For Minnesota, the Roy Griak Invitational is more than a cross country meet

The cross country program has honored former Gophers coaching legend Roy Griak for 34 years through the meet.


Roy Griak. Courtesy of Gopher Sports.

by Brendan O'Brien

For the 34th time in history, Minnesota’s cross country program will host the Roy Griak Invitational this Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Les Bolstad Golf Course in St. Paul. 

The meet is named after Roy Griak, the head coach of the Minnesota men’s cross country and track and field teams from 1963 to 1996. Griak is a prominent figure in running at the University, leading Minnesota to two Big Ten Cross Country Championships in 1964 and 1969 as well as a Big Ten Track and Field Championship in 1968. He also coached three national champion runners and 47 All-Americans. 

But this meet in particular has special meaning for several people involved with Minnesota’s cross country and track and field program. For current men’s cross country head coach Steve Plasencia, he is reminded of how supportive his former college coach in Griak was. 

“When he started to recruit me out of high school, I knew I had a friend at the University from day one,” Plasencia said. “The thing about Roy is when something did happen that wasn’t favorable, he’d give you a kick in the butt, but somehow it always felt like a hug.”

For women’s cross country head coach Sarah Hopkins, conquering the challenging distance, hills and unpredictable weather of the Griak Invitational in high school helped her become a familiar face to the coaching staff at Minnesota. 

“I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here [is] because I did run well at that race and I got sort of noticed by the coaches here,” Hopkins said. “That obviously holds a special place in my heart.”

The people involved in the operation of the meet pride themselves on making the Griak Invitational special for the high school and collegiate runners who compete and for the family and friends who attend it. Director of Operations Lyndsey Thorpe is in her fourth year of recruiting college cross country teams to compete in the meet as well as assisting with course setup. What excites Thorpe the most on race day is not only seeing how well the teams do but also having the opportunity to turn cross country into a spectacle. 

“I think that’s something we’ve always done at this meet, is make it feel like a big deal,” Hopkins said. “It celebrates cross country in a way that I don’t think a lot of meets do.”

The Roy Griak Invitational is one of the largest meets in the country and many come to cheer on the runners and celebrate the sport. Plasencia even remembers Griak and former Minnesota runner Garry Bjorklund driving a golf cart around the course, throwing t-shirts into the crowd.

But what is most important to Plasencia, Hopkins and Thorpe is being able to honor the legendary head coach who the meet is named after. Griak passed away on July 9, 2015.

“I think it’s a fitting honor for him and somebody who put in 50 years of service trying to make the University of Minnesota a better place, and on the micro-level, a better cross country and track and field program,” Plasencia said. “We miss him a lot.”