Griak Invitational to draw thousands

The race is named after the 86-year-old Minnesota running legend Roy Griak.

Roy Griak retired long time head coach of the University of Minnesota’s cross country and track and field teams stands on Wednesday at the Le Bolstad golf course.

Simon Guerra

Roy Griak retired long time head coach of the University of Minnesota’s cross country and track and field teams stands on Wednesday at the Le Bolstad golf course.

Derek Wetmore

A typical Gophers cross country meet is a fairly low-key affair.
Coaches and volunteers roam along the course and smatters of friends and family stand around the sidelines as runners tear up Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights.
But once a year, the circus comes to town.
The annual Roy Griak Invitational draws thousands of runners and fans from around the country, from Division I to Division III, and high school runners statewide. The team expects Saturday’s meet to exceed the current record for racers — 3,505.
Minnesota running legend Roy Griak, 86, will yet again be in attendance as Minnesota hosts the 25th annual invitational with his namesake.
In his 47 years with the program, Griak has become the face of running in Minnesota, and the invitational reflects that.
“It’s really hard to say all the things that Roy has done [for Minnesota running],” men’s head coach Steve Plasencia said, “but if there’s one person that I can tell that is the identity of Minnesota track and field, it’s Roy Griak.”
Griak began coaching for Minnesota in 1964 and has served as the administrative assistant for the track and field and cross country programs since his retirement in 1996.
He remains active and will be an award presenter once again this year. In the race’s 24-year history, Griak has missed the event only once — to attend a reunion of World War II Army veterans.
Plasencia, who ran for Griak in college and then took over for him as coach in 1995, said Griak connects with athletes today just as well as he did in the ’60s.
“He transcends the generations very well. He relates to kids today really well even though he’s 86,” Plasencia said. “He gets people to smile and laugh.”
The meet was first held in 1986 and was called the Minnesota Invitational. It was renamed the Norstand Invitational in 1995 before it was finally settled as the Roy Griak Invitational in 1997.
The first running featured 220 finishers, but it has ballooned to 3,358 competitors from 327 teams in 2009.
The Gophers men’s team will be without last year’s winner, Hassan Mead, who will redshirt this season due to a lingering Achilles injury and a collapsed lung.
Ben Blankenship, Mike Torchia and Mike McFarland will lead a group without its star runner that also includes Pieter Gagnon, Paul Hilsen, Andrew Larsen, Kevin Lachowitzer, Mike McFarland, Sean Olson, Drew Paradis, John Simons, Mike Torchia, Erik Treudson and Matt Volz.
“Given our unique circumstances with Hassan [Mead] being out for the season, I think we need to try to do whatever we can to try to put the most competitive team out on the field that we can muster, and I think those guys represent that,” Plasencia said.
The women’s roster is slightly less concrete and considerably less declarative.
Aside from junior Steph Price and senior Nikki Swenson, the majority of the team is young, and the roster is much more flexible than in years past.
The women’s format differs from the men’s because they don’t need to finalize a roster of 12. Every member competes in the race, and head coach Gary Wilson said the Griak Invitational will help determine who will fill out the top 12 for future meets.
“This is a big meet,” Wilson said. “This is a big deal because they’re all fighting for spots.”
There are no real locks from the Gophers women’s team to make the top 12, but sophomore Kayla Wagner, redshirt freshman Missa Varpness and true freshman Ashlie Decker are likely candidates. Varpness and Decker finished second and fifth, respectively, at the Oz Memorial run Sept. 10.
The Griak Invitational should give the coaching staff a better idea of who the top runners are heading into the rest of the season, Wilson said.
However, considering this team’s youth, simply making the top 12 is not assurance for a spot the rest of the year, and Wilson said that girls would have to continually prove themselves on this young team.
With more than 300 teams, 3,000 competitors and 11 races including four high school sections, it would be easy to get lost in the chaos.