Oakhurst Forest Preserve XC Course Rated Top 10 Among IL HS Coaches

Saturday, October 15 2011 - Aurora Central Catholic Charger Classic Invitational

Coaches Poll : Top HS XC Courses in Illinois

Part 3: Detweiller Park is the coaches favorite

Lukas Verzbicas on his way to the 2010 3A title. The excitement of the course is one of the reasons why the IL coaches chose this park as its favorite.

1. Detweiller Park, Peoria

There are critics around the country that call Detweiller Park more of a track on grass. And it is in a way. Times are fast when you are on this course. But if you talk to any coach or runner, Detweiller Park is the destination where they want to be on the first Saturday of November.

There is more to this course than the layout.

It's the tradition. It's the aura that surrounds it when you step off your bus and hits you in the face. It's the dream that intrudes in every Illinois runner's mind before they go to sleep in the fall. Its the hills that surround the park in November. The leaves of the trees changing.

Detweiller Park is a test of overall fitness. You have to run fast there to succeed. But at the same time, you have to be strong to maintain that speed for close to 15 minutes.

"Detweiller Park is, for an Illinois boy, just as legendary (if not more) as Van Cortlandt in New York.  You can go through a list of names who churned out 14:00 (or slightly over/under) on that route, who blasted through the "triangle", and who also represented the United States in the Olympic Games," said Jay Rogers, who ran for Petersburg PORTA, North Central College, and now coaches at Chatham Glenwood High School.

"You have the great team stories from years ago--my personal favorite is 1979 where those no-names who were ranked 8th in the state the week of District finished up 14 days later winning by nearly 60 points and establishing a then-record point total by Petersburg PORTA followed later in the day by the 2 point margin of victory in Class AA by Maine East......as well as the unbelievable performances of MANY York state title teams and putting up a sub 30 point winning effort later approached in the new Class AA by the Blue Thunder.  Great Stuff."

"There is no where else I would like to be the first Saturday in November," said New Trier Coach David Wisner. "The course is fast and fair with plenty of room to move.  The fans, the river, the intensity only add to make this an incredible place to run."   

Yes, there is plenty of room to run on this course. It's the specticle of the start on this course. In some of the invites, there are close to 500 runners that will charge off the line on the south end of the course and head north. Plenty of room to move in the first 400...until you get into the corner.

"I hate that turn," said legendary York coach Joe Newton. It is the turn that has changed the team strategy of many runners. There are so many different ways to approach this turn. In the 70's when Newton's teams were stuck on an inside box, he started using the "thousand and one".

The gun would go off. Everyone would leave the starting line and York would still be standing there. They would count Thousand and one and take off and veer to the right and stay out of the way of the crowd. In 1979, Maine East was 2 boxes away from York and veered the same way the Dukes did. They won the state title on that day.

Some runners have decided to make sure to get there first to avoid the curve. At this year's Richard Spring Invitational where there were over 500 runners starting in the varsity race, Chatham Glenwood's coach Jay Rogers, who's team started in Box 1, quipped," Hey, my guy just set a PR running the 400 in 47...maybe I should tell him to slow down!"

There are dangers with that. What if you are not the first one to that curve? Then you pay the price. There have been team title hopes that have gone up in the Detweiller dust when the team gets crunched by the 200 + runners who are trying to get through. You make it around the curve, it is time to move.

This course is THE spectator course. Every where you turn while you are running, there is someone screaming.

"When I was in high school, this course had meaning.  Coach Al Logsdon (former coach at Lincoln-Way High School) never took us to any invites at Detweiler, so it was State or nothing," said George Patrylak of Edwardsville. "Sometimes I wonder if that is the best thing to do, as the course has lost its luster attending two meets there every year plus State.  I still remember my sophomore year, coming down the homestretch at State my first time.  The echo of voices surrounding me in a dome!  Man did (do) I love State!"

You pass through a crowd 3 times. Yes there is an incline going towards the finish. People screaming, cheering as you go past. The first time you go up that incline, the adrenaline of the start is still carrying you. The next two times it is your guts and desire that take you up that incline.

You curve around the starting line and back down an incline along Illinois Route 29. Pass the mile and you get to the unique part of the course...THE TRIANGLE!

