Rock Chalk Weekly: Course Carved Out by Jayhawk Legend Set to Host NCAA Regional
Written by Kyle Charles, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
A 20-minute drive from the University of Kansas campus, through farmland and across dirt roads that transition to one-lane gravel paths, ends at a cabin where Steve Heffernan lives with his family. The cabin sits in the heart of Rim Rock Farm, the home course for Jayhawk cross country since 1974.
Heffernan is responsible for all maintenance on the property and has presided over his duties since moving into the cabin in 2004, when the owner, former Kansas coach, Bob Timmons, gifted the property to the university under the stipulation that someone move in full-time as caretaker.
At the top of Timmons’ list of preferred residents was Heffernan, who is now the assistant principal and cross country coach at Lawrence Free State High School. Heffernan’s history with Rim Rock Farm goes back much farther than 2004, however.
After being recruited as a walk-on in 1986, Heffernan joined the cross country team and became quickly acquainted with the 125 acres under the leadership of Timmons. It is through his relationship with the late Jayhawk great, who passed away in August at the age of 91, that he came to be the overseer of the land now.
Rim Rock Farm is known across the nation as one of the most demanding venues for distance running, but few understand how the history of numerous Jayhawk legends is woven into every path and landmark on the storied grounds. Heffernan, on the other hand, can tell its story better than anyone.
The Farm holds a story of heart and determination, and it begins with Timmons.
In the early 1970s, Rim Rock Farm was nothing more than a vision. Timmons purchased the land for $10,000 from Gene Burnett, an engineer who earned his wealth after inventing a skin-grafting machine for burn victims. With Burnett’s guidance, Timmons learned how to operate the machinery needed to carve a cross country track out of the farmland and limestone.
It took Timmons two years to install the gravel road and build the cabin where Heffernan now resides. Before the turn of the decade, Timmons purchased an adjacent field for $20,000. As the canvas grew, Timmons’ masterpiece grew with it. It was never his intention to simply build a cross country course for his team to compete on. Timmons wanted to build the best cross country course, a reflection of the type of man he strived to be.
After losing his father in his teenage years to a rare genetic disease, Timmons’ mother had him tested and discovered that he, too, was at risk. The prognosis was that Timmons may not live through his 20’s.
“Timmons’ reaction to that was, ‘Well, I’ve got to get some stuff done’ so he just started working long days. He wanted to achieve something just in case his life was cut short,” Heffernan said. “And the disease never did affect him but he still lived every day with that mentality.”
Timmons expressed his tenacity for life in every aspect of coaching, notorious for arriving at the office at 4:30 in the morning and not leaving until 10 at night. The construction of Rim Rock Farm was no different.
By the time Heffernan arrived in Lawrence, past Jayhawk runners had completed most of the heavy lifting. Timmons made a habit of enlisting his athletes to help clear paths and move rocks or fallen trees. Labor on the Farm remained a rite of passage nonetheless, as Heffernan and his teammates spent five days living in the cabin to prepare the course at the beginning of the season.
While some monuments on the course, like the artificial ponds and paths cut through the woods, exemplify Timmons’ intense drive to create a world-class facility, other features show that a softer side of Timmons existed.
A large grouping of tall pine trees line the final bend of the course. Like Timmons himself, the trees long surpassed their predicted lifespan. Timmons planted them with the purpose of having a Christmas tree farm on the course, but when the time came to harvest the trees, Heffernan says ‘Timmy’ didn’t have it in his heart to cut them down.
As the pine trees give way to the open field signaling the final meters of a race, a fittingly larger-than-life silhouette statue of Timmons stands waiting. Posed holding a stopwatch above his head, runners are reminded of the fiery spirit that groomed champions and built the course they run on from nothing. ‘Push harder.’ ‘Give it everything you have, and then more.’ Those were Timmons’ expectations; for some it was too much, but for others that pressure created diamonds.
