Super Flashback Friday: That Viral XC Film from 1927 at VCP

Back in 2016, NJ MileSplit administrator Rob Kellert posted an article about a video of an old XC race sent to him by an NJ fan. The film was from the famed Pathe Studio archives and showed a championship race at Van Cortlandt Park in 1927 and was a news reel for the European market titled, "Cross Country Running in New York, Old English sport is the latest craze with athletic young America." Rob asked whether anyone could identify the race, and since all of the participants in it would now be at least 108 years old, it seemed unlikely that any of those "I remember my finishing kick in that race very well" type comments would be sent in. Now we have the answer.

The race was the I.C.A.A.A.A. (usually now listed IC4A) college championship on Monday, November 21, 1927 at VCP, the de facto national championship at that time. The meet started in 1908, and this was the 19th edition since there was no race in 1918 during World War I. The fifteen schools running in it were all from the northeast region and included (in order of finish) Penn State, Harvard, Maine, Union, MIT, Syracuse, Cornell, Penn, NYU, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, Manhattan, Fordham. So it was all the Ivy League schools except Brown, a group of NY schools, and two farther traveling visitors from PSU and Maine. A few NYU and big F or Fordham insignias can be picked out on shirts in the starting charge.

An article in the New York Times gives an extensive summary of the meet. PSU and its junior star Bill Cox came in as the reigning champs, as the Nittany Lions had replaced four-time champ Syracuse as the dominant XC power in the nation. On a slow, rainy, muddy day at VCP, PSU and Cox claimed repeat titles in the six-mile jaunt, beating Harvard 50 to 60 with Maine close behind at 69. Manhattan and Fordham had a close battle for last, and the Jaspers edged the Rams by 443 to 445.

The "rangy, long-striding" Cox had a little trouble at the start. His Lions team was late getting to the starting line and were still struggling with their preparations when starter Johnny McHugh called out "Ready?" and the other fourteen teams roared back "Ready." McHugh's gun went off while Cox was helping a teammate get his sweats off, and he was left doing a mad dash after the mob of runners. He apparently got through the breakout pretty quickly since he was said to be on the lead at the 50 yard mark. Cox battled with Harvard captain Jimmy Reid through the first three-quarters mile until they got to the first of the steeplechase barriers set up around the course. Reid hurdled the barrier while Cox chose to vault over it with his hands, and thus lost the lead momentarily. Cox regained the lead at the start of the first "hill" (Cemetery?) and held it through the "hills" (Back Hills?) before opening up likely a half-minute margin in the "meadows." Though the lead shrank on a second passage into the hills as Cox ran conservatively, he blasted home on the final flats to win by about 18 seconds in 30:36.

As you can tell from the finishing scene, there were huge crowds at VCP for the big meets, all spectators wearing a hat, and some of the watchers were on horseback.

PSU would win again in 1928 by a large margin over Maine this time, but Cox finished 3rd behind Harvard's Reid and Francis Lindsay of Maine. NYT published a photo of the top two guys that year.

Note: I am assuming that the barriers described in the article were standard steeplechase impediments set up on the VCP course, but the film shows a downed tree that could be stepped over, and it is possible that the hurdled barriers were fallen trees of a larger sort that were left on the course for runners to handle in whatever way they thought best. This was after all when cross country was cross country.

Anyone who has any further fond recollections of this race are invited to send them in.