Race Day: Running at the Royal Gorge





It was just after 9 a.m. on Thursday, and I was sitting in the front seat of one of the two Garden City USD 457 activity buses that were just departing for a 5-hour, nearly 270-mile trip to Canon City, Colo.

The occasion was the participation by the GCHS girls and boys cross country teams in the Canon City Invitational, an event that was celebrating its 40th anniversary, but for the first time was being contested on a layout designed at the historic Royal Gorge.

More than 50 girls and boys, split nearly evenly by gender, were heading west to run a 5-kilometer race (3 miles) that nobody really knew what to expect. All anybody knew ahead of time, including head GCHS coach Krista Linenberger, was that the finish to the race would be across the nearly 1/4 mile suspension bridge, constructed 1,000 feet above a beautiful gorge and the Arkansas River.

Coaches had arrived at the school just past 8:30 a.m. to begin the loading process of supplies and equipment for the day. Those comprised a tent, and plenty of coolers that contained ice, water and Gatorade for the runners.

It always is important to maintain a level of hydration for health purposes, but on this day it would take on an added importance since the race would be contested at 6,500-feet above sea level, nearly 4,000 feet higher than the Buffaloes' runners train in at home.

As the GCHS team members began arriving, carrying backpacks and pillows for the long trip to and from, Linenberger gathered them at the east entrance to the gymnasium area and read a short inspirational story, challenging the individuals to run for the fun of it, but also to do their best, and don't worry about what place a person finishes. That would be the theme of the day — do your best — and let the results take care of themselves.

Riding on the one bus with Linenberger and the 28 varsity and junior varsity girls, it became apparent that the GCHS coach has set a standard of excellence and expectation for her teams. Good behavior is expected.

A quick, 10-to-15 minute stop in Lamar, Colo., for a pit stop and perhaps snacks, was just that. Quick and the team members were back on the buses and ready for the next leg of the trip. Race time was 5 p.m., CDT, and there still was 150-plus miles to go.

On the girls bus, a video with an animated cartoon theme, was played for the team. It seemed like a good way to relax.

Rolling along the eastern Colorado high plains, the anticipation of seeing the Colorado Rockies was apparent. When asked about the trip out and running at the Gorge, every GCHS runner expressed excitement and anticipation of the coming race.

A lunch stop of approximately 45 minutes was up next in Pueblo, and the two buses, driven professionally and admirably by Flo Ramsey and John White, pulled into a parking lot and the kids disembarked to a variety of fast food restaurants for a quick bite to eat.

Without having to wait on anyone when it was time to depart, the buses headed further west to Canon City and then out to the Royal Gorge.

Clouds were prevalent once the teams left Pueblo and it wasn't until about halfway to Canon City that the picturesque Rockies came into view. The peaks in the distance could be viewed and one could hear the team members chatting quietly with each other.

Rolling into the parking lot at the front entrance to the Royal Gorge, the teams got off the buses and were checked in by race officials. It was a warm welcome from the Colorado neighbors to the only Kansas school that would be competing.

It was 90 minutes to the first race — the varsity boys, followed by the varsity girls and then the junior varsity boys and girls, running nearly simultaneously as those races were started five minutes apart.

In the time prior to the race, most of the runners had walked a good portion of the course, seeing that it went uphill at the start, leveled off in the middle and then came back downhill near the end. Then, the final part of the run was through the entry gate to the Gorge facility itself, and then across the suspension bridge to the south side and the eventual finish line.

Observing that the first mile or so would be about 300 to 500 feet uphill, one could only imagine the challenge of this layout. For the girls, who normally race at 4 kilometers in Kansas, the added 1 kilometer (.6 of a mile) would be another challenge.

Finding the finish line was not a difficult task, setting up shop with an HD-Video camera to shoot both stills and video of the race. When the first runner in the boys varsity came near the finish line, and then viewing back across the bridge, there was an abundance of brown and white uniforms next.

The boys, in their finest performance of the season, had claimed their first team championship of the season with multiple top 10 finishes. From their first runner to their last, only 1 minute, 3 seconds separated the team. It would be the teams' closest "packing" time all year.

For the Lady Buffs, clearly one of the top teams in Kansas, the day also proved to be a success. With runners placing 3rd through 6th and another 8th and the remaining two in the top 20, the team cruised to a win of its own.

Junior varsity runners, 20 boys and 18 girls, also competed. Team standings not being compiled, Claudia Castro, a freshman, and Brett Cady, a senior, garnered firsts for the JV teams.

Following an awards presentation near the finish line, the teams walked their way back across the bridge for the final time, gathering their gear and then posing in front of a water clock, one of only three such in the world, for a group picture.

Back on the buses for a quick 10-minute drive to Canon City and a stop for dinner was next in order.

Once again, the runners, coaches and drivers deployed to about four different restaurants for a quick dinner. When leaving two of the establishments, GCHS officials were informed that the team members had demonstrated exceptional behavior while in those restaurants and Linenberger expressed those sentiments to both busloads prior to departure from Canon City.

Nighttime had set in and it was quiet time on the bus, another 5-hour trip would confront the drivers. In the distance to the east, there were storm clouds and lightning. Once to the outskirts of La Junta, it became apparent that the group had just missed quite a storm.

Hail, several inches deep, appeared on the edge of the road and on the yards and sidewalks along U.S. Highway 50. Police had blockaded the highway, causing a detour around the south side of town before reaching the east side of town and back onto the main highway. There were gasps of amazement at the power of Mother Nature.

The two buses pulled into the parking lot at the new GCHS school at 1:30 a.m. The final words from Linenberger were clear — great job of running, great job of conducing themselves properly and be in class first thing that morning. Sixteen and one-half hours, and the special trip and competition at the Royal Gorge was over.

The team members quietly left the buses, some greeted by parents to take them home, many with their own cars to head home for a short night of sleep.

On Friday, it would be back to school and the trip to the Royal Gorge would be a memory. One not likely to be forgotten quickly, but one that had to be put into the folder of life.

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