In the old days before the course was modified in 2002, it was a triangle. Now it is more like a rhombus.

There only used to be only one passage way into that triangle. As a runner, you were away from the crowd, away from the yelling. In that next half mile is where you could make a choice of either to let down or make a move. To win a state championship or to settle for less. At last year's state meet, Lukas Verzbicas made a turn at the triangle and took off and moved. He come out with over a ten second lead and his eyes on Craig Virgin's record.

The one story that made the triangle famous was at the 1975 meet when Bloom defeated York. Yes---the man in the bushes. The story has been told many times. You have heard it told differently from both the York and Bloom perspective. Doing a little research on this, I could not find a runner improve his PR by 1 minute from sectionals to state. The average has been around 20-25 seconds. Part of the history of Detweiller...the stories it provides.

You come out of the triangle and you have one more lap to go. Digging down in your heart to see if you can go faster. Driven by the noise from the fans that thunders off the hills west of the course.

The runner has to go up the incline one more time to finish. State meets have been lost here and won. You are so tired that the incline feels like more of a hill.
Always want to remember or try to forget goes through your mind as you head to the finish. It's those memories that make this park special.

What makes this park special is the fans. If you stand at the north end of the course and just watch the action of the south end of the course. Fans going back and forth cheering...screaming.

There have been movements to move the state meet else where. Places where fans can see the course...to sit...maybe similar to other states that run at a racetrack.

"I have to say that Detweiller is my favorite, but that is mostly because you never go there without big aspirations and a some nerves in your belly," said Palatine Coach Chris Quick. "I'm partial to any layout with a history."

Detweiller is the destination....the dream...the goal...for all runners to get to. To be in Peoria at the beginning of November. It is tradition that you can compare how you rank with other greats that have run there. It is the ultimate running measuring stick in Illinois.

Sandburg's John O'Malley says it best:

"Nothing is better than Detweiller Park. Sure, it's basically an open field with a few trees, and to the casual highway traveler the thousands of manic fans and war-like scene of runners screaming down the straightaways is an enigma, but to the cross country runner and fan, it is magic. Stepping where Virgin, Graves, Spivey, White, Broe, Torres, Sage, and Derrick stepped makes the ground something more than soil and beaten grass. Cross Country is about tradition. Cross Country is about being warrior poets. Detweiller is cross country. It's the best tradition in ALL of Illinois sports. It's about the most compelling competition---an entire season in 15 minutes while every other sport gradually decides the outcome of the season week by week. And finally it's about the poetry of fall leaves and the blank canvas of a course that the runners get to use as self expression. Where else on earth would anyone want to be in November? Best course, period."

5. Katherine Legge Memorial, Hinsdale

Even though the city of Hinsdale put a building behind the starting line for platform tennis use, there is still something special about the grounds of Katerine Legge Memorial Park on the east end of Hinsdale. Gentle hills, green grass, a nice stream to run through, and trees all over the park give this park a special feeling. You enter the front gates knowing that this is where a true cross country course is.

The course is basically a mile loop around the perimeter of the park. You start at the southeast corner of the park, close to the platform tennis building. The key is after around 400 meters, there is only a 36 foot wide passage way to get through, so getting out fast is a key. And you should be able to as there is an incline down to that passage. After that a slight incline and a left turn where you cut across the park...close to another 400 meters. Then a sharp right turn and you curve into a small wooded area with a trail nestled in it. Then you head for a half mile towards the hidious building by the starting line and you have completed the easy part of the course.

At the mile mark, there is a deceptive hill that will zap your strength if you let it. The current layout has the runners go slightly to the right of the steepest part of the hill. In the old days, you would run right next to the fence. If it had rained the day before, have fun getting up that thing. It still is a tough hill. Once you complete the hill, you have reached the southwest corner of the park and time to make a right turn past the vehicle entrance and exits over some pavement. Then it is a long downhill towards the Legge creek. Just like the hill in the rain, when there is rain, there is plenty of water flowing through. That is what makes this course special. That is what cross country is all about.

Neuqua Valley Coach Paul Vandersteen had Katherine Legge rated #1 on his poll. "It has a creek to jump over, a big hill, and it is great for spectators," he said.

