by Graeme Shirley
One of the biggest contributions to our sport in San Diego has come from Long Distance Running Chairman Paul Greer's development of the Asics Dirt Dogs Cross Country Series. Now in its fifth year, the success of the series has attracted attention nationally, to the point of Paul being contacted by other Associations for help in setting up similar series elsewhere.
The first race of 2004 was an example of the impact that the Dirt Dogs Series has had. To fill out the schedule, the San Diego Track Club generously offered to create a new race, the Bake at the Lake 4-Mile.
The Lake in the race name is Lake Hodges. As with most "lakes" in Southern California, it's a reservoir. And, thanks to a few years of drought, it's virtually empty. There is one stream crossing on the course, but it can be traversed with a long stride without getting damp. The course is out and back on a straight dirt path: a half-mile climb, a mile-and-a-half fairly level, and a turnaround. Characteristic of the San Diego area, hardpan makes the trail surface about as resilient as concrete. There are frequent stretches where blading and erosion has exposed rocks on the path.
In other words, perfect for cross country.
So here was a first time race with no shirts, no frills, a challenging course, limited advertising, cross country within weeks of the last track meets, in the middle of the Olympics, thirty miles north of the familiar courses in Balboa Park. The results: 130 finishers, 81 of whom were USATF members. Last year's Championship race winner, Mark Dani, nipped last year's series winner, Nazario Romero, by one second. And the 2004 series was off and running.
Three more races at two week intervals have brought the series to the midpoint. The traditional Balboa 4-Mile drew 211, 114 of whom scored in the Dirt Dogs. The Fall Classic had 122, including 79 scorers, and the Balboa Boogie 153 finishers with 97 scorers. To date 163 different runners have scored, with 28 completing all four races.
There are obviously a lot of considerations in putting on a series like this, but I would suggest the following have contributed. 1) From Field of Dreams: "If you build it, he will come." Publish a schedule, put some money into prize purses, score the series. Do it again the next year. And again. Much like all-comers track meets, the series will grow with word-of-mouth. 2) Keep it simple: Don't register runners for the series. Use the membership roster. Anyone who is USATF registered and runs a race, scores. 3) Don't add anything to the race director's work. Score the results of the series separately. 4) Use a scoring system which will give everyone points. The person who finishes 33rd in a division and still gets one point is more likely to continue participating. It isn't just about the few that get the cash at the end. Rivalries exist everywhere in the field.
Now for the interesting part. With the series in its fifth year, we can point out to directors that sixty percent and more of their fields are from our series. Now the races are putting money back into the prize purses. Everybody wins. More races for the runners, more members for USATF, bigger fields for races.
Our thanks to Thom Hunt (San Diego's new Masters Long Distance Running Chairman) for putting together the initial cross country series, and to Paul Greer for making it the success it is today.