Running Wild

by Matt Boehner, ASLA

Runners at the starting line
The intensity of the starting line captured during the Gans Creek Classic. / image: John Kelly Photos, LLC

Running is one of the most popular and practiced sports worldwide. In the U.S. alone, more than 64 million people went jogging or running in 2016, representing a nearly 300% per capita increase since 1990. Relieving stress and having fun are among the top reasons Americans continue to run; however, within the growing trend are competitive races on and off road, with the passion for this starting at the youth level with the sport of cross country.

While cross country running is by no means a new individual or team sport, the planning trend for parks and recreation departments has been traditional active sports such as baseball/softball, basketball, and soccer facilities. Cross country courses historically were set up to run through parks or golf courses following simple mowed paths and painted lines, with no real infrastructure or permanence. Columbia Parks and Recreation (CPRD) and a unique partnership with the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) and the University of Missouri Athletics (MU) aims to race to the front of the growing running trend of dedicated cross country courses with the development of a championship cross country course as a stand-alone park amenity that can host a variety of running events for all skill levels.

While talk of hosting cross country at Gans Creek Recreation Area had been making the rounds locally since the development of the park began, it wasn’t until MSHSAA awarded CPRD with the cross country state championships, which had been previously held at the Oak Hill Golf Course in Jefferson City for over 40 years, that the decision to move forward on the construction of a dedicated cross country course in Columbia, Missouri was made.

Recreation Services Manager Erika Coffman saw this MSHSAA bid award as an opportunity for CPRD to host a pre-state championship cross country event, the Gans Creek Classic, as a revenue generator for the department and began organizing the event as the course was still taking shape.

The natural terrain at Gans Creek was ideal for the design team to work with. / image: Matt Boehner

Located at Gans Creek Recreation Area on the south side of Columbia, the cross country course utilizes the rolling mid-Missouri terrain to its advantage to provide challenging two- and three-kilometer loops that allow organizers to set up many different race distances with minimal switch points and staffing, which makes it attractive for hosting local, state, regional, and national events.

Final layout of the cross country course. / graphic: Matt Boehner

Specifications for a cross country facility are fairly minimal and vary greatly depending on the available landscape. Basic requirements include a wide starting area that funnels down to a 30-foot running course at no less than 400 meters before the first turn. Distances measured for any course by a measuring wheel can sometimes vary 10 to 30 meters even if walking side-by-side, so it was imperative that distance accuracy be made a priority for locating permanent structures and fencing. The design team, along with University of Missouri coaches and longtime track and field facility expert Dr. Wayne Armburst, measured the fastest route alignment with a steel tape to certify the course.

The course needed to host large races, so maximizing the starting area as much as possible was a priority and set 40 two-meter by four-meter starting blocks, with the ability to have a capacity of over 400 athletes run a single race. As the site had previously been rough graded for soccer fields, this was accomplished fairly easily without a lot of extra work, while still being able to fit the finish line in between the high-use spectator area and the start, creating a more inclusive and accessible, spectator-friendly facility and experience—rare features for the sport. The spectator berm, rising 12 to 15 feet above most of the final 500 meters, maximizes the viewing ability for people without needing to cross the course. A two-rail estate fence defines and controls the crossing points even more, creating a permanent course edge focused on athlete safety and defining the course on the many wide turns.

Proposed 3D model of the finish line amenities during an event. / graphic: Matt Boehner

The proposal for permanent structures on the course made it even more appealing for the University of Missouri in creating a dedicated facility that could host events of all sizes that draw anywhere from several hundred to several thousand athletes and spectators. The cross country program’s history of producing numerous All-American Athletes and recent six-time National Champion Karissa Schwiezer, all under the guidance of Track and Field Coach Brett Halter, was another driving factor in supporting a championship facility.

“Our vision was a world-class cross country facility designed to host championship racing while providing a lifetime experience for thousands of kids annually. From early designs through to gun for our inaugural race, our vision of a world-class cross country course could only have been achieved through matching world class efforts from all parties involved in the project. The efforts of everyone with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department exceeded all expectations and is the reason why this course is already considered the finest course in the United States today.”

