Big-time race comes from humble start

The first Griak Invitational had 255 runners; the 2006 Griak will have almost 4,000.

Chris Lempesis

Coaching women’s cross country for Wisconsin-La Crosse from 1977-1985, Gary Wilson always had the school host a big invitational.

When Wilson came to guide Minnesota’s women’s team in 1985, he and legendary former Gophers cross country and track coach Roy Griak decided to do the same here.

It’s hard to imagine the two had any idea how big the Roy Griak Invitational would become.

But it’s just as hard to describe the Griak with any other word but “big,” as the Invitational has become one of the premier collegiate running events in the nation.

The 21st-annual Griak Invitational will be Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course. The men’s race starts at 11:20 a.m., and the women’s race begins at 12:10 p.m.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Wilson said. “It’s something we’re very proud of. It’s something that Ö it’s kind of like our baby. It’s kind of something we gave birth to back in ’86 and it’s grown into a full-fledged adult.”

It certainly has as this year’s Griak will have about 350 teams competing in nine races and those teams will span the gamut from Division I men and women to high school boys and girls.

The total number of competitors entered for Saturday: almost 4,000.

The massive number of teams and runners is a far cry from the original meet, which had two races, 27 teams and 255 runners.

Wilson said the first sign that the Griak was starting to grow into something came in 1989 when Villanova’s powerhouse women’s team competed in, and won, the Griak. Villanova also won the national championship that year, kicking off a string of six straight titles.

“(Villanova) came and then a couple other (big) teams came,” Wilson said, “and then all of a sudden people go ‘Oh, this is pretty good,’ and it just kind of evolved.”

The increasing number of top-ranked teams at the meet is another perfect example of how much the Griak has developed.

As opposed to 1986, the 2006 Griak will have eight of the top 30 men’s teams, including No. 1 Wisconsin, and five of the top 30 women’s teams. Those numbers don’t include the Gophers’ teams, both of which are in the nation’s top 30.

“It’s pretty exciting to be able to invite big schools from all around the country to the same course that you’re used to working out on every single week,” senior women’s cross country runner Emily Brown said.

Of course, pulling in such teams – and just pulling the Griak off in general – is not an easy task.

While it might have taken just two people to come up with the idea for the Griak, it now takes a group of about 40 people – from athletic trainers and course inspectors to ticket takers and program sellers – to ensure things go well. Throw in volunteers from the track and field teams at Minnesota and that number climbs to about 100 people who help out.

“Lots and lots and lots of people bust their butt on it and they take a lot of pride in it,” Wilson said.

Wilson also said that the number of people required to run a successful Griak hasn’t really grown as of late; rather, that group of people just has to do more work each year than the one before.

No growth in the number of people it takes to run the Griak? It looks like there’s at least one area the Griak isn’t getting any bigger in.

In fact, it might be the only one for an Invitational that has come a long way.

“What makes me happy about it,” said men’s coach Steve Plasencia, “is that, in a sport that doesn’t have many opportunities to showcase itself, that we have built a meet here where we’re able to do that.”