled calmly and chuckled about later. Several runners from Framingham teams past had been immortalized with initials or first names painted on the pavement. And there were helpful marks at 1M, 1.5M, and 2M, along with generic “Go FHS XC!” messages every so often.

I finished up my run with a new-found respect for what I still think is a flawed course. I knew how I would redesign it if I were in charge, but I also accepted its legacy status without qualm, content that generations of future Framingham runners would learn its twists and turns in Autumns to come. It was a little weird to be thinking about cross country in the spring, but it struck me how even a few minutes on someone else’s home course put me in the mood to think about next Fall, and all the little quirks of suburban home courses across the land, and how much affection they engender after so many years of hosting kids’ races and adult memories.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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3 Responses to The Discreet Charm of the Suburban Cross Country Course

  1. Michael Glennon says:

    You always do your best to be fair even when offering criticism. I hate this course and will continue to try and get it changed. I have vowed never to have my team race there again. It doesn’t come up in our tri-meet rotation for another couple of years now. It is dangerous and it is nothing short of a miracle that someone hasn’t gotten seriously hurt there yet.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks for the reading and commenting, Mike!

  3. Ankit says:

    I think the best finish I had in an XC race was when our top 5 or so got lost on this course and Blackburn happened to come by in his car and honk at me just before I was about to make the same wrong turn.

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