– Coach Brett Halter, University of Missouri Athletics

Three checkpoint or “K-Markers” were designed in-house and built by CPRD construction staff to allow electric and fiber run through them to easily attach digital display boards that would track real time results on the course, back to the finish area for the majority of spectators, and even online for web viewers. This feat wasn’t accomplished easily, as the structures had to be durable and timeless, but also fit in somewhat naturally to the site. CPRD construction staff also had the challenge of trenching more than two miles of conduit in between rain events, which was completed just in time so that electric and fiber could be pulled and connected for the first event.

Final checkpoint feature and timing tower following the Gans Creek Classic. / image: Matt Boehner

The final checkpoint structure was beefed up and built slightly taller and with more clearance to provide a grand framework for athletes to finish their race. Ten meters behind the finish line sits the timing tower, an elevated structure for race officials, timing company staff, and the public address announcer. The feature was designed to quickly funnel athletes toward a future athlete pavilion for recovery, reflection, and medical attention if necessary…out of sight of the spectators until the athletes have composed themselves. This was an important feature for the course, and is common at larger events, but usually consisting of temporary tents, which can add to the costs and coordination of hosting an event. Having permanent features makes event set-up much easier and more cost-effective.

Getting the turf course ready for the inaugural event was a huge accomplishment by the CPRD Sports Turf Staff, as final course grading finished up in early May and irrigation was completed shortly thereafter. Heavy summer rainfall meant delays and constant reworking and reseeding of the course to prevent washouts from leaving dangerous ruts that could injure an athlete. A majority of the course was sprigged with Bermuda grass in late June that took off with the summer heat in July and August and began a final push as construction on the permanent structures moved forward. Slowly, with weekly mowing, aerating, and overseeding, the 30-foot-wide irrigated turf course became more and more defined. Designing multiple switch backs and “banked” turns with large radii expanded the strategy of running beyond just being the fastest athlete, but being the most aware of their surroundings and utilizing the landscape to each of their strengths.

“The construction of the cross country course presented multiple challenges to our staff including weather delays, extensive irrigation design and installation, and a short window for initial turf establishment. Our staff understood the need to have the course ready for the fall race season and stepped up to the challenge to deliver a premier facility in the Midwest for cross country athletes. It will be exciting to watch the facility continue to get better each year with additional facilities and an increased race schedule.”

– Gabe Huffington, Park Services Manager

Defined irrigated turf cross country course, starting funnel, and finish line. / image: Toney Lowery

With less than one month to go before the Gans Creek Classic, final touches to the course really began as three semi-truck loads of sod were rolled out around the finish line and spectator berm and over 1,500 linear feet of estate fence were installed. Programming and coordination for the event with MU went into full force, assigning staff with multiple tasks and deadlines.

“Having the opportunity to coordinate the inaugural events at this brand new, state-of-the-art facility has been a challenging yet rewarding experience. I am proud of how the Gans Creek Classic and the MSHAA State Championship events turned out; both were very successful introductions to the course for athletes, coaches, and all coordinators and staff involved. I had great partners to work with for these events including the University of Missouri Athletic Department, Columbia Public Schools, City of Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, and MSHSAA. Together, we were able to create successful and memorable events that set the bar high for the future of running at Gans Creek.”

– Erika Coffman, Recreation Services Manager

Class 1 Boys complete the final stretch at the MSHSAA Cross Country Championships. / image: Matt Boehner

As progress increased and photos began circulating, stoking the running world’s curiosity, it was clear that the bar for championship cross country was being set in Columbia. Six weeks prior to hosting the Missouri State High School Athletic Association (MSHSAA) state championships, the inaugural Gans Creek Classic invited 10 colleges and 341 high school teams for a total of more than 2,400 athletes to kick off a new era of cross country running in Missouri. The event was a huge success for the Columbia Parks Department, but also a milestone for the University of Missouri, which had not hosted a home cross country meet in almost a decade.

The course will host the NCAA Southeast Conference Championship in 2021 and bids have been submitted to host an NCAA Regional and National Championship as early as 2023. In just a few short months, the excitement around the course and all of the potential is defining cross country at Gans Creek as a major generator for economic sports tourism for the region.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Missouri Parks and Recreation Association Magazine. Republished with permission.

Matt Boehner, PLA, ASLA, is a registered landscape Architect in Missouri and has been with Columbia Parks and Recreation for seven years. He is a graduate of Arizona State University. Matt currently serves as an officer for ASLA’s Parks and Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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