Stephanie Wilson
Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson doesn’t claim to be a runner. Her longest distance so far? “Probably from my car to the inside of a mall, so let’s say 400 metres.”

But that didn’t stop her from tackling a cross-country course at Guelph. This past spring, Wilson completed her master’s degree in landscape architecture (MLA) in a little-studied topic in Canada and pretty much everywhere else: improved design of cross-country courses.

She picked the right place to do it, on two counts.

Guelph is one of only five schools in the country – and one of only two in Ontario — offering an MLA program. At least as important, the city has gained fame as the “running capital” of Canada, thanks largely to a winning varsity program that has garnered numerous awards in cross-country and track and field over the past decade.

In fact, the women’s cross-country team won its 10th consecutive Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championship Oct. 26, and the men’s team its ninth straight OUA win. On Nov. 9, the Gryphon runners will defend their multi-year records as Canadian Interuniversity Athletics champions.

The U of G course where the Gryphons train is also widely used by off-campus athletes, both competitive and recreational runners.

“We want to be the best running city in Canada,” says Wilson.

Not that she’s racking up the running miles herself. “It’s usually the first question I get, ‘Oh, you’re a runner?’ Nope.”

She was intrigued when her adviser, Prof. Nate Perkins, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, suggested she look at cross-country course design as a land use and design topic. Without a running background, Wilson figured she could bring a fresh pair of eyes to the subject.

“Cross-country is about sense of place, which to me really hit home, because as landscape architects, we try to catch that — understand how landscape affects people.”

Besides that winning athletic record here at U of G, a key resource already presented itself. Guelph has one of only a few dedicated courses, not just in Canada but in North America.

Wilson’s challenge: how to improve the course for athletes, coaches and spectators, including not just elite runners but all users in the city’s running community?

The course runs through a corner of the U of G Arboretum at College Avenue and Victoria Road. Hilly with a mix of treed and open spaces, it takes competitors along two loops like a rough hourglass measuring 2.5 kilometres in all.

Runners complete several circuits of the course or portions of them during a race. The women’s course is six kilometres long; the men’s is 10 kilometres.

Part of the route is grassed-over, resembling an extra-long golfing hole slicing through the trees and brush. Other portions are covered with wood chips or gravel.

The course begins and ends on its highest point, an open area just above a small parking lot by the Hilton Centre on College Avenue

The runners’ favourite route features include the “little hill,” where the course narrows to single file with soft footing along a treed rise. It’s a quiet section without spectators where runners can “get their thoughts together, and mystery and excitement is created for spectators,” says Wilson.

For the opposite reason, another favoured spot for athletes and spectators alike is the “junction,” or the neck of the hourglass. Near the finish line, it brings together athletes moving in opposite directions along portions of the course.

It’s loud and exciting there, says Wilson, who took in a few races as part of her research. “Runners ideally need to have big crowds in certain areas to gain energy and areas where it’s very quiet.”

Cross-country draws hundreds of athletes and spectators numbering in the thousands. “The excitement on those days is amazing.”

Besides observing races, she walked the course alone to learn about environmental and design features. The course was established by local runners beginning in 2004.

Earlier, she had read up on the literature of the sport. She found little has been published on cross-country design.

Only a few notable courses exist in North America. Most are temporary setups in golf courses or parks, including Clearbrook Park in Abbotsford, B.C., Thames Valley Golf Club in London, Ont., and Rim Rock Farm in Kansas.

Wilson also interviewed Arboretum staff, runners, coaches and meet planners. Those included varsity team members as well as runners with the Speed River Track and Field Club, high school teams and the Guelph Victors.

Says Perkins: “She’s good at bringing people who represent a range of constituencies together.”

Diversity and natural areas are key features of a good course, says Wilson. She recommended a few refinements to the Guelph route, including smoothing out a dangerous first turn. She also suggested improved signage and way-finding, and facilities such as washrooms, drinking fountains and storage.

Meets typically draw about 700 athletes and 1,000 spectators to Guelph.

Wilson says much of the course itself is already up to par. Unlike many sports that emphasize spectator accessibility, cross-country routes should reflect a “design for the athlete” approach, she says.

The sport was established in the 19th century and is regulated by national and international governing bodies. “Regulation” is less rigorous here than in other sports, she says: “Track and field is about regulation: cross-country is about variation.”

Now working as a landscape planner with the City of London, she hopes to work again with sports facilities.

Perkins says the project was a “wonderful blend between research and the practical side, actually putting research into changes in the landscape.”