In this column, Dave Hunter tells us the story of Terre Haute’s cross country course and how a dream was made a reality….
Perched On High Ground
Terre Haute Realizes Aspiration As Cross Country Mecca
September 8, 2013
It is a wonderful development when a city can achieve greatness across the board. But the reality is there are very few cities which really have the right ingredients to be consistently outstanding in all of its endeavors.
However, there are a number of emerging, enterprising cities which have created, pursued, and achieved a different vision of success – a goal of their own making. These are cities which – while unable or uninterested to aspire to achieve greatness on many fronts – have thoughtfully targeted a single pursuit in which they strive to be exceptional. For example, Hartford, Connecticut has been – and remains – a dominant hub for the insurance industry. Sioux Falls, South Dakota has taken the steps necessary to transform itself into an influential banking center in the niche sector of credit card management. Las Vegas, Nevada has achieved its ground-breaking goal of becoming a peerless leader in gaming and entertainment. Even in our smaller sphere of track & field, Eugene, Oregon has clearly established itself as one of the world’s leading centers for the sport. There seems to be a common thread, a single mantra for these cities which have found a way to reach the pinnacle in one particular pursuit: If broad-based greatness is not a desired or realistic goal, a city can nonetheless be extraordinary in a single field.
One such city is Terre Haute, Indiana. There is little reason for this sleepy little town of 60,000 nestled in western Indiana to be special. But a handful of local residents embarked toward a goal to make it so. Their vision – ambitious, to be sure – was to develop a private / municipal collaboration that would lead to the creation of the country’s first truly national-caliber championship cross country course. The idea originated with LaVern Gibson – a local resident and business man who owned substantial acreage in the town. Gibson’s 240 acre parcel had previously served Terre Haute in two rather unique capacities – first as a coal mine, then later as a landfill. In the early 1990’s – after the property had undergone complete post-landfill reclamation and a period of dormancy for over a decade – Gibson – assisted by his son Max and his grandson Greg – launched a plan to retool the property for championship cross country use.
Now, nearly two decades later, the vision first cultivated by LaVern Gibson is a reality. Poised to host its 10th NCAA cross country championship race this November 23rd, Terre Haute has transformed a former coal mine/ landfill into a national-caliber championship venue which now hosts weekly cross country races from mid-August until early December, annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors to its town, provides an on-going positive economic impact upon the greater Terre Haute region, and lifts community morale. “LaVern Gibson’s vision was simply borne out of watching his grandson run. So he endowed the land to what would become the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center that contained the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course,” explains David Patterson, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention & Visitors Bureau and one of the caretakers of the cross country course.
The vision got legs in the early 90’s when Gibson enlisted the assistance of his grandson Greg – an accomplished distance runner is his own right – and two respected cross country coaches – John McNichols of Indiana State University and Bill Welch of Rose Hulman – to create a course not only carefully assembled to host championship caliber meets, but also tailored to elevate the fan experience. “To me, the property looked just perfect for what we wanted to lay out,” recalls Coach McNichols as he reflects upon his initial truck ride over the Gibson property. “So we started to sketch out the course. We just took basic ideas.”
McNichols drew upon his years of coaching experience to anticipate and address shortcomings he had observed in other courses. “We wanted a long straightaway before the first turn,” McNichols explains, noting his desire to permit a long run out to thin the starting mob before the first turn. “So we set that and our final result is an initial straightaway of about 940 meters before we turn. Next, we wanted a wide starting line. So we have 106 meters at the starting line which narrows gradually to the first turn,” he adds.
But course development also was driven by the goal to raise the fan experience as well. “It is always a gripe of mine that cross country typically is not a spectator sport: the runners run away, then you don’t see them, you sit there and wait, pretty soon they come back by, and then you walk over to the finish chute and watch them finish. And that’s your experience,” laments McNichols. “Typically consideration of the spectator experience was never in the planning of a cross country course,” MicNichols observes. “So the way to accomplish that [enhanced fan experience] was to narrow the geography. My idea was to have a 3K outside loop with two 1K loops that came in toward the center of the course. With that, you could run any distance – from 3000 meters up to 10,000 meters with that configuration. So we fiddled with the map and got it to work.”
Invigorated by his explanation of the planning process, Coach McNichols is soon on a roll. “My other gripe is that you often can’t see the finish. Frequently, a course is set up so that the runners are winding around – out of sight – and then suddenly they come into a small open area and then right into the chute. So it is hard to watch the finish of the race. So we set up our course so that we have this huge wide-open area to watch the final finishing surge.”