Back to that creek...once you cross the creek, it is up a steep hill and back to the trail in the woods. And it starts all over again. The finish is close to the starting line. Remember there was an incline at the start? Well, you have to go up that incline to finish. It does not seem like much, but if your legs are tired, you will feel this last 400.

This course is cruel but kind. It is fair to test the strong, but the speedsters can benefit because there are flat areas to let loose.

Jim Westphal of Hinsdale Central uses this park as his home course. "I'm a little biased however, a challenging course with rolling hills throughout, a beautiful park," he said. "Surprisingly a fast course but honest course nonetheless."

4. Dellwood Park, Lockport

Then we get to this course located in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. When you talk about cross country courses and which one is the toughest, some one will ask you: "Have you ever ran Dellwood?"

If you answer no, then you can say that you have not run a real cross country course.

The first half mile course is like any cross country course that you may find in the Chicago area. It loops around a few baseball fields in the park. Flat as can be. Then you get to a incline going down over a bridge. This is when the fun part begins.

There is a trail that takes you to the mile. You continue to slowly turn to the right. And you get to a hill that curls downward. Another right turn. Over a bridge. Remember the old phrase what goes down....well, you have to go right back up. It is steep and it is tough. You are 1 1/4 into the race and that hill asks you, "Did you go out too fast?"

Tom Razo of Lockport made some changes that took a major "attraction" out of this course: Nosebleed Hill.

Yes, running up this hill will give you a nosebleed. It will also give you a heart attack and break your spirit if you are racing up it. It taxes the spirit. But when the course was using this hill, if you could get up it successfully, you were ready to get through anything.

"This is my all time favorite course.  Once you got on the paths lead to "Nosebleed Hill", this course was fantastic," said Edwardsville Coach George Patrylak. In his running days, George ran for Lincoln-Way High School. "I think that may have been the most difficult hills I had to climb back in my racing days.  I know that Coach Razo  has modified the course, but the course from the early 90's will always be my favorite."

Back to the course being run now. After you get up that hill, you make a slight quarter mile tour on the side of the park. Then back over the bridge and to the trails again. Down that hill. Over that bridge. Instead of going to the right, you head left towards the two mile mark. Right after that, an incline that forces you to slow down. Hard to describe the degrees of it. When I was there for Locktoberfest at the beginning of October, they had put fresh limestone on the hill...and it was not packed down...how cruel! But I love it!

Then it is back into the park. There are some deceptive inclines going aong the road that is on the side of the park. In this part, your legs say slow down but your heart says keep going. Down a incline with a half mile to go only to return up. The return up is a deceptive little bugger of a hill where it can zap your kick.

Then around the ski hill and head for home.

"There are several different versions of this course; however, the one that involves nosebleed hill is a true cross-country course," said Minooka Coach Kevin Gummerson. "This is one of the most challenging courses we have run on as it features quite a few rolling hills through the woods.  Nosebleed often garners a lot of attention due to the steep grade; however, the long gradual hill along the road is a true test of one's fitness."

This is one course I wish I ran when I was running. I would have loved to test it to see if I would pass as a cross country runner.

3. Veterans Acres Park, Crystal Lake

I have run this course only one time and it was quite an experience. It was in November. An AAU Jr. Olympic Meet. Cold rainy. I started out very slow like I usually did. Going up the first hill, I heard then coach of Homewood-Flossmoor Ted Van Dorn say, "Follow Newman...he knows how to run this course. Problem was, I did not have the slightest idea of how to conquer it.

In fact, there have not been to many runners that have conquered this course. They may have won races at VA, but they did not win the course. This course always has the final word.

This park serves as the home course for all 3 Crystal Lake schools. They are truly blessed as they get to train on a mentally draining course. But the kind of course if you use it the right way it can make you tougher when you get to the state series.

How would I describe the strategy to run on this course? Maybe agressive patience is a good way to describe it.

You start in the valley of the course. By the starting line, there is a line of bricks that honor the state qualifiers from the Crystal Lake schools. It was an eagle scout project according to Prairie Ridge Coach Jud Shutt.

 You start about two hundred meters and then up a STEEP hill. In rain, it is not fun.

A left turn, you start to encounter a series of hills that start to wear your legs out. Then you get to the trails. They are rugged and the roll. There is only room for 1 or 2 runners side by side.

