By Jilleen Barrett, Features Editor/Managing Editor
Van Cortlandt Park is a “natural showcase featuring the last vestiges of New York City’s native woodlands and wetlands,” according to the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance. It’s already surprising to most that this exists in The Bronx, but even more shocking that its landscape has sparked the beginning of many running careers.
This is true for George Febles, who grew up in the Bronx, not far from the park. Febles ran for Xavier High School and continued to run on his own during college. Now, he is the cross country and track & field coach at Fordham Preparatory School, and has been for 34 years. No matter how he has been taking part in the running scene in his life, Febles has consistently ran the trails of Van Cortlandt Park.
“Van Cortlandt Park is, it’s really the national ‘Mecca’ in many ways for cross country,” Febles said.
Febles brings his team to the park about four times a week. He says he sees many other runners utilizing the park in real time and online.
“It’s just the perfect place to go and run distance when you’re trying to avoid the streets and crossing [them],” Febles said. “And nowadays with Strava, you see so many people that see Van Cortlandt, as the place to be.”
Van Cortlandt became known for inspiring running careers because it attracts thousands of high school students every year for the Manhattan Cross Country Invitational, a race created in 1972 by Manhattan College alum Ed Bowes.
Febles competed in the race as a high school student, prompting him to enter his own students in it every year since he began coaching. He plays a role in the race’s history as he initiated the use of Excel to keep track of each runner’s times — before then, it was recorded by hand and only the top 20 runners received official times. This change influenced the race significantly, Febles explained, especially since it usually attracts about ten thousand runners each year.
Luciano Fiore was one of those runners in 2014. Racing in the Invitational changed the entire course of his athletic career — after winning the Reebok’s Varsity “E” race by two seconds, granting him his first interview as an athlete along with a silver Reebok watch, he quit soccer to focus on running. He later attended Siena College and ran there for six years.
“The course was energizing and catered to every aspect of true cross country. […] My favorite part [is] a downhill with 600 meters to go alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway leading into the final gravel home stretch,” Fiore said of his first time running the course of the Invitational. “Once you cross the bridge and barrel down the final hill, you reenter the open grass fields and feel the roar of the people watching — it is electrifying.”
Now, Fiore finds himself in Van Cortlandt running professionally for Empire Elite Track Club. Even now, with all of his accomplishments under his belt, Fiore maintains that the Van Cortlandt Park running trails are not only difficult, but truly represent the “grit” of New York City.
“Running here is hard, plain and simple,” Fiore said. “Whether it’s a Van Cortlandt Track Club event, a New York Road Runners sponsored cross country series, the Ivy League Cross Country Championships or a kids fun run — the running here is hard.”
The park’s history of hosting successful runners in all of these races and more, Febles believes, is arguably the one of the most significant reasons to run there at all.
“You’re running on the same grounds as the greatest runners of all time [at VCP],” Febles said. “So, as with all things, you try to put things into a historical context. We have the best venue for doing that. We’re not just running in some golf course — we’re running in what is called the ‘Mecca’ of cross country.”
Even Manhattan College’s own runners know this course to be a difficult one, despite having the advantage of practicing there every day — something their competitors can’t boast about. Liam Farrell, who graduated in 2022, ran there nearly everyday in college under Coach Kerri Gallagher.
Farrell feels the team thrived in VCP, because it was conveniently located and has non-pavement hills to run on, lowering the chance of injury while offering a challenge and preparing them for meets there. The park “demands respect from all those who race it,” he said.
“Training in VCP means a lot to the program because of the history that we have there,” Farrell said. “[I]t has miles of dirt trails to run on, which is incredibly uncommon within the bounds of the city. […] The park also has flat portions and hilly portions, which allowed us to work out a variety of different ways. I think this helped us become stronger and tougher runners.”
Farrell believes it also draws attention to the strengths of the cross country and track & field programs at Manhattan College.
“Seeing so many other schools coming to compete at VCP shows that it’s a respected course,” Farrell said. “In my collegiate career, it was by far the most difficult course that I raced on, and I say that despite getting to train on it everyday.”