Midwest Invite a hidden Janesville gem

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Eric Schmoldt
Saturday, September 28, 2013

JANESVILLE—The sun was rising over the tops of the treeline as I pulled into Blackhawk Golf Course on Saturday morning. Still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I wondered, ‘What in the world have you gotten yourself into?’”

It was time to check out the Midwest Invitational cross country meet for the first time, and there was no reason to jump in the shallow end.

Despite growing up here, my knowledge of the event was minimal. In very general terms, it was the oldest and one of the largest interstate meets in the nation and would feature at least 40 boys and girls teams.

After spending nearly seven hours attempting to wrap my mind around the event, I came to one basic conclusion: The Midwest Invitational is Janesville’s finest sporting event that relatively no one knows about.

6:33 a.m.—I arrive just as Brian Lawton, one of Janesville Craig’s co-coaches, who has loaded his golf cart with boxes of orange and white spray paint, as well as tall red and blue flags. With the Cougars hosting the meet for the 76th year, Lawton, his wife and co-coach Jessica and volunteer coaches Jason Marin and Jennfier Johns are tasked with coordinating—a year-round project.

Lawton explains that volunteers—more than 50 of them—had arrived at least half an hour earlier. Typically, the group arrives at 5 a.m., but for the first year they used Friday night to get a head start in setting up the start/finish area..

6:35—The cart rolls ahead but a few feet. “I forgot the most important part of my day,” Lawton says. “The coffee.”

He spends the next hour driving the courses—while the girls’ and boys’ races share some of the same track, the boys’, at 5,000 kilometers, runs 1k longer than the girls’. He sprays white paint to give directions to the racers, orange to signal any pitfalls, such as a hole in the ground or a tree root.

When he began coaching 15 years ago, the Midwest features about 18 to 20 teams. Today, he’s got the safety of more than 40 teams and 3,000 racers to worry about.

7:08—The first bus, appearing to carry runners from Dodgeville, arrives.

7:45—The streams of buses seem nonstop. At the official check-in, Johns and Jessica Lawton meet with coaches, hand out information packets and distribute timing chips that will be worn around runners’ ankles.

The folks from PrimeTime Timing have arrived with their van, a large trailer with a giant results screen in tow.

“They really do a lot to help us make this big,” Brian Lawton said.

8:21—Lawton and Marin quickly spray paint numbers on the starting boxes.

A coach from the Houston (Texas) MacArthur team—there are also teams from Iowa and Illinois—approaches. “Thanks for having us again. You have no idea what it means to our kids.”

The Texas team has made the meet a yearly tradition, but those who have made the longest trip aren’t the only participants with this sentiment. It’d be a running theme throughout the day as it quickly became evident that this was no ordinary Saturday jog in the park.

Lawton later explains that they’ve got four teams on a waiting list hoping to get into a future Midwest Invitational.

9:07—After mostly playing the role of official and organizer for most of the early-morning hours, Lawton shifts to coaching mode. He and his fellow Craig coaches wear plenty of hats on this day.

“Everyone ready to run fast?!” Lawton asks the Cougar runners. “Who’s going to PR (personal record) today?”

9:15—The starter’s pistol fires for the first of what will be seven times, and 144 freshman and sophomore girls take off at once.

It’s the start of a special day for sports.

10:25—The varsity girls racers are off!

Competition-wise, those in contention to win their races on this day will sprint toward a pair of tall trees where the running lane narrows, getting out in front of the pack.

Others simply try to avoid getting lost in the sea of runners, their minds set on the top times of their careers.

And it’s 22 minutes of nonstop emotion—hope, despair, persistence, success, failure, encouragement, discouragement. What more could a fan ask for?

11:12—To watch a cross country coach—or engaged parent, for that matter—is almost to run a 5k race in itself. It’s a physical and mental challenge.

Lawton runs to no fewer than five strategic points along the winding course, shouting words of encouragement.

“Relax your face,” he yells to one runner who appears to be struggling. “Catch up to that next group.”

Verona’s Ryan Nameth has led for most of the varsity boys race, but Dubuque (Iowa) Senior’s Mark Fairley closes in for the final 400 meters. “He’s coming after you!” a Dubuque coach yells. Nameth hangs on.

12:12 p.m.—The JV boys race was scheduled to start two minutes ago, but a runner from the previous race is still on the course. The JV boys runners halt their pre-race warmups to salute that runner with perhaps the loudest ovation of the day as she nears the finish line.

This sport’s got sportsmanship down pat.

12:14—The JV boys race commences. It’s the largest field of the day.

If you want to see a spectacle, check out a starting line with 712 runners all leaving at once.

12:40—Several hundred middle-schoolers close out the day with a one-mile run.

12:45:36—Peyton Sippy, an eighth-grader from Janesville’s Marshall Middle School, perhaps gives a glimpse into the future of Janesville cross country by winning the girls race and setting a personal record.

This writer feels even slower and lazier than usual.

3:01—Oh, was there a race here today?

Outside of a trampled track, one might not have known.

How had I not attended the Midwest before? Heck, I had barely even heard of it.

In talking to coaches, fans and officials, that seems to be the concern. When it comes to those not interested in running or the sports of cross country, even those who have heard of the event likely can’t comprehend what it’s all about without attending it once.

I certainly couldn’t.

Now you can count me along with the regular yearly attendees. And remember, there’s no waiting list when it comes to fans.

Eric Schmoldt is the sports editor of The Gazette.

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