His statue is not alone at Rim Rock Farm. Seven distinguished Jayhawk distance runners are honored with effigies of their own, scattered across the course. Silhouettes of NCAA champions Herb Semper, Allan Frame and John Lawson, along with Olympians Billy Mills, Wes Santee, Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun, stand as a reminder of the rich history of track & field and cross country at the University of Kansas.
Timmons began his coaching career at the high school level, and his accomplishments at Wichita East are often overlooked. As the swimming coach, Timmons produced 52 individual state champions and seven state swimming titles. His runners grabbed four cross country championships and six state track titles.
Ryun ran for Wichita East and reached legendary status under Timmons’ guidance before even coming to KU. In 1964, he posted a sub-four minute mile, a feat never before accomplished by a high school athlete.
Following his high school mentor to Lawrence, Ryun continued to improve and add to his list of impressive accomplishments under Timmons’ direction. As a four-year runner, Ryun broke three world records, four American records, and also claimed five NCAA championships. He went on to win a silver medal in the 1,500 meters in the 1968 Olympics.
Sure, Timmons produced champions, but his coaching produced countless more exemplary people. The trials student-athletes faced on the Farm under Timmons built character and perseverance. Heffernan recalled the Crow Flight Marathon, an end-of-season tradition that pushed the Jayhawk runners to their limits.
“He would come out with a county map, and using the legend and a piece of string measure out 26 miles from the Farm,” Heffernan explained. “He would make a big arc and drop off three different teams 26 miles away. How you got back was up to you. He would give you a quarter, which would get you a phone call from a payphone if you needed it. We ended up going 37.5 miles that day to get back. We were broken, there was no question about that.”
Heffernan’s teammates in the competition were Mike Spielman and Gerald Harder. Spielman now coaches at Baldwin High School and has over 19 state cross country and track championships to his name. Harder is now a practicing family physician in Southlake, Texas. The marathon is an event that still sticks with them 25 years later.
“We talked about that day at Timmons’ funeral and how we were screaming at each other because we thought it was the dumbest thing we ever did,” Heffernan said. “That was the last of the marathons, but that was pure Coach Timmons.”
For all the challenges runners face competing at Rim Rock Farm, the experience is one that is hard to forget. Timmons ensured that the level of beauty on the Farm matched its degree of difficulty.
“Timmons wanted to make it spectacular in viewing,” Heffernan explained. “So the covered bridges, the color and trying to run the participants around the water features as much as possible were all part of that.”
In mid-October, the maple trees break out into a vibrant crimson and the pristine ponds that dot the course reflect a clear blue sky. It is surely no coincidence that the Farm neatly captures KU’s proud colors in its landscape. After all, the Crimson and Blue coursed through the veins of its architect, engineer and caretaker of three decades.
On November 13, some of the best runners in the country will flock to Rim Rock Farm for the 2015 NCAA Cross Country Midwest Regional Championships. Heffernan says ‘Timmy’ would be thrilled that his course, one of only a handful in the world maintained specifically for cross country, is hosting the event.
No matter the outcome, every student-athlete who crosses the finish line will take home a memory affirming the hard work and dedication to his or her craft.
“Kids finishing a race at Rim Rock know that they have achieved something,” Heffernan said. “At the end of the day, for a sport that doesn’t get a lot of attention, the kids feel that it’s meaningful and people respect what they accomplished.”
The eight silhouette statues that call Rim Rock Farm home stand eager to add the next member to the distinguished group. Timmons intended to honor anyone who competed at the Farm and went on to be an Olympian, Jayhawk or not. Thus far, no one has answered his challenge. The crop of talent that will be present at the Regional Championship may feature a competitor that has what it takes.
Rim Rock Farm pushes runners to achieve things thought to be impossible – a direct representation of the expectations Timmons carried.
When runners line up for the NCAA Regional Championships, the stark conditions that accompany a November day in Kansas will give a clear view of the daunting test in front of them. Those who pass the test will be better runners for it, and perhaps one of them will some day return to see the shadow of an Olympian staring back at them.
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