Jack St. Clair Cross-Country Championships:
Bringing Back a Classic

BY DIANE MCMANUS

PHILADELPHIA, PA--What better way to honor a Philadelphia area coaching and running legend than to name a cross-country meet after him? Perhaps by resurrecting a course that he designed? Race Director, Dave Thomas, initiated the Jack St. Clair Cross-Country Championships, holding the inaugural meet on a chilly day in December 2008, and throughout this year, carried on a successful campaign to restore the “classic five” course on Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau.

St. Clair, known to his runners at Temple University and Cardinal Dougherty High School as “the Saint,” demanded excellence of himself and his runners, setting the bar high. Certainly the course that he designed was not for the faint of heart, encompassing not only such lung-searing hills as Parachute and Flagpole, but also one that may well outstrip these two in its power to intimidate: Surekill Hill, about 500 yards of relentless climb, confronting runners still breathless from Flagpole and Parachute. Nor is there a respite after Surekill. Runners face two more hills--Nursery and a repeat run up Flagpole before the course mercifully levels out.

The site of many famous college and open contests, this especially challenging course fell into disuse since 1999. Thomas, however, spearheaded an ambitious volunteer effort, recruiting runners from the Greater Philadelphia Track Club, which he founded, as well as members of the Philadelphia University cross-country team, which he coaches.

As a result, the “classic five” course was open once more for business--complete with the rainy weather and muddy footing that have so often tested the resolve of the most dedicated athletes. One might well wonder whether the spirit of “the Saint” had notched up the degree of difficulty.

However, the thirty-two men who took the starting line on September 27, 2009, were undeterred by the hills--or by the rain and mud. While Dave Merrick’s course record of 24:43 would not fall on such a day, the course and the weather did what they were supposed to do: test the mettle of the athletes who ran.

If so, the athletes withstood the test, with Don Letts, 24, winning in an impressive time of 28:41, followed soon afterward by Mike Burgman, 22, in 29:11. Finishing third and also in the money was Joe Dare, 24, clocked at 32:22. Temple alum Chuck Shields, 50, who ran for “the Saint,” turned in a strong fourth overall performance with a time of 32:36 to win the Masters division.

While the women’s 6K course did not include Surekill, it took in much of the men’s course, including the mud-soaked fields, along with Flagpole, Parachute, and Nursery Hills. A smaller but no less determined group lined up for this race that preceded the men’s, with Susannah Grosso, 25, taking first place in a time of 27:17. Rounding out the top three were Anreea Dumistrescu, 21, and Sabine Harrington, 18, with times of 28:13 and 30:27, respectively. Leading the Masters division was Phyllis Yester, 55, with a time of 30:47.

As for this writer, the race was less a competition with my faster friends than a resurrection of my running following some nagging injuries. My goal was not to win or even set a personal best--just to run the course, enjoying, as I have in the past, its unique beauty, its trails, its trees glazed with fresh rain, its ups and downs, reflecting the ups and downs of my running efforts…and its profound quiet. This course takes me deep into the woods--and into myself--and awakens me to what I cherish about running: the chance to step away from the computers, phones, and deadlines, and simply play outdoors.