The thousands of high school cross country runners and spectators who go to Pioneers Park for meets this fall will see some minor changes to a course that has been mostly unchanged for many years.
The course is one of the most well-known in the state because so many schools race there. Last year during the Lincoln High Invite there were 1,039 finishers in the varsity and junior varsity races.
It’s also one of the most challenging courses, in part thanks to the big sledding hill the runners have to climb in the final 1,000 meters of the race.
Changes have been discussed for a few years, and the course was redesigned this summer. One of the first big meets on the new course will be the Lincoln Pius X Invitational on Thursday.
The park is owned by the city, and the schools use the course without a fee. The city wanted to eliminate the small portion of the race path that previously cut through the Pinewood Bowl, the outdoor concert venue that is often locked.
And in looking at their own desired changes, a goal for the schools was to make the course safer. Previously the race path cut across the road three times, and in the redesigned course the runners will cross the road twice.
“We were just wanting to partner with (the city) to maintain the ability to be out there and allow them to do what they do and have a good course that was safe,” said Kathi Wieskamp, the director of athletics for Lincoln Public Schools.
There is some disappointment for runners who like to compare their times from year to year, but for the athletes new to the sport, the changes won’t matter.
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More than half of the course is the same. The major change will be that runners will now cross the road to begin the lower portion of the course closer to the sledding hill. Then they’ll run a new part of the course that weaves down the hill through some trees.
And the changes may be more spectator friendly, allowing the runners to be seen for a few more moments during a short loop at the bottom of the sledding hill. There have been signs added to mark how far the runners have gone.
There has been some concern among coaches that the meets would have to be moved somewhere new. One of the many benefits of being at the park is there is minimal course setup for the coaches, unlike when races are at golf courses and the course has to be marked for each meet.
Lincoln Southwest coach Ryan Salem said there had been only one minor change to the course in the past 30 years. But the course was different before that, including where the finish was.
“I think the pros are that we shouldn’t overlook that we’re still at Pioneers racing on essentially the same historic course we’ve been at for at least 25 years,” Salem said. “And we don’t know if there are cons yet. The new course looks good. The changes will be more compact and I think it will help spectators.”
Lincoln East coach Brian Kabourek said the changes will be harder for some of the longtime coaches than most of the runners.
“There was a lot of history involved in the old course,” Kabourek said. “I think (retired athletic directors) Mike Rasmussen and John Farrand did an unbelievable job of preserving a lot of that history. In a lot of ways we had to make the changes that we did and I’m just glad we were able to preserve as much of the course as we did. Really, the only difference is we go the opposite direction in the third kilometer, and the fourth kilometer is different. I think the difficulty of the course and the integrity of the course are still there.”
Some schools have school records for the Pioneers Park course. Salem said he’ll evaluate the race times from this season and attempt to determine if the course is faster or slower before deciding how they’ll handle the records.