Originally posted November 21, 2016
reposted November 30, 2018
The 2018 NXN is being held tomorrow. It is the finest high school cross country team race in the country. The NXN has made cross country cool, and the course has fans, mud, and some of the finest athletes in the world. The truth is, NXN’s foundation comes from the Nike Border Clash, which I am writing about below. I think that this column helps you appreciate the two decades of evolution of both events.
Something about this race always reminds me about the amazing importance of running four to six thousand meters of cross country. Here are my thoughts on the 2016 Nike Border Clash. It is one of those events that I do not miss.
Nike Border Clash Diaries: “Is that Your Best?”
It is raining as I leave San Francisco on Saturday evening. My flight had been cancelled earlier in the day on United. So, I checked with the friendly people at Alaska who found me a seat on the 8:30 flight to Portland. Most of my flight were Oregon folks who had just returned from Cabo San Lucas: tans, going into detox, and all of that, and greeted by torrential rain in San Francisco. Is this the life or what?
Last year, I missed my first Nike Border Clash after sixteen years. I was caught circling the lovely Portland airport as a freezing cloud stopped my United flight from landing. I was not, to say the least, a happy camper. I noted I would never come up on the morning of the race again. On the first year of Nike Border Clash, I had flown from San Luis Obispo to Portland, Oregon, after an all night (or near all nighter) celebrating Jan Johnson’s 60th birthday. It was an amazing two days, meeting pole vault geeks and then, joining cross country geeks. My observation on pole vault versus cross country geeks: not much difference, just that some jump over pits and others jump over creeks. That was the reason why Jan Johnson (1972 bronze medalist pole vault) and Steve Prefontaine (1972 4th place, 5000 meters) got along so well. Steve Prefontaine used to love carrying Jan Johnson’s poles through airports, he claimed it was a great way to meet people. By people, Steve Prefontaine meant young woman, just in case you had not figured that out.
A nice beginning for my visit number 15 in the 16 Nike Border Clash events that have been held on the Nike campus in Beaverton. Over the past sixteen years, many of the finest Oregon and Washington runners have competed over the wood chip trails on the Nike “berm”.
The meet respectfully reminds us of the great battles between Washington and Oregon distance runners over cross country for the past seven or eight decades. John Truax and Josh Rowe, then, both Nike employees, had these discussions for some time before the event began all those years ago. Remembering the likes of Gerry Lindgren and John Ngeno in Washington and Steve Prefontaine, among others in Oregon, Truax and Rowe birthed the idea of putting together a battle royale between Washington and Oregon high school cross country runners. It was kind of like fantasy football visiting cross country, but a real event takes place and actual results happen. (Do not get me started on fantasy football).
I have seen some of the finest runners from the Northwest run the 4,000 to nearly 5,000 meter courses around the Nike campus. The events are a fun way for Nike employees and their families to enjoy an exciting day of cross country, the most primal part of our sport. I enjoyed watching Galen Rupp win all those years ago.
Cross country has a centuries old tradition, coming from the hounds and hares running traditions in British running clubs dating back to the mid 19th century. Cross country is a sport that requires patience, focus and perseverance. The soft trails of the Pacific Northwest provide great places for young runners to build their strength, their confidence and their racing skills.
For many in the U.S., cross country is their first taste of running athletics. In 2016, 535,000 boys and girls will have run cross country for their 16,000 plus high school teams. With most state cross country meets over by this weekend, the final six to seven weeks of the U.S. season is devoted to training for the Nike NXN, the FootLocker series and the USATF Club and AAU Junior Olympic meets.
This time of the year, cross country has gone from the heat of summer, to the cool of Fall to the chill of winter. Snow abounds in some areas. But for the Pacific Northwest, the Nike Border Clash is the combination of rain, mud, trails and gritty running. Fans are in proper Northwest winter gear: hats, gloves, winter coats and the preferred brand of coffee.
The race always has a fun start. How many cross country races start with a canon? (In the 1970’s University of Nevada Reno had a tank cannon shoot to start the race for our conference! I was a freshman at Santa Clara and it scared me a bit! ).
I have been very honest that I see Nike Border Clash as a litmus test for the support of grass roots running around the Nike world. The meet is small in stature, perhaps, but huge in importance. Nike sports marketing sees this event as a key affirmation of the importance of running in the Nike culture, much like NXN, and Nike Pre Classic.
While Nike Border Clash is not at the level of importance of NIke NXN or Nike Pre, in a philosophical sense, it’s influence is even of more importance. Nike employees get to enjoy a world class event on campus, realizing once again, the the support of Nike, for events like this, is the same support that provided athletes the support for 75 percent of the Rio Olympic track & field medals. That support, to develop athletes to run, jump and throw, over the ten to fifteen years that it takes a world class athlete, to find their talents does not come cheap. There are only a handful of companies who can provide such assistance, with Nike and adidas at the top of the food chain.
But the Nike Border Clash idea, the core of the culture goes back to the late Steve Prefontaine, a man from Coos Bay, who lost his life way too early. When I think of Prefontaine, I think of, as Olympic champion Frank Shorter once said, a “satyr”. A man with an infectious smile, Steve Prefontaine loved to race, explore his limits, and respected the men who he battled over hill and dale. I have this picture in my mind of Steve Prefontaine and John Ngeno, arm in arm, smiling, telling stories that only athletes who have pushed each other to their very limits can tell. That culture of celebrating sport, celebrating competition, is at the heart of what Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman instilled into the Nike brand.
The ghost of Steve Prefontaine, like the ghost of Christmas past, still can be felt on the campus.
I picture Steve Prefontaine, as I always do, in the twilight, with gray hair, a Ducks hoodie on, and a huge burrito in one hand. With paper bag, holding a beverage of some type in the other, Mr. Prefontaine would be enjoying the races from a secluded part of campus. Cheering the runners along, after his daily run, Prefontaine would pick out the kid in ninth or tenth, and say, only so he or she can hear it, ” is that your all?” It would not be mean, it would be like a wisp of wind gently nudging the young athlete, with a voice of some certainty and confidence. Pre as one’s conscience or one’s cheerleader, now that is not too far from the reality of his life or actions. As a child, Pre was bullied. That empathy was hallmark to much of his actions in his young adult life, and his bravado.
The young athlete would look over, wild eyed, now with the spirit of all the Pacific Northwest runners who have preceded and all who will come after, and pushed the final three hundred meters around the soccer pitch, willing themselves up another two places. The feeling of getting that last bit of competitiveness out of oneself, of a race well run, as one bends over, trying to find a bit of air to breathe. The man in the Duck hoodie would come over, unseen, and gently pat the young athlete on the back, saying so only the young athlete could hear, “now, that was how to do it. Nice job!”
Then, the man in the Duck hoodie would smile, put on his Oregon hat, and disappear into the trees, just like an apparition. But really, like the satyr he was and is, reminding all of us that cross country is a culture that we can find meaning from those difficult minutes in the rain and mud throughout our live. Steve Prefontaine reminds us, that one heroic sprint can change a life. That is the message whispered from behind the trees on a cross country course.
Be honest to the sport, listen to your heart, and find that one last mad sprint to the finish line. For those sixteen to twenty minutes, nothing else matters in the world. For those sixteen to twenty minutes, cross country running is the meaning of life, like an e.e.cummings poem.
Enjoy the Nike Border Clash, fans, coaches, families and yes, athletes.
You are in for a life changing experience.