NEW YORK — Can serenity come from suffering?
For that matter, can serenity be found in New York City, specifically, in this case, the Bronx?
Those are the questions I pondered as I ran the back hills of Van Cortlandt Park’s famed cross-country trails. I was in the middle of a race put on by the Van Cortlandt Park Track Club, a 5K run that began with a sprint across the flats and a dash into the hills of New York City’s third-largest park, which sprawls for more than 1,000 acres across the northeast corner of the Bronx.
Looking out to the edge of the park from some spots, you can see tall apartment buildings. But in other places, you’re running on trails that seem so green and wild, lined with so many trees, that you might as well be in the woods.
The park has been a mecca for cross-country runners for over 100 years. Its courses opened in 1913. Famed athletes who’ve competed here include Alberto Salazar, Alan Webb, Edward Cheserek, Marty Liquori, Shalane Flanagan and Matt Centrowitz, who won the gold at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in the 1,500-meter race.
I first raced here in high school, a skinny lad unaware of the suffering and false rabbit tactics of rival teams. I soon learned to embrace the suck — just deal with it! — and with time I also learned to fly. There’s a trick to cross-country, you see. Of course you have to have the strength to power up and defeat your opponent on the ascent, but the race can be won on the downhill. If you can give in to gravity, to almost fall, you’ll fly down. With arms out for balance, you can speed away from even your toughest opponent.
The courses are the same as in my heyday, with flats, a cowpath, a bridge and back hill loop, as well as Cemetery Hill (also known as Vault Hill), which is part of a route used for college races. Race distances are 5K, 8K or 10K. For hill training, Van Cortlandt is a must. For runners and racers, it should be on your bucket list.
But take your cue from metal signs along the courses depicting the turtle and the hare. While I like to try to race fast here (and re-live my youth), I suppose the hare suggests that you can also take it easy. You can run or jog, but you can also stroll or just meander through a park that is one of New York City’s emerald treasures.
The Van Cortlandt Park Track Club sometimes gives winners carrot cake muffins from Lloyd’s Carrot Cake shop (6087 Broadway in the Bronx), across from the start/finish line. Whatever your pace, you can seek your rewards there as well.