But, as the coach notes, effective crowd management is also necessary to ensure the optimum viewing opportunity. “On the finishing straightaway, we first started out addressing crowd control by using ropes to contain the spectators. But the fans would lean in on the ropes. If you are on the rope, you are only going to get a fleeting glimpse of the race. You are going to see the athletes as they get into your sight and then again they disappear because the people next to you are blocking your vision,” he explains. “And if you push out on the rope in an effort to improve your line of sight, then you are distorting the course. So we eventually built fences and we kept the fans back. So now you stand on the outside of the fence and watch the finish. And with a smile, McNichols adds, “You can watch the entire 400 meter sprint to chute uninterrupted. You can see the whole thing unfold in front of you.”
Wise forethought on course creation was not limited solely to the start and finish of the race course. McNichols worked closely with the course surveyor to ensure that the entire final layout would preserve critical sightlines. “I regularly told the surveyor who was staking out the course, ‘When you are working on this, you park your truck right here,'” offered the coach with reference to the hill – a remnant of the reclaimed land fill – right in the midst of the 19 acres devoted to course use. “‘Wherever you are on the course – measuring this out – make sure you can look back up the hill and see your truck.'” The surveyor obeyed. The result? Savvy fans – armed with binoculars – can now position themselves on the mid-course prominent elevation – Terre Haute’s terre h
aute, if you will – and be able to watch 90 percent of the race.
Officially dedicated in the fall of 1997, the ingenious, purpose-built Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course serves as the crown jewel of the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center – a multi-use facility that sports two gymnasiums, a fitness area, a senior gathering room, a maintenance barn; a concession/restroom facility; a finish line structure; and a finish line building. “We even have a unique Plexiglas crows’ nest structure for media coverage,” Patterson proudly notes.
But perhaps one of the most pivotal developments occurred just two years after the course was officially dedicated. In 1999, the Terre Haute Convention & Visitors Bureau entered into a 30 year agreement with the Sports Center which is calculated to ensure the continued sustainability of the Center – and the race course. “We have a maintenance agreement in place which is funded by the Vigo County Innkeepers Tax – a 5% tax on all hotel rooms in the county,” Patterson explains. “The bond – funded through a portion of the Tax – provides capital to the Terre Haute Convention & Visitors Bureau to maintain the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center going forward.” The Executive Director is quick to note how efficiently the bonded funding has worked. “We have 20,000 people that come through our town each year just due to cross country. Essentially, we aren’t putting any local money into this maintenance. The Innkeeper’s Tax is all money derived from those coming in. So it is kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy in that the better we do, the more funding we have to maintain the facility. The Tax – and consequently the maintenance – is no local burden.”
Patterson states that no precise attempt has been made to measure the positive economic impact the Gibson course has had on the region. “The presence of the championship course has had a tremendous financial impact and inspired us to enter into the agreement to maintain this Center for the next 30 years,” states Patterson. “This certainly has had a wonderful impact on our town.”
Greg Gibson – still an active runner at age 51 – still marvels at what his family, Terre Haute, and Vigo County have accomplished through their mutual collaboration. “This thing has turned into much more than we ever expected or hoped. It just amazes me how all over the country I have people say something to me about the cross country course.”
With the 20th anniversary of the course dedication within sight, does the city that has dubbed itself “Cross Country Town USA” have plans to take its love affair with XC to an even higher level? “Now you’re talking my language,” Patterson relishes. “I’m the guy who wants to just blow this up and make it larger – completely. I have two immediate goals. The first is to engage in some significant redressing work to groom the course. The second is to utilize some limestone pillars and other limestone pieces – which we secured from a hotel reconstruction project – to create a limestone awards stand – a sort of pantheon of medal presentation. And we are certainly going to etch into the awards stand the names, the times, the schools, and the years of every champion we have had,” Patterson offers. “It will be stunning, ADA-accessible, just off the hook. It is going to be so cool. I am really excited about the future.”
McNichols is no less optimistic. The coach – who is quick to note that the emergence of the Gibson course and the notoriety surrounding its national use has made a “huge difference” to the ISU programs – also cites the growing, embraced acceptance of the community at large. “It’s an education process within our community. Our high school cross teams are a lot better now. We have pretty good crowds at all of our meets. Slowly but surely, the entire community is coming around. It has even sparked the development of an extensive 36 miles of trails within our town.”
McNichols – who acknowledges that there have been some early, tentative discussions with USATF about hosting the USA trials for world cross in the future – has even bigger plans. “We’ve actually looked into what it would take to host a world cross country championship,” he reveals.
Terre Haute’s dream to raise to an even higher level its overall cross country experience – through the enhancement of its facility, the attraction of international competition, and the expansion of its current position of national cross country prominence – will likely promote its share of doubters. But reflection upon all that this city has already accomplished – essentially transforming a former coal mine / landfill into the nation’s pre-eminent cross country venue – suggests that any such skepticism may well be ill-founded.