Gans Creek: Missouri's New State Jewel

Gans Creek Cross Country Course Debut

Greg Hall / / @greghall24

As I exited 63 South at Discovery Parkway, my GPS took me down narrow East Gans Road back toward the highway. I then found myself on a gravel road dodging tree branches and washouts. Okay, no way this was the best way to the University of Missouri's new cross-country course at Gans Creek. I made an awkward U-turn as my Google Maps lady verbally admonished my artless redirect.

Once back on pavement, I drove past Tolton High's stunning campus and took a left into the Gans Creek Recreational Area. This place is easy to find, just don't blindly follow Miss Google or you'll end up in a staring contest with cows.

The first thing apparent to me about this new cross-country course is that there isn't a golf green or clubhouse in sight. This is not a multi-use facility where you will be sharing the course with a driving range, frisbee players or a dog park. Yes, it is a public park but more than anything, this is a world-class cross country facility. World. Class. Roll that around on your tongue and feel free to enjoy the taste.

This baby is a dedicated cross-country course carved from the Mid-Missouri soil for the sole purpose of feeding the souls of those who feel the need to test their minds, bodies and hearts against others who are just as smitten with the sport of distance running.

This is a cathedral for the long-distance runner.

It resides a two-hour drive or less from about 95% of the state's population. And it once again crowns Columbia as the state's undisputed king of cross. There will no longer be a debate as to where MSHSAA should conduct their state championships. That decision has been made for the next century or two.

I had seen the early photos online of the course and I was not sure what to expect. The course looked to have some potential and the early signs of character that makes a course memorable, but patchy paths with more dirt than turf made me skeptical it would be ready for the state championship in November let alone a pre-state meet in September.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I exited my vehicle on a 90-degree afternoon and walked toward three-towering tents the likes you see at a PGA event. Shirtless runners from various high schools were lazily checking out the course's seductive curves during shakeout runs.

Rough, round wooden posts and rails defined the long wide finishing chute. They give the Gans Creek course a Ponderosa feel. I half expected to spot Little Joe and Hoss with one foot each perched on a rail with a flowering blade of bluegrass between their teeth.

A permanent electronic signboard hovers above the finish line and is planted in stone-encased foundations and supported by angry steel stanchions. A smallish press box rises above and just behind this signboard. A temporary recovery tent stands a few paces behind the concrete pad that welcomes finishers.

The plan is to erect a permanent shelter behind the finish area near where the recovery tent was spiked for the inaugural event. If funding can be secured and bids approved, we could see this in place by the start of the 2020 school year.

Some notes from my first visit to Gans Creek

PARKING: Only race officials and buses dropping off runners will be able to drive into the Gans Creek Recreational Area on race day. But there is ample parking across the street in Tolton High's parking lot and some grassy areas as well. Tolton is about a half-mile or so walk, but it is a huge upgrade from the mess we encountered dodging traffic every November at Oak Hills G.C. in Jeff City. Parking will only improve as that area of Columbia develops.

SHADE: There is very, very little for runners and spectators alike. That won't matter much on a blustery, steel-gray day in early November. But if we get a rare sunny day in Mid-MO, it could be a real problem for the late-morning races. Best bet is to buy big team tent and tell mom and dad to bring shade umbrellas.

IRRIGATION: "If a runner can run on that part of the course, it's irrigated," said Matthew Boehner, the landscape architect who designed the Gans Creek course. What a luxury that is! Boehner envisions the course to be in use every other weekend from mid-August through November. The irrigation will allow for the turf paths to regenerate from the heavy foot traffic.

FAST OR SLOW: The two days of races this past weekend, both college and high school, were a poor indicator as to whether this will prove to be a fast course. The college runners raced at 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM on a day that temps topped 90 degrees. Their times suffered with the heat and humidity. An overnight rain left the high school runners with a soft track that also limited their ability to post a PR. The course is not flat, but it is also does not include any abrupt inclines or sharp turns. It is a rolling course with sneaky changes in elevation and well-defined turns. Runners at the state meet will be setting personal best times here, which was a rarity at Oak Hills.

TENT AREA: This is very cool. While I was always a fan of the haphazard way teams would stake out their plot of land at Oak Hills to stake their tents, there will be a far more orderly method at Gans Creek. Just behind the recovery tent is a large, flat sodded area that is painted off into neat plotted squares for each school to claim. This created easy access to the tents and wide grassy paths between each row. Big upgrade.

SCOREBOARD: There is one. And you can read it! And it lists team scores! A portable electronic scoreboard was at the finish line, similar to what I have seen used at Rim Rock. It was very cool to watch the race unfold as the leaders changed and team scores were constantly updated. This is a game changer for all cross-country fans. There are also two other permanent overhead scoreboards located around the course for runners to check their splits.

THE BERM: This was once a spoil pile of fill dirt that became more and more attractive as people became aware of the sight lines available from this elevated venue. The berm was actually moved to its present location near the finish chute beside the majestic hackberry tree that can be seen by runners from all over the course. That hackberry is similar to the Citgo sign at the Boston Marathon that beckons runners to the finish. The berm offers a great view of the course from several angles as well as stadium seating (more likely stadium standing) for hundreds of spectators who can't fit along the fence posts to watch the finish. Discussions continue as to how to improve the berm or what more can be done to enhance the spectator experience.

COURSE WILDLIFE: A bald eagle was spotted at the Gans Creek Classic in a tree 500 yards from the race's start. It is not unusual for bald eagles to be spotted at Gans Creek in the spring or late fall - right around time for the state meet! A 100-foot drop-off along the first mile turn will offer dramatic views into Gans Creek once the leaves scatter. Great Blue Herons, a communal species, nest in this area. Boehner refers to this corner of the course as The Rookery, which is what Great Blue Heron nesting communities are called. A large pond that the runners pass multiple times yielded an eight-pound bass the week before the Classic.

STATUES, MONUMENTS & MORE: Rim Rock pays homage to their running heroes with iron silhouettes and plaques that name bridges and byways. Mizzou's six-time national champion, Karissa Schweizer, should somehow be lionized here at Gans Creek. There are currently no solid plans for officially naming any of the course's particular sections or oddities, but these kinds of things are often best left to name themselves over time. Firehouse Hill comes to mind.

MEDIA: As I mentioned above, the finish area is tight. There isn't room for photographers to shoot from behind the finish line to capture that great head-on video or photo of a dramatic finish. There is no room in the press box for a camera and the timing board above the finish line blocks the view from that perch. Photographing the finish at Oak Hills was not easy. Photographers were forced to shoot from the side and hope a race official didn't wander in from of their lens. A large, elevated photographer's booth or bleachers would make a great addition to the finish area. I can dream, can't I?

All Photos in the story were taken by Greg Hall unless otherwise noted.