So, if you are not near the front at this point...uh oh. You make the loop of the park twice. The second time through, you head for that steep hill down and finish. Not a course for the weary.

"VA is pure Cross Country! Even though it is by far the most difficult course we run our kids look forward to it every year!" said Glenbrook South Coach Kurt Hasenstein.

"Veteran's Acres has always been a great course for cross country--there is a decent spectator area and then the runners disappear into the woods where the hills challenge the best," said Buffalo Grove Coach Jamie Klotz. "Often times a runner finds himself leaping over logs that have fallen in the back forest that were not there a day before." 

2. Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve, St. Charles

It is not a course if you are a spectator and you want to watch a race. The runners disappear at the beginning...appear at the end. Just one big loop.

But when you talk to runners and coaches, they love the course because Leroy Oakes is pure cross country. It is not a speed course. It is not overly hilly. It is a course that reminds you of why you love to run. There is beauty of nature when you run through this park.

Talking to runners who have run this course, they all talk about the first mile where you run through the forest. There is nothing complex about this course.

"Leroy Oakes in St. Charles is my number one.  It is as close to a true cross country course as you get," said St. Charles East Coach Chris Bosworth. "Has everything you could look for in a course...hills, trails, mud, and it's only 1 loop.  Plus, if run correctly, you can run fast there."

"There is a tough uphill start, non-repeating, great scenery," said West Aurora Coach Matt Sinnott.

"While this is not a good spectator course, it is a runner's course and the epitome of cross country," Sandburg Coach John O'Malley said. "Lots of trails, dirt, mud, grass. The scene is one of fall: barn, beautiful trees. It’s a scene from the past. I feel like I’ve jumped into the movie Seabiscuit."

One comment that troubled me was from Kevin Harrington of St. Charles North. Along with Bosworth, he uses this park as his home course. "Hills, meadows, forest- it has it all," said Harrington. "It is also on the “endangered” list of cross country courses as the forest preserve has dramatically increased the financial requirements of hosting an event there."

For the runners sake, I hope they are running there for years to come. A treasure of a course that we would hate to lose.

I came up with a hair brained idea in August and here it is. Contact coaches throughout the state of Illinois and come up with a list of the top 10 Cross Country courses run in high school within the state of Illinois.

There were alot of surprises. This is not the definitive list of the best courses but a list of the favorite courses that coaches like. As we all know, top lists like this are always subjective and not everyone will agree with it, but that is the nature of the beast. This is for fun and I hope it brings a view of cross country throughout this state. And there are so many great courses. I wish I could have listed them all, but not possible this time.

This is the first part of  a series on the courses. It will cover the list from 6 to 10. In Part 2, we will look at courses 2 to 5 according to the coaches. Part 3 is when we reveal the coaches #1 course.  In Part 4, we will look at courses of the past that are no longer used.

10 Tie: Busse Woods, Schaumburg

Technically, the name of the portion of the park in the Cook County Preserve System is "Busse Lake Boating Center Groves #17-25 ". But everyone in cross country circles knows this place as Busse Woods. For me, the course is not a matter of testing yourself physically, but testing yourself mentally. It used primarily for championship races. The Mid Suburban League uses it for the majority of its championship meets. At the end of October, the Schaumburg Sectional uses the area to sort out who will go to Peoria.

The course is basically 3 one mile loops...hence the mental challenge. The start is the big challenge. Starting at the east corner of the area, you head west as the running area narrows to a sharp left turn. That is where the stories begin. Stories of where dreams are smashed or knocked down in a way. It is the 400 meters of this course where it can kill you. If you make it around the first turn, then you can start the racing. It is a course of turns and down one incline that gives you momentum. Tradition makes it great. "The tradition of all the MSL greats having run on this course and the wonderful Schaumburg sectionals that have been run here is why I like it," said Barrington Coach Ty Gorman. "A great spectator course.  Very much "track on grass" but love it because of the athletes who have competed there."

Since there is repetition on the course repeating it again and again, you can fall asleep. Since the park is close for spectators to make it all over the place, there is always someone in your face. Coaches like this for it's tradition...so do I.

