What's With the Crazy Fast Times at Vanny?
Do Gruenewald, Forys, and Shen's boys really rank with all-time best?
The answers to these questions may surprise you.
By Rich Gonzalez
BRONX, NY -- So what's with all the crazy-fast times at Van Cortlandt Park??
Is New York running really that much better than the rest of the nation?
Based on their separated-by-a-few-minutes historic runs at Vanny, are Fay-Man's Tommy Gruenewald, Colts Neck's Craig Forys and Shenendehowa's Steve Murdock truly the very best high school runners ever to lace them up in the Northeast?
With Shenendehowa High's 12:56.6 time average for its scoring five, is this truly among the strongest teams in meet history, trailing only the acclaimed quintets of F-M's 2004 squad and the great ones from decades ago?
Brace yourselves, folks. The answers to the last three questions are not what some of you want to hear: "No, no, and no."
And the answer to the opening question above? Stay tuned for one explanation. But first, a little background...
When Forys blitzed the Van Cortlandt Park layout in a sizzling 12:10.7 clocking at Saturday's 34th annual Manhattan Invitational, it registered as the all-time course record, obviously claiming the record by a New Jersey athlete on the course as well.
When Gruenewald torched the trails in a stunning 12:10.6 effort, it became the course record, as well as the all-time best for a New York state athlete, bettering the all-time 12:15.5 achieved by Shen's Steve Murdock just minutes earlier.
But did you also notice....
- When California's Mikel Thomas ran third to Forys in the "E" race in 12:21.4, it was an all-time record on the Vanny course by a Golden State athlete.
- When Unionville's Paul Springer won the "G" race in 12:28.6, it registered as a Pennsylvania state record on the course.
- When Crested Butte Academy's Adam Lenz took fourth in the "E" race in 12:26.2, it was the fastest ever at Van Cortlandt by a Colorado athlete (although it should be noted in Lenz's case, very few Coloradoans have competed at Vanny in years past).
That's three kids under the all-time course record, all-time individual records for six different states, and an addition to the ultra-exclusive "sub-13:00" team-time average club. All on the same day.
"But the course/weather conditions were great!" you say.
Indeed, as temperatures topped out in the low 60's, with clear and sunny skies and the occasional wind felt along the start of the final home stretch (in contrast to the oppressive rains which pelted competitors a year ago). Those conditions help to partly explain the bizarre depth of quality over the weekend on the renowned course.
Since he began recording data four decades ago, course historian Larry Byrne has detailed all of the top prep performances at Van Cortlandt Park, with most of those efforts coming in various editions of the Manhattan Invitational. On average, nearly 15.7 boys athletes per year dip under the 13:00 barrier at Vanny. This year, that number was nearly tripled as 46 runners turned the feat, exactly doubling the previous single-year record of 23 established two years ago.
"The course had to have been shortened!" you exclaim.
Nope. Both the start and finish locations were the same, and the meandering paved path through the woods leaves no real chance for cutting the course.
"The course runs faster now than in the 'old days,'" you insist.
You'd have a point. Course maintenance upgrades at the turn of the century has resulted in far better traction and feel than in prior years, according to those local historians and coaches who've witnessed the changes and their effects.
But those upgrades have been in place for several years now, with the performances only reaching a crescendo within the last 25 months (sans last years weather downpour).
Is New York running really that much better than the rest of the nation?
Not at all. New York teams dominate the NTN Northeast Region rankings, with 7 of this past week's Top 10, but that's partly due to a known down year in New Jersey. In the two recent weekends alone, out-of-state teams not close to the top 10 in their own neck of the woods (see California teams Clovis and Santa Margarita as just two of several examples) have outperformed teams on the fringe of the New York State Top 10.
Based on their separated-by-a-few-minutes record runs at Vanny, are Fay-Man's Tommy Gruenewald, Colts Neck's Craig Forys and Shenendehowa's Steve Murdock truly the very best high school runners ever in the Northeast?
