Great Cross Country Courses: Rim Rock Farm

Rim Rock Farm is the home of the Kansas Jayhawks, Lawrence’s high school teams, and the KHSAA state championships. It hosted the 1998 NCAA Championships (in a one-off experiment of running the D-I and D-II meets at a single site). It is many things as a cross country course: challenging, varied, and beautiful. More than anything else, though, it is the product of one man’s creativity.

Kansas’ home meets weren’t always here. The ’65 and ’66 NCAA Championships were at KU’s west campus, then meets moved to golf courses and the like. The team needed a permanent home. Coach Bob Timmons bought this land in the early 70s and decided that this would be where they ran.

The land was originally heavily wooded, and much of that was cleared by student volunteers prior to its opening as a course in 1974. Bit by bit, Timmons added features to the rolling landscape: six ponds (in addition to an already-existing one), two covered bridges, more evergreen trees, and silhouettes of ten famous KU runners such as Olympic 10k champion Billy Mills and miling legends Jim Ryun and Wes Santee. Timmons gave names to each bridge, trail, and pond. Among the other items the course winds around are Timmons’ cabin and a cemetery.

Jim Ryun in full stride

The course is tough and hilly, but with many loops to bring the runners back to spectators. From a 2006 interview in the Lawrence Journal-World:
“The name Rim Rock Farm comes from the three elevations present throughout the acreage,” Timmons said. “The rocks bleed out of the hills, forming different rock bluffs and also creating many of the ponds present throughout the course. That’s what makes it so exciting and demanding. We are able to interlace the three elevations into the course so that runners have to traverse all sorts of different obstacles. The beauty of it is having so many things to look forward to.”

There are many intersecting paths which can be interconnected for basically any distance desired. Below is the standard men’s 8 km setup, and the Kansas Milesplit page has maps for other distances.

After a loop or two around the open meadow surrounding the start/finish area, athletes head into the woods on the Timber Trail, which includes a few trees growing right in the middle of the trail. Next comes the Copperhead Trail, complete with bleached animal bones hanging from the trail signage, before coming back out into the open for more loops in the open and the finish. This is one setup, though, and the combinations and permutations are virtually limitless.

The course is so popular that when the meet hosted the 1998 NCAA Division I and II Championships, the turnout was over 6,000 (management had expected 2,500) and caused a massive traffic jam that drew neighbors’ ire.

Little competitions happen here, too. One such race is the Dr. Bob Run, a 5k which raises funds for a scholarship in memory of former Kansas University athletic director Bob Frederick, who was killed three years ago in a cycling accident.

Timmons stepped down as Kansas head coach in 1988 but stayed on at Rim Rock Farm as the course’s caretaker, living in the cabin at the middle of the site. In 2005, the course’s 100 acres (valued at over $500,000) were donated by Timmons to KU. In failing health, he no longer lives here, but arranged that someone else does. The current tenant of the cabin is former Jayhawk Steve Heffernan, who maintains the course as well as acting as Lawrence Free School’s head cross country and track coach.

The great running writer Roger Robinson, on his visit to Rim Rock Farm:

Timmons was a winning coach at KU, but may ultimately be remembered for the achievement of Rim Rock. It is excellent as landscape architecture, full of variety and interesting features, sudden vistas, curving lines, always in sympathy with the structure and natural vegetation of the terrain. Perfectly thought out as a cross country racing course, the sharp hills and changing surfaces test many different skills in an 8K loop. It’s capable of hosting big championships without losing its intimacy, or the sense for each runner of racing against the earth’s own challenges. The winding route and changing elevations provide great spectator viewing. And those inspiring heroic sculptures must be worth points every time KU races at home.

For more, see the KUAthletics page on Rim Rock Farm.

Tomorrow we go East again for the course that saw the best cross country races ever held in the United States.

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