The snow blanketing the Parade Grounds at Van Cortlandt Park lends the landscape a tone of pastoral tranquillity, even if generations of schoolboy runners know better. To them, the scene is more like a battlefield temporarily stilled by nature.
The park’s cross-country course is legendary — a grueling stretch of wide flats and twisting trails that has tested up-and-coming high school and college runners for nearly a century.
“Van Cortlandt was the ultimate,” said Matt Centrowitz, an Olympian who began as a standout at his Manhattan high school in the early 1970s. “Kids would come from Massachusetts and Maryland. The point was, if you were a star in any state, you came to Vannie like a gunslinger. Guys came ready for war.”
On Friday, Mr. Centrowitz, who is now the head cross-country and track coach at American University, will become an inaugural member of the park’s new Cross Country Hall of Fame, along with the longtime sports commentator Marty Liquori and the three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar. They will be inducted at a ceremony during the Millrose Games track meet at Madison Square Garden.
All three are Olympians and American record holders at 5,000 meters. And all got their earliest taste of hard-earned victory along Van Cortlandt’s rugged 2.5-mile high school course. The route started with a mad dash across the flats, then a jostle for position along a narrow cow path, looping through treacherous back hills and on to the final straightaway.
Although greater fame would await the three runners, Vannie’s thrill was unique.
“The excitement of going to Van Cortlandt, I don’t know if there is anything else to equal that,” said Mr. Liquori, 61, who went from setting course records while at Essex Catholic High School in Newark to a storied career at Villanova University and a rivalry with Jim Ryun.
“Even if you got to the Olympics, you developed the routine for handling stress at Van Cortlandt when you get off the bus and saw 10,000 kids there. You’re 15 years old, without a whole lot of belief in yourself thinking you’re going to be the 10,000th kid running that day. It was nerve-racking.”
Gene McCarthy, a member of the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, was hoping to recapture some of that excitement when he came up with the idea for the Hall of Fame. He had been a champion runner in the Bronx, at All Hallows High School and Fordham University. He recalls an era when quirky rebels dominated the sport, before it lost its edge to recreational road racers and strictly-business professionals.
“New York City has such a great running heritage,” he said. “We wanted to remind people where it came from.”
Not that Mr. Centrowitz needed any reminders of where his career started. He lived about a mile south of the park on Broadway, and attended Power Memorial Academy, a Catholic boys’ school near Lincoln Center that closed in 1984. Summers and weekends were spent in Van Cortlandt, running with his high school rivals and college heroes.
The course was a tough slog then, studded with roots and rocks. The start of a race unleashed a fury, with hundreds of runners swarming over the flats like a teenage production of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“Vannie made city kids tougher,” said Mr. Centrowitz, who competed in the 1,500-meter races in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. “The rocks, the hills, the wind always in your face at the end. That freaking first quarter-mile across the flats.”
Mr. Liquori counts the course as among the most challenging anywhere, saying it set a standard for young runners hoping to be noticed by college scouts.
“It was the yardstick everybody on the East Coast could be judged by,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you were a kid who only ran it once in your junior or senior year, it was like only getting to take the SAT once. For some of us, there was a lot of pressure because this was where and how you got your college scholarships.”
In recent years, the conservancy and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation have improved the course and nearby facilities. The course may not be as challenging as before, but it is still tougher than the suburban courses that now dominate the sport because coaches fear injuries to runners.
“I’ve seen championships held on gently rolling golf courses,” said Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner. “That’s not cross-country. It’s not cross-country until you’ve charged across that parade ground and into the hills.”
The sport’s boosters hope that this week’s Hall of Fame induction will help spur greater interest and support for cross-country, especially since the city now offers refurbished track-and-field sites like the Washington Heights Armory and Icahn Stadium, and will soon have an eight-lane indoor track on Staten Island.
There are already tens of thousands of runners, perhaps with gray hair and stiff knees, who trace their success in school and work to the rough-and-tumble discipline they learned pounding the hills at Vannie.
“That park made me,” said Mr. Centrowitz, who will turn 56 on Friday. “We caught the tail end of that great era for New York City, where kids learned to work hard, where blue-collar kids just mixed it up.”