It’s become a fall tradition for me to attend the NCAA Cross-Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind. (known as Cross-Country Town USA).
The Division I championships are the Monday before Thanksgiving. I first went several years ago with a group of friends.
We piled into a van in the early morning and headed to Terre Haute, getting there in plenty of time to run the course, despite getting a flat tire on Interstate 74 just a few miles out of town.
Running the course is a must. Before the races begin, many spectators cruise around the course, alongside the athletes warming up.
The LaVern Gibson course starts with a long, flat straightaway. Then it drops downhill, and the athletes run a series of loops over gently rolling terrain. They end up running back down the straightaway to the finish line.
The course also happens to be one of the most spectator-friendly. Because it slopes downward from the start and finish area, you could watch the whole race from along the straightaway and see the runners looping around the course.
But for most people, watching the race means running across the course to get a close-up view of the athletes and cheering them on at various spots around the course.
As the runners pass by at the start, waves of spectators turn and race downhill and across the course to watch the athletes on the far side. Then it’s a sprint to the next two vantage points, along the inside loops of the course and finally back up to the finish line.
People are racing all over the course like ants, following the runners. I probably get in 41/2 to 5 miles of running during the meet. It’s a blast.
The spectators always include college runners who aren’t competing that day, various high school cross-country teams (I saw Monticello and St. Joseph-Ogden there this year), parents of the college athletes and people like me — runners who enjoy watching the best cross-country athletes in the nation.
A number of local runners attend the meet nearly every year.
The highlight of my trips to the cross- country championships was seeing University of Illinois runner Angela Bizzarri win the national championship in 2009.
Two Illini ran this year — Jordan Hebert and Jim Riddle were at-large competitors.
This year’s meet featured the drama of whether the Oklahoma State men and Villanova women would three-peat. Neither did, with Oklahoma State finishing second to Wisconsin and Villanova third after Georgetown and Washington.
Last year, Olympic marathoners Joan Benoit Samuelson and Meb Keflezighi were at the championships. A friend and I hung out around the VIP tent after the race, surreptitiously photographing them.
This year, Frank Shorter was in town, but I didn’t spot him.
My annual trips to Terre Haute include another important tradition. I always stop at Baesler’s Market — an awesome grocery store with a great deli and bakery.
I missed several meets after that first trip, for various reasons — work, and having to wear a boot to stabilize a broken foot one year.
(A broken foot is apparently not a good excuse. I’ve seen several college athletes hobbling around the course in a boot, cheering on teammates.)
But I’m hoping not to miss any future meets. It’s great we have the national championships less than a two-hour drive away. The meet was supposed to move to Oregon this year, but because of issues with the site there, it remained in Terre Haute.
Next year, though, it won’t be quite so convenient. The Division I championships move to Louisville, Ky., before returning to Terre Haute in 2013.
Road trip, anyone?
Photos: Top, runners at the Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 21, 2011. Diego Estrada of Northern Arizona University, in the forefront in blue, was running his first race as a U.S. citizen. Estrada, who was born in Mexico and grew up in California, was naturalized three days before the race. He finished seventh.
Lawi Lalang of the University of Arizona, on the right in red (No. 11), was the winner of the men’s race.
Middle, Jordan Hebert of the University of Illinois (No. 224) competes during the Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships. Hebert finished 140th in a field of 252 runners.
Bottom, spectators watch the lead pack in the women's race at the NCAA Division I Cross-Country Championships last week. Sheila Reid of Villanova, far right, finished first.