Franklin Park Project Shuffles X-C Schedule

Franklin Park has been the home of the Eastern Massachusetts State Meet Since 1943, it has now been moved to Wrentham.

The paths, trails and thoroughfares of New England’s cross country mecca won’t have the stampede of harriers traversing the fabled course at any level this fall.  Save for possibly the Mayor’s Cup in October, Franklin Park will be silent as repairs to the race-weary layout begin. The Mayor’s Capital Budget is funding the project’s $116,000 cost, includes repair work on two portions of the cross country layout. The project work from now until late spring 2013 entails key sections of the cross country track: Bear Cage Hill and Valley Gates. Work is also scheduled for Playstead Field.

Meets generally held at Franklin Park over the years have either been moved or scrapped for the fall season. One victim of the construction is the prestigious Codfish Bowl Invitational. Rather than finding a different site for the collegiate meet, it has been cancelled and will resume in 2013. The enormously popular Catholic Memorial Invitational will be held at Millennium Park in West Roxbury, while the New England Collegiate Cross Country Championship has been relocated to Stanley Park in Westfield for its 100th running. The biggest meet of the season, the MIAA Eastern Mass Championships, will be held on the grassy Wrentham Developmental Center layout. An alternate course at Franklin Park is being considered for the Mayor’s Cup. “We’re working to try to find a way to have it there,” said USATF New England Director Steve Vaitones. “It’s not going to be the same format it was in prior years because of the state limitations and the course limitations. Almost everything has moved on and found another location for this year.”

Much like Van Cortlandt Park in New York City, Franklin Park has been synonymous with high school and collegiate cross country since the early 20th century.  Numerous high school and college meets have been held on the course during the fall season and it took on an international flavor when it hosted the IAAF World Cross Country Championships over a 12.5 kilometer course in 1992 designed specifically for the meet. The charm of the Franklin Park layout has to do with the quirky sections of the course that have made and broken many a harrier over the years. The infamous Bear Cage Hill is a gut-wrenching 85-meter rocky incline near the halfway mark of the 3.1-mile high school course. This section of the track loops around the now-abandoned bear cages that mark the highest point of the park. The downhill section of Bear Cage Hill has eroded over the years, partly because of heavy rains that cause washouts and partly from use. The sub-structure will be rebuilt and the slope will include small dips where the runoff will go to the side of the trail instead of flowing down the hill. The course then shifts to the Wilderness area just past the 2-mile mark. The wooded area, famous for its winding paths that weave through the quiet forest, is a prime section for harriers to make a serious move to improve their position heading into the final mile.  

Vaitones said the work on the course is desperately needed.  He pointed out that the growth of the sport over the past 10 years has resulted in more schools and leagues holding their meets at Franklin Park.  “Cross country is a victim of its own success,” he said. “People want to run at Franklin Park. You have high school teams driving 30 or 45 minutes to do a workout, whether it’s preseason or close to the state meet, or just because they want to get on the course. Colleges are working out there and clubs are working out there. There’s a lot of traffic out there. With a spectator-friendly course, more people are coming to watch as well.”

Other work on the course includes the area just past the 2-mile mark before the runners turn left into the Wilderness section. “The drain is a little higher than the ground, so it doesn’t do a proper job draining,” said Vaitones. “A section of asphalt sidewalk that isn’t used and doesn’t need to be there will also be removed.” And although it didn’t come under the cross country funding, Playstead Field will be fenced off, graded and seeded. The work itself won’t take long, but the grass cannot be disturbed, allowing it to grow. The field is used for soccer, softball, football practices and various city festivals. The high school and college starting lines are located at the back and the runners head across the field at the gun. “There’s no way you could start races with 100 or 200 people, let alone a day that may have 2,000 people running on it,” said Vaitones.

Vaitones serves as the liaison between the USATF New England and the Franklin Park Coalition, which is made up of citizens who live in the area. He gives the group a schedule as to when the cross country is going to be used and when the neighbors can expect more people in the park. The relationship with the Franklin Park Coalition is solid, which wasn’t the case for several years.  “Communication was one of the big issues neighbors had for a number of years,” said Vaitones. “It’s not Franklin State Park, it belongs to the city of Boston. People are coming in and bringing life to the park. On a given Saturday you may have 2,000 suburban kids running cross country. The fact is there are a lot of people there, whether it’s neighbors or the zoo or the golf course. The gates don’t open up September 1 saying look out everybody, cross country is coming in. We have to consider the whole picture. Permitting is more a way to know who is there on certain days. The restrictions are more to make sure everyone has access to the course.”

The Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association (MSTCA) stopped holding meets at Franklin Park when the Boston Parks made it clear they wanted the high schools out, according to MSTCA Executive Director Frank Mooney. The Coaches Invitational, one of the most popular meets on the high school cross country circuit, was moved by the MSTCA to the Wrentham Developmental Center layout. “The MSTCA has been out of Franklin Park for some time now,” said Mooney. “We decided after a few meetings with the park system that they were hinting we should be looking for another location. The previous commissioner actually told us that might be the case in the future so we began looking and trying out new sites.”

Along with Wrentham and Franklin Park, another interesting possibility for a meet location is in rural Foxboro near Gillette Stadium. MSTCA official Chris Lane and Mooney met recently with a representative from the New England Patriots to discuss the viability of a cross country course on the property. The goal is to have a meet near the stadium in the fall of 2013.