Nope. Just the fastest ever on this course for the time being. And it's a layout that will yield a slew of fast times from here onward.
Also, keep in mind that Murdock lost to Georgia's Ben Hubers by 11 seconds just three weeks ago at the Great American Cross-Country Festival. If Hubers was at this meet and beat Murdock by 11 seconds, that would have been a 12:04.
Hubers beat New Yorker Brian Rhodes-Devey by 29 seconds at Great American. Making a slight adjustment for the shorter 2.5-mile distance at Vanny (all other factors being equal), that projects to a 23-second advantage for Hubers over Rhodes-Devey here. BRD ran 12:27, once again projecting to a 12:04 for Hubers.
In the eyes of several, neither Hubers, Gruenewald, Forys nor Murdock are the favorite to win FootLocker Nationals this year. So are you prepared to accept the fact that maybe an Evan Jager (Illinois) or a Matt Tebo (New Mexico) are very capable of breaking 12:00 at Van Cortlandt right now?
With Shenendehowa High's 12:56.6 time average for its scoring five, is this truly a lengendary lineup along the likes of the acclaimed quintet from Fayetteville-Manlius in 2004?
That's also a clouded question and dealing specifically with the Manhattan meet only. But good data suggests that this weekend's effort was not even Shenendehowa's best meet of the year... and they got trounced by in-state rival Collegiate by 34 points at the Great American. And how about Ferris of Washington and Royal of California -- two teams racing clearly superior to Shenendehowa at this point. As insane as it sounds, exhaustive research on relative data shows that both Ferris and Royal could average 12:50 or better at Van Cortlandt right now, which would shatter the team-time course record.
So once again, the leading questions: What gives? Why all the fast cross-country times?
For the past decade, one big reason for the resurgence of prep running on the track and field and cross-country scene was the emergence of DyeStat, as excited athletes logged on to compare themselves against their peers, getting inspired and motivated to improve. For years, this filled the need, especially in track and field as athletes could compare times and gauge their competitive efforts toward a culmination of their season with participation at the Nike Outdoor Nationals.
But those wave after wave of excellent marks were not carrying over onto the cross-country courses.
That is, not until now. And why are they now?
The answer might reveal itself via three simple letters. ... N-T-N.
Times are a changin', folks. Gone are the days when powerhouse teams run quite well at limited-importance, mid-season invitationals but really gear themselves up for the big peak at the state meet. No longer are leading teams "saving themselves" solely for that one statewide clash at the end.
With the advent of the Nike Team Nationals, the stakes have changed; the bar has been raised much higher. All the top teams want to get to Portland in December and they know it takes being ranked highly to get there. More often than not, this means performing exceptionally during in-season regional showdowns.
The most savvy coaches are now using this carrot to motivate their teams in workouts and heading into major meets. More than ever, athlete focus and coaching preparation are geared toward the Great Americans, the Manhattans, the Bob Firmans, the Mt. SACs, the Nike Souths, the Stanfords, the Griaks and the Jim Danners of the competitive calendar.
It's all part of a synergistic cycle:
Excited athletes are training with more intensity and focus, leading to the great showings by the likes of Forys, Gruenewald and Murdock over the weekend. Top coaches refine their training and mental approach a tad, as the Bill Arises and Walt Langes of the national scene aim for both the mid-season showdowns and state meet clashes. Meet directors strive to create attractive matchups, leading to course records. Media and the public soak in the rankings, continuing the cycle.
The combination of these factors has created the ultra-environment for never-before-seen rates of cross-country progress, improvement, and achievement -- just like we saw at Manhattan over the weekend.
As a result, course records and all-time lists are being re-written at alarming rates all across the national landscape. The occasional course record and historical performances at major meets came here and there. Now they come in waves nearly every weekend.
Yes indeed, everyone. Times are a changin'... they are getting a whole lot faster.
And there's no sign of letting up.
Hold on tight and enjoy for the ride!!!