A Walk in the Park: Van Cortlandt and MC’s Intertwined History

For those not attuned to the world of athletics, Van Cortlandt Park serves as a nature-escape from city surroundings or a spot to lay out when the weather warms up. But, for cross-country athletes, or anyone who runs as a pastime, the park represents years of blood, sweat and tears from both amateurs and the greatest runners of all time.

Van Cortlandt Park is the third largest park in New York City. At 1,146 acres it’s bigger than Central Park, which stands at 846 acres, but Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and the Greenbelt Park on Staten Island beat it out for the first and second place spots.

Photo by Christian Roodal
Photo by Christian Roodal

The park was formed by a melted glacier almost 20,000 years ago, according to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and, over the next thousands of years, different tribes of Indians settled there until the Dutch East India Company brought the first Europeans to the Bronx area in 1639. A Dutch man named Adriaen Van Der Donck became the first owner of the property that is now Van Cortlandt Park in 1646.

Van Cortlandt first gained its name when another Dutch man, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, bought the property in 1694 and his son Frederick built the family mansion upon its grounds. It passed through the family for generations until the city of New York acquired it as park land in 1888, but it was not named after its residents until 1913.

The Cross-Country Running Course at the park first opened in 1913 also, a year after cross-country running was included in the summer Olympics. The course offered five-mile and three-mile loops that are still there today.

“In Van Cortlandt Park, runners have been running the same course and trails for over 100 years,” Nick McDonough, Manhattan College men’s and women’s cross-country coach and women’s track coach, said.

McDonough has been only been at MC since the beginning of the school year but has been coaching in the New York area for 22 years.

“It’s got a lot of history to it, which makes it a neat place,” he said. “It’s kind of funky in that there’s not a lot to it. There’s not a lot of set-up or pomp and circumstance. It’s pretty bare-bones, but it’s more about the idea of running the same trail and the same loops that have been run for 40 or 50, or 60 or 70 years.”

MC cross-country runners agree that the history of Van Cortlandt makes running there all the more rewarding.

“The most significant thing about the park is that it’s the most famous park on the East Coast, if not in the entire nation, for cross-country running,” senior cross-country runner Anthony Colasurdo said.

“Every time that you run, you compare it to Van Cortlandt,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in knowing that Van Cortlandt is our home course considering the history of it—it’s also one of hardest courses that we run with all of the hills. It’s a love/hate relationship definitely, because you know the pride behind it, but it’s one of the toughest courses I run.”

Photo by Christian Roodal
Photo by Christian Roodal

Colasurdo ran cross-country in high school, which included meets in the park, and now runs there almost every day as part of the MC cross-country team.

Obviously the close proximity to the park has made it an important part of MC’s history, but many cross-country runners associate MC with the “Manhattan College Invitational,” one of the largest annual cross-country meets in the nation. The meet is held at Van Cortlandt Park every year and draws over 10,000 high school runners and their families.

“In high school it was a big thing to come here as a 16-year-old for the invite, it felt like this big, overwhelming event so after you ran it, you felt on top of the world,” McDonough said.

Alexandra Cappello, also a senior MC cross-country runner, ran the MC Invitational in high school as well.

“I always thought it was a lot of fun because there were people from all over the country that came for that race,” she said. “You were in a huge pool of people and if you placed in the top 25, I think it was you got some type of letter of recognition from Manhattan College from the cross country and track team.”

Cappello also said that besides running there, just spending time in the park with her teammates provided fond memories.

“A nice memory is every time I had a high school meet my team and I would cool down by the rock that overlooks the skyline, and then across the street is the famous carrot cake place so we’d always go to Lloyd’s after,” she said.

The course, as explained by Colasurdo, essentially doubles in distance from when someone runs it in high school to when they run it in college. The first part of the race is on the flats, he said, which is the loop that goes around the park. Next you go into the cow path, which is slightly uphill, and is also named freshman hill. Freshman hill is the only hill high school kids run, hence its name. Then you go into the back hills, which Colasurdo describes as a bit of a roller-coaster, varying up and down.

“By the time you get out of the back hills you’re exhausted. That can beat you up,” he said.

After that point in high school you finish the race, totaling about 4,000 meters, but in college you go back into what is called “cemetery hill.”

“There are two reasons it’s called cemetery hill,” Colasurdo said. “There’s a cemetery right next to it, and you feel like you’re going to die when you’re running up it.”

Once finished on cemetery hill, the runner goes back out onto the flats to finish up the next few miles, equaling a total of about 8,000 meters.

Photo by Christian Roodal
Photo by Christian Roodal

Each runner with memories of Van Cortlandt part was easily able to list off the many great athletes who ran there, especially ones like Matt Centrowitz, who went to MC for his freshman year, and Steve Prefontaine, who ran in VanCortlandt when the N.C.A.A. championships were held there in 1969. Both later went on to be great Olympic runners.

Even Ken Rolston, the current coach of the Van Cortlandt Park Track Club who went to Lehman College, readily knew MC’s cross-country history.

“They were really good then,” he said of MC team in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “They won the IC4A [Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America] competition. I was a good runner. I ran for Lehman College, but I would’ve been on their [MC’s] JV team.”

The Van Cortlandt Park Track Club was established in 1977. Rolston has been a member for the past 12 years, returning to running in the park after he got married and had children, though he says there are many members that have been there longer than he has.

“My brothers and I all ran cross-country and I think our greatest memories were of racing across the flats with 300 other kids. The memories of, it sounds corny, but the smell of fall and the leaves, all of that is emblazon in my brain as being part of Van Cortlandt. I think it has that sort of nostalgic feeling for many people.”

“It’s really cool to back at it and have it as part of my life again,” he said.