When one thinks of dominant collegiate cross country programs, the first schools that usually come to mind are the likes of Wisconsin, Stanford, and Oregon, or altitude friendly institutions such as Colorado or Northern Arizona. What would you say if I told you that the Cleveland State Vikings fielded teams that finished 11th and 19th in 1977 and 1979 respectively, and that they had an individual runner named Marc Hunter who finished 4th in 1977 and 6th in 1978, beating the likes of Alberto Salazar? This is Cleveland State, a school in the middle of a city, not a pristine college town. Sure, it’s not surprising when a university like CSU sneaks into the NCAA basketball tournament, but downtown Cleveland is hardly cross country training friendly.
Here’s the back story. My friend Matt and I were talking about a thread on letsrun.com, which discussed results from some late ’70s NCAA cross country races that included legendary runners like Craig Virgin and Henry Rono. In the 1979 results I noticed that a guy from Cleveland State named Don James finished in 30th, an all-American performance. I looked up Cleveland State athletics on Wikipedia and found the team results from the 1977 and 1979 championships mentioned above, but sadly learned that the program was discontinued at the end of 1992, presumably due to Title IX cuts. This led to more searching, where I came across a blog published by a former Cleveland State runner entitled Mike’s Cleveland Blog.The blog has not been updated since 2008, but the entry that fascinated me was one entitled “Gone But Not Forgotten.”
It’s a fascinating read, which chronicles Mike’s competitive running career and how in summer road races during high school he became aware of the CSU program:
It was at the road races where I got my first glimpse of where I wanted to one day go to college if I were ever going to amount to a true distance runner after high school. Members of the Cleveland State cross country team were dominating the road racing scene all around me and taking home all of the shiny trophies! I did some investigating, which in those days meant going to the library and looking at old sports page clippings from the Plain Dealer. I had to become part of this tradition and prayed that one day their coach would recruit me.
To make a long story short, Mike was recruited but ended up going to John Carroll as that had been a family tradition. That didn’t sit so well with Mike and after one year he recalls, “I cautiously walked up to my parents and informed them that I wanted to transfer to Cleveland State, that is, if it was okay with them. I told them John Carroll was nice, but I felt like I would fit in better at Cleveland State. They are Division I and my friends were going there. They questioned my reasons for transferring but gave me their blessing anyway.”
So how did one become a successful runner training in downtown Cleveland? Mike remembers:
I had the experience of a lifetime. Something you would not expect to hear from a serious cross country runner attending an urban campus surrounded by so much cement. I mean, come on…cross country running…in Cleveland? Where are all the corn fields, the woods, and the marshy areas? How can anyone become a true cross country runner at Cleveland State?
Simple. You fall in love with the streets and bridges of downtown Cleveland. You embrace that pungent smell from the fish factory on the west bank of the flats because to CSU runners THIS IS altitude training. You learn to accept that running for your life from large stray dogs when getting temporarily lost in one of Cleveland’s many fine neighborhoods is simply called speed work.
Meanwhile results from other years were posted on the LetsRun thread and Matt and I discovered the mind-boggling performances of Marc Hunter. Matt found a link that listed Marc as a two time Ohio high school champion in the mile and I found out that after college Marc represented the USA in two World Cross Country Championship races.
I had no idea that my adopted hometown’s city university had such a storied cross country program once upon a time. If anyone knows more, please drop me a line. This might make for a really good article!