Gorch on the Porch: Nifty 50 for New Prairie Invite

Photo by Steve T. GorchesDuring the 50th annual New Prairie Invite cross country races on Saturday, 11 former participants in the event were honored. The group included (front row middle) New Prairie High graduate Amanda VanWanzeele and (to the left of her in front row) Carey Pinkowski, who has been the director of the Chicago Marathon for 28 years. VanWanzeele won the Indiana state title as a freshman in 2000, but never won the NP Invite, while Pinkowski won the NP Invite in 1974 and won back-to-back state titles in 1973-74 for Hammond High.

NEW CARLISLE — You know an event is a big deal when you have an airplane with a banner behind it flying above in honor of the occasion.

That’s what happened on Saturday morning during the 50th running of the New Prairie Invitational cross country meet.

The small Cessna had a banner saying, “NPCC – 50 years of mud, sweat and agony (hill).” Nice play on words — mud instead of blood, due to what the course becomes back in the woods if it rains within 24 hours of the annual races that span from 8 a.m. into the afternoon, and the reference to the course’s most famous aspect, Agony Hill, which has led to hundreds of runners falling since 1968.

Actually, the invite that attracts well over 100 schools now was run on a different course in New Carlisle the first year, then moved to New Prairie High School in 1969.

Quick history lesson: The New Carlisle Invitational was started in 1964 by former longtime NP cross country coach Blaine Gamble and then New Carlisle High principal Amzie Miller (whom the current football field is named after). It became the New Prairie Invite in 1968 when New Carlisle and Rolling Prairie High Schools consolidated.

The current course that includes Agony Hill — which I fell down once and got a little muddy — Horseshoe Woods, Victory Bridge and Snake, was designed by Gamble.

Ask most of the “celebrity” honorees on hand Saturday and they will probably tell you the New Prairie course is one of the toughest they ever ran … and also the most enjoyable.

“This course topped everything for me, even in college,” said Boone Grove High School graduate Jordan Chester, who is one of only three runners to win the NP Invite four times. “I’ve run national championship races, but this one always stands out.

“Driving down (County Road) 700 on the way here, I was so nervous, and I’m not even running.”

Chester starred at Grand Valley State University, placing 18th at the NCAA Division II nationals as a senior.

She was always one of my favorite cross country runners to cover back in the day, especially at New Prairie because I knew it would be a quick and efficient interview since she always had to leave right after the girls Class A race — the first one of the day. The reason Chester had to skedaddle was that she also played soccer at Boone Grove and every year on the day of the NP Invite, the Wolves faced their heated rival, Wheeler, in soccer.

“I couldn’t miss that game,” she said.

Ironically, she had to leave immediately after the ceremony on Saturday, just like old times, due to her college roommate getting married.

Chester, now a marathon runner who won the won the Class A race each year from 2007 to 2010. The other two four-time NP champs were also girls — Kankakee Valley’s Celeste Susnis in 1986-89, and Culver Academy’s Alex Banfich in 2004-07. Susnis was on hand to be honored during a ceremony on Saturday. Among the others were Michigan City Elston grad Kevin Higdon, who won the NP Invite in 1976, MCHS grad Anna Weber, who finished as high as fourth at New Prairie and is now training for the 2020 Olympic Trials, and New Prairie grad Amanda VanWanzeele, who won the Indiana state title in 2000 as a freshman, but never won her hometown invitational.

Another honoree that I anticipated meeting all week was Carey Pinkowski.

If you’re not a runner, then you wouldn’t know that Pinkowski has been the director of the Chicago Marathon for 28 years and even designed Chicago’s 26.2-mile course that will have more than 45,000 runners on it next month.

You also wouldn’t know that Pinkowski won the New Prairie Invite in 1974 while running for Hammond High, and won the Indiana state title in 1973 and 1974 — the latter was actually the only tie in state history as he crossed the finish line at the exact same time as teammate Rudy Chapa.

Pinkowski has a great memory. When one former Chicago Marathon participant introduced herself and said the year she ran, he responded with, “2008? Yeah, that was a hot one.” So he definitely remembers the famous New Prairie course.

“Those houses over there weren’t built,” he said while pointing out to the north past the football field. “The trees are bigger now, the school is bigger, and there’s no log at the top of Agony Hill.”

Yes, you read that right. Back in the day, besides everyone — including my father — walking to school barefoot in a foot of snow both ways and liking it, the runners also had to deal with jumping over a log after running up one of the toughest hills in Indiana cross country.

“For me this is great coming back and seeing a lot of different people from your life,” Pinkowski said. “This event is such a tradition and has a great turnout.”

Which is why I always find a way to cover it, even though I’m always tired after not getting much sleep following a late football Friday. Here’s to another 50 years of crazy cross country runners matriculating through Snake and Agony Hill.

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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