Griak prestige attracts schools from around nation

The race brought more than 7,000 people from across North America.

Mark Remme

On Saturday there was a buzz of competition floating around the University campus, unavoidable to those near the scene.

Exertion, competitiveness and victory were present. As expected, the top teams succeeded while the less-talented faltered.

Minnesota football coach Tim Brewster was there. Athletic director Joel Maturi looked on.

No, the venue wasn’t the Metrodome. And, no, it was not Ohio State’s 30-7 throttling of the Gophers football team.

It was the overshadowed Roy Griak Invitational, placed, as it has been for the past 22 years, in direct competition with overriding sports programs.

What lies beneath the public eye is a spectacle that few outside the cross country subculture see or appreciate. An estimated 7,000 people gathered Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course, and those who showed up watched the Minnesota women’s cross country team take first place for the first time in seven years.

Those who showed up earlier watched the men’s squad take fourth in a field of 24.

But the event transcended age. There were 182 high school teams competing in four separate races to combat the 180 collegiate teams broken into six different heats.

At final count, 22 states and three Canadian provinces were represented in St. Paul.

“I think teams know that when they come here they’re going to get great competition,” Minnesota women’s coach Gary Wilson said.

Credibility, however, might be the most compelling aspect of bringing teams to the Griak – and to the upper Midwest region, for that matter.

Greeley West (Colo.), which sent its high school girls’ cross country team from just north of Denver, won the high school girls Gold Division team title on Saturday. The victory was worth the struggle to get to Minnesota, coach Sue Carter said.

Carter said her team fundraised for three years to make the trip to the Griak. By taking the title, Carter said Greeley West showed its ability to compete with a “highly competitive” cross country area in the nation.

Apparently, word travels fast when it comes to quality of events.

“If you have a good experience, you tell three people; if you have a bad one, you tell 10,” Wilson said. “We’ve developed a reputation of treating people right and being loyal at the same time.”

The Griak’s history runs parallel with the success of cross country in the area.

Wisconsin is an 11-time winner of the men’s Division I Griak event. Minnesota’s men’s cross country team went to nine straight NCAA Championships meets leading up to last year.

This season, despite running against 433 individuals ranging from 46 teams in the high school boys’ Gold Division race, a local participant – Burnsville senior Rob Finnerty – ran across the finish line in first place.

The Wayzata boys’ team won the overall title in that same division.

“If you draw a line across the country through Indianapolis, you’d be surprised at the number of top 25 teams to the north of that line,” Wilson said.

He said part of that demographic is climate based; people find it easier to run in cooler weather to the north than the balmy, warm weather to the south.

But much of it has to do with other parts of the country overworking its runners to the point of losing passion for the sport.

“Here there is an old adage that we ask if the person has a lot of run left in them,” Wilson said. “Are they burned out or are they up to compete? Do they love the sport for the right reasons? I think that reflects both the colleges and the high schools.”

One way or another, this region has effectively placed itself as a national competitor in the cross country ranks.

The Roy Griak Invitational, though perhaps underrepresented by comparison to other events taking place last weekend, shows exactly what this sport’s subculture knows best.

“We’ve tried to give teams a good course and a good experience,” Wilson said. “I think we’ve done that.”