by Vittoria Meyer (photos by Shelby Gifford)
Minutes leading up to the men’s 8k race, the overcast day seems to suddenly ignite with a warm, yet comfortable heat as the runners border the start line. The blocks of various colors take over the width of the course as the runners line up with their teammates and competitors. At the cue, they take off and hundreds of spectators follow, dashing the course’s sidelines at an attempt to keep an eye on their favorite runners. This course, strategically built, is intended to be an experience for both the runner and the spectator and it surely shows here.
It’s known that the state of Indiana is the home for racing, but Indiana defends this title in more ways than just being the home of the Indy 500. The Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute gives the state this title just as much as the motor speedway. At the John McNichols Invitational, the momentum and adrenaline of a race that Hoosiers have grown to love is felt in the mere presence of the Cross Country Capital’s point of pride.
The crowds these cross country events attract to the region are stemmed from a deep-rooted enthusiasm and commitment that teams, such as Northern Arizona University and the University of Michigan, have for this unique, challenging and historic course, and the city who houses it.
University of Michigan Women’s Cross Country Head Coach, Mike McGuire, has been visiting LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course with his team since 1997. He uses the history of the course to educate his runners on the sport of cross country and the opportunity they have to compete on the turf of many other national champions.
“I emphasize to my runners that they are a part of something a lot bigger than themselves,” states McGuire.
Michael Smith, director of track and cross country at Northern Arizona University, points out that it’s not only the course that makes the trip to Indiana worthwhile, but the hospitality of the state, region and city that make the yearly trip an experience in and of itself.
“It is so nice to be here in Terre Haute and at the LaVern Gibson [Championship Cross Country] Course where cross country feels like a really big deal,” states Smith. “We know this is a place that loves cross country and always when you’re on the road you want to be as comfortable as possible and this is a place we feel at home.”
The thousands of people from all over the country attending the invitational are apparent from the diverse license plates pouring into the parking lots upon arrival. The long drive herding cars up the hill are lined with banners of past runners that have left their mark on the field, welcoming you, yet subtly reminding you that you’re entering a piece of sports history.
The John McNichols Invitational welcomes and invites teams from all over the country. Homegrown Hoosier schools such as Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Indiana University, Depauw University, Purdue University, Hanover College, Oakland City, Indiana Wesleyan, IUPU, Franklin College, Wabash College, Valparaiso and Vincennes are all competing. The course is shared with nationally-ranked teams such as Northern Arizona University, the three time reigning NCAA Division l Champions, as well as Stanford, Iowa State, Eastern Michigan, Transylvania and Northern Colorado. At this invitational, a total of six races are held at the collegiate, high school and middle school levels, giving the day a diverse mix of skill and experience. The middle schoolers watch in awe at the high schoolers while the collegiate athletes cheer amongst the crowds during the middle school races. The support is steadfast amongst the 54 competing teams over the course of the weekend.
However, it’s not the sheer number of people and teams coming together for a weekend invitational that make it worth noting. It’s the common love of the sport celebrated by all in attendance and the visionary, Coach John McNichols, who crafted this love in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Coach McNichols, the longest tenured coach in Indiana State University’s history, possessed a knowledge and passion for the sport of cross country that shaped it into what it is today. His unwavering mentorship, sportsmanship and drive impacted all who knew him, and to honor his legacy, many of them gather back at his roots, the LaVern Gibson course, as runners, coaches or simply spectators during the John McNichols Invitational.
“John used to come here all the time for all hours of the day and do any work. No task was too small. He was involved in every aspect of the race. He administered everything. This is for him,” states David Patterson, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau.
John’s legacy was shown in all regards of the sport. As the “master designer” for the course, his vision played out and has directly impacted the sport of cross country and the way tourism is viewed and catered to in Indiana. With over 40,000 people visiting the course every year, the region has adapted to this growth in order to warmly welcome visitors to Terre Haute.
Needless to say, the Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, Terre Haute and the state of Indiana are well-positioned to welcome visitors, far and wide. The growth of the tourism industry that the sport brings to the region is supported within the foundation of our retail, hospitality and tourism industries. Here in Indiana, we welcome the opportunity to showcase these regional assets.
The end of the race brings an outpour of runners advancing to the finish line all mingling together. The perfectly sorted teams found at the start line are now a mix of hues. The spectators are also racing but to the sidelines to find the next best view. The heightened adrenaline has lasted 23 minutes and counting, and the excitement has yet to subside. John McNichols certainly did craft quite the foundation for this sport that Terre Haute and Indiana will continue to cheer for and support. In Indiana, the last lap has more than one meaning.