10 Tie: East End Park, Elmhurst

If you want to talk about parks that have tradition, this is the place to talk about. History is all over this park. Home of the 27 time state champion York Dukes. This is the course that Joe Newton built in a way. This course has been used for York for over 50 years, maybe the oldest continuously used course in the state. If you look at the record books that Newton keeps, you can see the names that have competed on here besides the York greats: Popejoy, Marks, Marino, Torres, Volkey...all names that add to the aura of this park. The Field is called Joe Newton Championship Field...to me it is always East End.

If you want to be serious about it, this park is a track on grass kind of course. Like we said about Busse Woods, this is the ultimate mental test as you basically cover 900 meter loops around the course. There have been many variations of the long course which is now at 2.86 miles. Originally, you started and went to the left of the tennis courts and south of the swimming pool making a small loop. Now the loop goes into a little wooded area to the north of the finish chute.

Having trained at this park for 4 years of my life, the biggest thing that I could get out of this course is on the west side of the course by the road. There was an incline that went up gently towards the York team area and then towards the loop around the tennis court. Everytime I ran that incline, I played in my mind that I was heading towards the finish line at Detweiller. When I got to the Det, it was not a mystery to me. This is the spectator course...no need for effort to make it around this course. You can stand at one point of this course and watch the entire race evolve. "There are so many loops, but it will always carry the mystique of the York tradition," said Metea Valley coach Chris Rohde. Added Aurora Central Catholic Coach Troy Kerber, "The house that York and Joe Newton built! You can feel the aura of tradition as soon as you take a step on the grounds!"

9: SIU-Edwardsvile, Edwardsville

This is one course in Illinois that I have not been to, but it is on my bucket lists of courses that I want to go to. From what I have heard from everyone that has run it, the Mud Mountain course at Edwardsville is one of the toughest courses in the state.

Said Jon Burnett of O'Fallon High School, "SIUE has done so much construction on their campus that the location of its cross country course is in constant flux.  The Edwardsville coaches have prided themselves on continually  creating challenging courses.  Throw the stopwatch out the window and just race!"

Since I have never been there, I went right to the source to describe this monster of a course and what he proclaims his home course, George Patrylak, Head Boys Cross Country Coach at Edwardsville.

"Two words come to mind when I think of the old Mud Mountain Course used by EHS since 1998, beautiful and challenging.   Mud Mountain truly is one of the most beautiful courses I have ever seen.  Most of course is surrounded by natural boundaries, including prairie grass, wild flowers, and trees.  As the season's change, so does the unique appearance of the course.  From deep green during the summer for the Mud Mountain 5k Classic, to beautiful shades of the fall.  The course is full of rolling hills and had a lot of natural boundaries on the paths.  The starting line is wide, capable of holding more than 700 runners during the Mud Mountain 5k Classic.  After more than 100 meters, the course begins to narrow.  The first 600 meters of the course includes rolling hills as your race down the first aisle.  At the end of the first aisle is a soft hairpin turn that heads back in the direction of the starting line.

 Approximately 250 meters later, you turn into a small woods loop where trees make up your boundary to the left and prairie grass and wild flowers to your right.  For the next 500 meters you continue to race through  these boundaries with rolling hills and soft turns.  You followed the path until you arrive at your first challenging hill.  As you approach the mile mark, you are welcomed by 150 meter hill bringing you past the mile.  At this point you take a quick left and a quick right and head towards "woods loop".  The next 800 meters is relatively flat and you continue to be surrounded by prairie grasses and trees.  After a 250 meter straight away, you reach the 1 1/2 mile mark.  From there it is a sharp left up a short, but steep, incline.  The next 1/2 mile is the toughest part of the course. 

After the hill entering into "woods loop", it is a short down hill.  For the next 700 meters you will be surrounded by trees on both sides.  You begin to notice a slight incline that seems simple enough, but it is almost a full 600 meters of incline.  What makes matters worse, this section is full of blind turns.  As you reach each turn you think the hill must be over, only to see it goes on.  After 100 meters of flat terrain, you finally reach the two mile mark.  From just before the 2 mile until you reach "Mud Mountain" you can recover a little, as you reach a steep down hill, but then you are faced with "Mud Mountain".  The hill stays dirt due to the thick canopy of trees.  "Mud Mountain" is a fairly steep incline of about 150 meters.  This is my favorite part of the course. 

