Once upon a time, I was a Montgomery County high school runner. Individually and collectively, my teammates and I started off our careers as a pretty terrible bunch of runners Ė and even that might be putting it charitably. But a core group of us had first the resolve, and then the dedication, to improve every year. By the time we were seniors, we felt as though we were on the precipice of a goal that had seemed impossibly far off when we were just wide-eyed freshmen: qualifying for the 4A State Cross Country Championship meet to be run at the famous Hereford course.
Senior year can be a magical time if you have the right mix of growing maturity and years of training under your belt. All season, we pushed each other to reach what we felt was our true potential. At night, we would dream of the Hereford hills. Come November, that dream became a reality as our entire team qualified. It was the first time in recent memory that a Montgomery Blair boy, let alone a whole team, had qualified for States. We exceeded most expectations, if not our hopes, by finishing seventh. Though most of us went on to run indoor and outdoor track to cap our senior years, November 10th felt like a culmination of sorts for our high school careers. We could all look back with great pride on a season and career that ended on a Hereford course worthy of being called a Championship.
I was one of my teamís runners who went on to run in college, competing for perennial Division III powerhouse Haverford College. In almost all ways, college running was a step up when it came to intensity: the runners were better, the courses were longer, the training was more comprehensive. But for all that was gained in mileage, distance, and team depth, something was lost as well. Conference, Regional, and National Championship sites in college would rotate from one course to the next year-by-year, offering little chance for all-time comparisons between athletes of different eras. No matter what, end of season races will always carry a certain level of mystique with them given the importance of what is on the line. And yet, something felt amiss in the build-up to the championship racing season in college without that familiarity of terrain that came with the constancy of a Gaithersburg, a Rockville Civic Center, or Ė most of all Ė a Hereford. Worse still, there was a decided shift in emphasis throughout the season on lightning quick courses. When invitationals were chosen and peaked for based on the prospect of running as fast as possible, a season became nothing but weekend travels to manicured golf courses. Uneven footing, hilly landscapes, and anything that may have presented a challenge were all sacrificed to produce a favorable response to the question that was invariably asked: "So, how fast did you run in cross country?"
Fast? How fast did I run? Weíd be afforded the opportunity to run fast all Winter and Spring -- thatís what Indoor and Outdoor track were for. I didnít care about running fast -- I wanted something to test myself against besides just the stopwatch. I had made the step up to college, but there was a decided irony of becoming a man (legally anyway, even if I still had some growing up to do) but running courses that demanded little in the way of race maturity.
I yearned for the hallowed ground of Hereford. I am reminded of an old Irish proverb: that at a critical juncture in a young personís life, those close to him shouldnít give gifts, but rather a mountain to climb. Surely anyone who has seen the Dip would see the truth in that. To me, a state championship course was about more than just besting your competitors -- ultimately, it was about getting the best out of yourself. And what better test than a course where you were never allowed to settle in. The way I see it, the college running scene had it all wrong. Hills arenít hindrances to fast PRs, they are to be embraced. Take it from someone now starting their second decade of competitive running: course PRs come and go, but the experience of demanding excellence of yourself on a course worthy of your respect doesnít fade. At Hereford, punishment for youthful exuberance in the early stages was meted out with unflinching consequences by the second run up the Dip. The course didnít ask, but demanded, a mix of toughness and patience -- a blend that was hard to get right.
The running debates among my college team were endless, and high school exploits proved a popular subject. Too often I had to sit by while a former Illinois runner would recount the blazing speed of a contemporaryís performance at their State meet at Detweiller Park. When the New Yorkers would trot out Van Cortlandt or the Philadelphians the storied Belmont Plateau or the New Jerseyans their precious Holmdel, I would hold my head just as high as any of them, and remind them that no less an authority than DyeStat had once called Hereford the most challenging three miles in the country.
Years have passed and life goes on. My college career ended, and once again my senior class went out on a high note, even if I was cheering from the sidelines this time around. A high school teammate is preparing for next monthís Chicago marathon. Seasons come and go as the next generation takes to the starting line for another Bull Run Invitational this weekend. Hereford, though it remains true to its core, has seen changes as well. On the boysí side, the venerable 16:00 minute barrier has finally been surpassed, though it took nothing less than the Footlocker Champion to set the current course record.
And so it is that I find myself, nine years later, being drawn back to test myself against Hereford. This weekend, Iíll run in the Reunion Run during this yearís edition of the Bull Run Invitational, dressed in the same all-white uniform that I've worn for the last few years. Iím not the same runner I was back in 2001 -- many races, a lot of mileage, and a few injuries along the way have seen to that. But the task of taming the hills at Hereford remains as formidable as ever, and I am racing there again to see what Iím capable of. I canít wait.
Jossi Fritz-Mauer is a 2002 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School. He ran cross country and track all four years at Division III Haverford College, where he remains as an assistant coach. He works at a nonprofit in Philadelphia and remains an avid Moco running fan.