Cross Country

A nondescript Manlius road helped fuel Syracuse’s rise to national prominence

Paul Schlesinger | Asst. Photo Editor

The Orange recently ran its first Sweet Road workout of 2017, and the team plans on returning again and again and again.

Heartbreak Hill divided the team more than anything had on this run. The once-unified running blob stretched like taffy along the course’s frequent hills until Heartbreak, a steep, approximately quarter-mile climb, pulled it completely apart. It left the 13 runners divvied into smaller pockets of two to three, each with sweat beading on his face and chest.

“You can’t fake this road,” Syracuse head coach Chris Fox had said earlier. “Guys who can run here can really run.”

About a half-hour earlier, Fox had assembled his team about eight miles southeast of campus, midway up the first hill just south of the intersection of East Seneca Turnpike and Sweet Road in Manlius. The Orange men and women run Sweet Road about five times per season, though never together.

“If you’re not in the right frame of mind, get in it,” Fox told his runners, arms folded across his chest. “This is important. It’s how we get to where we get.”

By “how we get to where we get,” Fox meant Sweet Road plays a crucial role in Syracuse remaining an elite-level program. That is impressed upon each runner with the locker-room mural depicting stretches of the road alongside photos of SU’s 2015 men’s NCAA title celebration. Engraved on those championship rings, just below the runner’s name: “SWEET ROAD.”


The runners had mostly regrouped every mile or so, as coaches instructed, for the first Sweet Road workout of the season. It was late in the afternoon, not as hot as the past few days, but still warm for mid-September. Then, about four miles into Syracuse’s workout, just before they passed Palladino & Carley Farms, seniors Colin Bennie, Justyn Knight and Philo Germano widened the gap. The trio, likely Syracuse’s top three runners this season, remained in near-synchronized stride and formation for the next half-mile, until even they needed water.


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Bennie flicked his right hand out as assistant coach Adam Smith drove by in one of the two large, white Chevrolet Expresses rented from SU Athletics. Smith pulled over, popped out of the driver seat and flung open the van’s rear doors to reveal two coolers, one water, one Gatorade. Before the runners drank, Smith corralled Bennie to the right side of the van and pointed back at the second pack of runners.

“You should be ahead of (him) the whole time,” Smith said.

Bennie nodded.

“It’s a good Litmus test,” associate head coach Brien Bell said later of Sweet Road. “And the kids know. If you run Sweet Road consistently, you race consistently. If you run it inconsistently, you race inconsistently. You can get a little exposed here.”

Bell was the one who found Sweet Road. As he drove along the road once, he thought it’d be a good location to run. Running coaches often think like this while driving, Fox said. Sweet Road is the only concrete surface SU currently trains on, Bell said, but the steepness mitigates the impact on the runner’s legs.

That day had been long for Syracuse — runners estimated they would finish the day at about 16 to 17 miles total, after a taxing week — so Fox outlined a lighter workload.

“Eight, eight, six, six,” Fox told Knight, Bennie and Germano, meaning each would run eight minutes hard, then jog for 90 seconds. Then another eight minutes hard followed by another 90-second jog. Then six … and so on. Fox assigned each grouping of runners their own four times and instructed them all to work off the lead group’s rest.

The team had run about two miles to get here as a warm-up and, waiting to start, a few rubbed down their legs or duck-walked or jogged back-and-forth on the road’s shoulder. Then, Fox sent the runners and, for a moment, the coaches watched. The hardest part of the course, Fox said, was about the first 15 minutes, because it is “straight up.”

“Slow down!” Fox shouted after his runners.

“They looked antsy,” Smith said.

Then, the coaches hustled to their vehicles and set off in a caravan of two Chevy Expresses and Bell’s car.

At each mile, Smith pulled over to the right shoulder, jumped out of the van every 1600 meters to spray the distance with orange paint. Just beyond each of Smith’s counters were worn, orange mile-markers. The week had been hard and the runners seemed to be feeling that, coaches said. Smith, Bell and Sean Hopkins, a new volunteer assistant coach, “Let’s go!”-ed each runner as they passed. They were impressed with redshirt freshman Dominic Hockenbury, who later said his strategy was: “Look at Justyn’s back and forget what you’re doing.”

Some time between when Fox and Bell joined SU in the 2005 season, respectively, the team started using Sweet Road to supplement the training it did in the hilly, nearby town of Tully. The more SU used it, the more they liked it. The road’s wide shoulders allowed runners plenty of room and, because it is a public road, coaches knew it would be plowed shortly after the snow stopped falling.

In 2009-10, the team ran Sweet Road on about 25 to 50 percent of its hardest workouts, Bell estimated, but by 2013-14 the split widened to about 90-10, Sweet Road. Now, they don’t go anywhere else for hard days. That’s what happens when you win a national championship, coaches and players joked.


Paul Schlesinger | Asst. Photo Editor

Close to Mile 3, Smith called to one runner, “Hey, you good?”

“Legs are flat,” the runner sighed.

“That’s OK, find somebody to run with,” Smith said. “You’re good!”

The further the run went, the more technical the encouragement became. Keep those hips steady, coaches said, and relax those shoulders. After breaking for water around four-and-a-half miles, the rest of the course melted away and, suddenly, they were turning left off Sweet Road onto Academy Street, to meet where they always have, at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

The runners mill around and commiserate for a few moments before cooling down by running in the field behind the Pompey Hill Fire Department or a short way down the road to Pratts Falls. Fox hopped in one of the vans and, whistling to himself, piloted toward the falls.

“In the great book of Sweet Road,” he said, “this was a piss-poor one. There were shiny things, but also crappy things.” He pointed out Hockenbury’s day as a shiny thing.

“Overall,” Fox added, “Coach Fox gives that a C-minus.”

After the debrief, when Fox delivered a similar assessment to his team, the team broke apart the large circle it formed in front of the Pratts Falls entrance. As the runners clambered back into the vans, one of them said, “Well, at least we’re done.”

Several teammates nodded.

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