90 Days to Nationals — Grape Crush Chronicles

RC (right) quickly addresses the Pilots regarding the week ahead post-18 mile long run.

RC (right) quickly addresses the Pilots regarding the week ahead post-18 mile long run.

"It's a soft opening," stated University of Portland Men's Cross Country Head Coach, Rob Conner

"How so?" I naively inquired. 

"Well, not every guy is back yet. Some are finishing up work, internships, or other summer commitments. And I don't see the point in forcing them to report back for an easy long run. I know they'll get the miles in." 

"How many days to nationals?" I ask. 

"Ninety, exactly," answered assistant coach Jack Mullaney. 

It is Sunday, August 19th and the Pilots are off running 18 miles on Portland's famed Leif Erickson trail.

However, of the majority which has returned coach likes what he sees. 

"The guys who are back showed up in shape. Hats off to them for getting the job done this summer."

As the Pilot harriers are on their run, Coach Conner — or R.C., as he is fondly known by his guys — and I walk 7 miles on the crushed gravel old logging road. 

On Sundays in the fall, R.C. is the unofficial mayor of Leif Erickson trail, as he's brought his runners to train here every autumn weekend for nearly 3 decades.

Intermittently our stroll and conversation is pepped with the following interruptions from runners, hikers, and cyclists passing by —

"Go Pilots!" 

"Hi Rob."

"Good luck this year coach!" 

Much of the Portland running community knows him and champions his program's annual run towards the NCAA Cross Country Championships. 

Entering his 29th year as Head Coach at the University of Portland, RC has developed and refined a unique culture, impacting and benefiting not only it's members, but the school and community at large — which is highly uncommon for a collegiate cross country program.

And that is why I'll be joining him and the Pilots this fall — to explore culture, what it looks and feels like, and how culture guides, directs, and shapes the Pilots on their 90-day journey towards the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. 

The Grape Crush Chronicles will be a semi-consistent feature on the blog over the next 3 months as I tag along to witness the creation of the 29th cross country season in R.C.'s tenure on The Bluff.

A season, like the prior 28, he enthusiastically hopes will be "one of the greatest years in Pilot history!"


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

Jonathan Marcus