Could this be the year the "slop" gives way to a performance "pop"?
Despite another uncharacteristically dense rainy season in the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Meadows horse racing facility used to host the third annual Nike Team Nationals cross-country challenge appears -- SO FAR -- in better shape than ever. The meet is open to 20 invited leading club teams per gender.
"Right now, I'd say the course will run about 20 seconds faster per runner than last year," said Paul Limmer of the National Scholastic Sports Foundation and one of an army of volunteers working on the course late into Wednesday afternoon. The NSSF, which assists Nike in managing the event, will continue prepping the course in the next 48 hours, including putting the finishing touches on the man-made "whoop-dee-doo" (or camelback-style) hills and customizing the layout for the teams.
In prior editions of NTN, the muddy "slop" led to the course being an extreme test of strength and stamina for runners as muddy footing and large swatches of water-logged grassy areas taxed the muscles of competitors. In each case, most runners came away from the 5,000-meter Portland Meadows course with their slowest times of the year.
The situation was especially challenging last year as the meet date fell during the latter-most stages of a record 34-consecutive days of rainfall in the Portland area. Additionally, a drainage issue led to standing water in several areas.
This year, the rain has been heavy in spurts, but has not been as steady. Thus far, Portland has endured over 12 inches of rainfall this month, classifying it as the wettest November in the city's history. Rainfall has been minimal this week, but is expected (along with sub-freezing temperatures) on Thursday. Dry weather is expected on both Friday and Saturday, with sunshine and high temperatures in the upper 40's forecast for race day.
During a personal walk-through of the course late Tuesday night, the grassy surface appeared much firmer and drier in more places than the last two years. Additionally, the course layout has been reconfigured slightly so that the start line occurs on "higher ground" at the back side of the infield. This is intended to allow before footing during the first minute of the race, hopefully minimizing the spills that occurred in isolated instances last year.
One unavoidable messy challenge in the newly configured layout occurs at about 1200 meters into the race, when runners must cut diagonally through a water-logged area of mud. Also, roughly 30 meters from the finish line area is a pool of standing water roughly six inches deep and unavoidable in order to reach the finish.
Even so, conditions seem better than in years past.
Still, keep your fingers crossed... your galoshes packed and plenty of extra layers in tow.