News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

November 18, 2010

Mark Bennett: Trying out the course the nation’s best will run

TERRE HAUTE — Occasionally, someone will ask me, “Do you run?”

Well, it depends on what they mean by “run.” People “run” to the grocery store, “run” errands, make a beer “run” or “run” to the restroom. Others also “run” for exercise, but not speed — commonly called “jogging” — and I fall into that category.

Then there are folks who “run” with a capital R. They wear watches and good socks, and they’re not afraid to throw up.

The LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course was built for people who Run. This Monday, 255 men and 255 women will Run the Gibson course in the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, beginning around noon.

Last Monday, to experience the spirit, I decided to “run” the acclaimed Gibson course with its mastermind, John McNichols, Hall of Fame track and cross country coach at Indiana State University.

It was kind of like playing H-O-R-S-E in Hinkle Fieldhouse with Tony Hinkle.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, we did the 5-kilometer version of the Gibson course. On Monday, the nation’s best collegiate men will cover 10 kilometers at Gibson, while the women will go 6K. They Run. I run. Nonetheless, Coach McNichols and I trekked over the crucial stretches of the same grassy path these swift, talented teenagers and twentysomethings will conquer on Monday. He did stop a few times to briefly explain the nuances of the deceptively tasking course, before resuming our pace.

Most notably, neither of us threw up.

That’s no surprise for McNichols. Though a hurdler in his own track career, the guy knows Running of all variations. He’s coached national champions in 28 seasons at ISU, and tutored Olympian hurdlers as chairman of the USA Track and Field Men’s Development Committee. His Sycamore men have won six Missouri Valley Conference titles in both track and cross country. Impressive.

McNichols’ stroke of genius, though, was envisioning America’s best cross country course. Traditionally, high school and college cross country meets are conducted on golf courses or in public parks. In 1995, McNichols, land owner Greg Gibson and veteran Terre Haute track coach Bill Welch designed a course that would test the athletes, but also — uniquely — allow spectators to witness virtually the entire race. After two years of seeding grass, clearing brush and grading 240 acres of reclaimed mining land, the course was unveiled. It quickly built a reputation around the country. In 2002, the NCAA brought its Division I championships to the Gibson facility, and after a one-year absence in 2003, the event has remained in Terre Haute ever since.

Among the nation’s Runners, this city is known as Cross Country Town, USA. (That sure beats Terre Haute’s old labels.) They love the course, because it was crafted specifically for them, McNichols explained as we jogged. But, he quickly added, “It breaks a lot of hearts, too.”

The collegians will come to Terre Haute this weekend with dreams of winning the individual or team championships, or finishing among the top 10 competitors, or qualifying for All-America status. Their success depends on how they handle the subtle challenges of the Gibson course.

Unlike most cross country courses, the runners start 400 meters from the main spectator area, so the crowd can watch the “Braveheart” style takeoff. With 250-plus participants in both the men’s and women’s races, those seriously intent on winning need to move toward the front of the pack along the opening, 1,000-meter straightaway. Graciously, McNichols let me set the pace. (That’s good, because I really don’t have a faster pace, anyway.)

As we approached the first turn, McNichols said, “The top guys would be at about 2:30 right here,” as in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

At that point, I stopped thinking about my time.

This course may be faster than ever this fall. Typically, its running lane — 10 meters wide or more at all points — features lush, green grass over both soft and firm ground. The dry autumn weather, this year, has left the turf solid. Despite my pedestrian running ability, the course made me feel quicker. The path’s width is level, and you’re never running on the side of a hill.

That doesn’t mean you never have to go uphill.

I gained a new understanding of the term uphill when we hit the stretch affectionately known as “The Staircase.” In the 10K NCAA men’s race, the guys reach The Staircase at the 7K mark. Runners ascend from Gibson’s lowest elevation to a plateau at the 8K point. It burns the leg muscles and separates the contenders from the rest of the pack.

The northernmost loop of the course is also the most scenic. Geese flew overhead as we arrived there. Woods stood just beyond the turn. Deer, coyotes, pheasants and quail are often spotted nearby. Elite runners — those with a capital R — don’t gaze at scenery, McNichols reminded me. They possess three special attributes — a strong cardiovascular system, a willingness to train through pain and “the heart of a fierce competitor,” he said, sweating in the cool November air.

Just then, those Runners’ prize — the finish line — came into our view. That final 400-meter homestretch (the same one they start the race with) tempts the athletes to break into a full sprint, McNichols said. The smart ones don’t burn out too quickly, saving just enough energy for the last few strides.

We jogged into the finish chute in silence, winded but fully conscious. On Monday, a crowd of 5,000 cheering fans will line the fences as the collegians cross the line jubilantly with raised arms, or collapse exhaustedly. After trudging in the footsteps of so many past Runners of the Gibson course, I can better appreciate their experiences.

As we walked toward our cars, I asked McNichols what the average Terre Hautean could do to help the city keep the NCAA Championships here year after year. “Come to the meet,” he said, simply.

Best of all, you can simply watch, and leave the running to the Runners.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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