For the next 800 meters, you run on four to six foot wide trails, surrounded completely by trees on all sides.  The trees create an impressive canopy above, and you find yourself with few if any spectators to support you.  This is where you find out how tough you really are.  As you exit "woods loop", you have about 800 meters to go.  A left turn takes you to a bicycle path that has recently been paved (it used to be crushed rock).  On the bike trail, you are again surround by trees on both sides.  After 150 meters, you turn left off the trail and up a short hill. 

After the latest hill, it is about 600 meters of straightaway to the finish, as you double back on aisle one, where everything started.  Your next 600 meters is over rolling hills, surround again by prairie grass and flowers.  As you race towards the finish, you can see the finish line banner that hangs over the chute.  Just after the three mile mark, you have just one kilometer to go.  Oh, by the way, the last kilometer to the finish is up hill as well.  Mud Mountain is definitely a true cross-country course, one of the finest in Illinois."

8. Maxwell Park, Normal

Perhaps after Detweiller Park in Peoria, this is one of the most popular courses in central Illinois in the coaches eyes. Maxwell Park is the home of the IESA state meet held in October. Over the last few years, the IHSA has used this course for both regional and sectional qualifying meets. Designed by Normal West Coach Steve Destri 18 years ago originally for the IESA state meet, an extra mile loop by Destri was added so that Normal West could host regional and sectional meets.

"This course is "growing" on me," said Metamora Coach Gene Jones. " It is a challenging course that seems to run fast."

"My boys really enjoy U-High's home course at Maxwell Park,"  said Mahomet-Seymour Coach Neal Garrison. "They run there in junior high for State in the 2 mile.  U-High has just extended the course by a mile.  It brings out the best in my runners."

7. Bullfrog Lake, Cook County Forest Preserve

Here again like the SIU-Edwardsville course, Bullfrog Lake has been modified. Gone are some of the hills that made this course a pleasureable course for those who like a little more pain in your race than normal.

For fans, this is a course you can watch basically most of the race develop while standing above on a prairie bluff. There is one one portion of the course that spectators could not see where runners went back into the trails. Then there were the hills....those beautiful hills.

"There was something amazing about the challenge of the massive hills followed by a five minute disappearance of the runners (the runners’ favorite part of running the trail) followed by dead silence. Conference and invitationals were decided in those five minutes of silence," said Sandburg Coach John O' Malley. "The spectators waited eagerly and watched from the perch of the hill to decipher the colors of the emerging runners on the opposite side of the lake. Beautiful trail. The final 500-600 meters is the most challenging of any race finish. You had to climb the 300 meter hill and needed rope to get up. As soon as you hit the top, completely spent in anaerobic hell, you had to turn at the flag and find a way to kick a couple hundred meters to the finish. Unbelievable hell (but fair) and beautiful cross country. It was not for the weary."

Barrington Coach Ty Gorman felt the same way about this course. "Really a unique venue with a great combination of spectator friendly and "real" cross country with a moster hill along with part of the course that goes through the woods."

For those who say that all that Illinois runners run on are pancake courses, go run on Bullfrog and give me a call afterwards.

6. Oakhurst Forest Preserve, Aurora

We just finished talking about Bullfrog Lake and it's hills. Now we go to the other extreme and Oakhurst Forest Preserve in Aurora. The home course of Aurora Central Catholic and the Charger Classic, now going on 20 years. You come into the drive of the park and on the west side of the park there is this monster of a hill. Perfect for running. Well, maybe a little too steep. But still a great hill. It is not used on this course. If would be nice if that hill was used, but so many people and coaches like this course for it's current layout.

It's fast...dangerously fast. And it is designed that way for runners to go out and grab PR's. "The course was created in 1988 and it has been the home course for ACC since that time. The vision was to have a fast course; technically measured at 2.99; fast any way you slice it!" said ACC coach Troy Kerber. "Numerous state champions and great teams have raced here over the years! Runners and teams look forward to getting a crack at this course very year!"

"Fast course, great surface on the crushed limestone with an intense first mile and a quarter through the woods," said Oswego Coach Dan Whipple. The course is a romp through the forest preserve. If you blink while you run this, you will already be in the chute. This is a speed thrills course.