North Park: Training grounds for cross country runners
Running on the sidewalk next to a busy street can be a dangerous proposition.
That's why Pine-Richland girls cross country Coach Ken Judson takes his team to North Park to run two or three times a week, even if that means traveling off campus during rush hour.
"North Park has a wonderful selection of places to run and surfaces on which to run," the second-year coach said. "We can run trails. We can run up on the fields or on the ridges. We can run on the pavement. We've got long hills; short, steep hills, and a fair amount of level terrain, so we can structure just about any kind of workout that we want.
"It's really a key element to our training program."
Once thought of as the home course for North Hills and North Allegheny, North Park has become a go-to training spot for a number of WPIAL cross country teams. In addition to Pine-Richland and North Hills, North Allegheny Coach John Neff says he has seen runners this summer from Hampton, Central Catholic, Vincentian and Seneca Valley.
"North Park has really become the training hotbed for a lot of schools," said former North Hills coach John Wilkie, who stepped down this off-season but has remained on staff as a volunteer assistant, overseeing the Indians' summer runs at North Park.
For Hampton Coach Dean Longwell, holding training runs on school property is a thing of the past. Besides running at North Park twice a week, Hampton makes frequent trips to Hartwood Acres in order to avoid streetside training.
"Sending the kids out on the road, there are just too many distracted drivers anymore," Longwell said. "So from that standpoint, it's safer. And if we stick by the high school, the kids get bored running around the school and the neighborhood across the street."
North Park is located about 15 miles northeast of Downtown and features more than 3,000 acres of land. Teams generally have to arrange their own transportation, with schools only footing the bill for off-site dual meets and invitationals. Runners gather at certain landmarks around the park, the most popular ones being Pie Traynor Field, the Boat House or the Boy Scout Cabin.
The busiest running area loops around the 75-acre lake, which coaches enjoy because they can watch most of their team at once. Running around the lake even has its own mystique for young runners, often serving as a "welcome" to the varsity squad.
There are clearly marked trails and plenty of bathrooms and water stops.
"There's so much there," Judson said, "much more than people realize."
The frequency of training differs from school to school. North Allegheny trains at North Park all summer, but stays closer to home during the season. Neff said the Friday before the official start to the season is the team's last day at North Park, a saddening reality for runners.
North Hills, Pine-Richland and Hampton continue to run at North Park two or three times a week during the season, with all three enjoying longer runs on Saturday mornings -- provided there`s no meet to attend.
"I don't feel like people are trying to copy us or anything like that, but the allure of it is overpowering," Neff said. "It's really the perfect place."