There was something a little different when Ballard assistant cross country coach Mike Carr was helping get the cross country course ready at the Ballard Golf and Country Club, marking the 37th-annual Ballard Invitational Monday.
Up until that point, Carr had spent the usual busy couple of days marking the course, helping put out tents, roping out the finish area, picking up acorns…whatever he could do to continue making the event one of the top cross country meets in the state of Iowa.
But this time, as he was getting things ready a couple hours prior to the start of running, he couldn’t help but notice his wife Carol and daughters Linda, Julie and Kristy were following closely behind.
After he helped cut ropes around one of the flags marking the course he began to walk away — when his family members pointed something out regarding the flag. Across the flag read the words ‘Mike Carr Cross Country Invitational.’
Carr looked at it, humbly said “oh, thank you!” and moved on to the next task.
“Definitely a surprise,” Carr said. “All my family is here to watch, so that was kind of cool.”
Current Ballard head cross country coach Scott Barth made the decision to change the name of the event to honor his mentor last spring.
“My mind was going from track to cross country and I decided it’d be a nice thing to do,” Barth said. “A lot of times they honor people after they quit coaching. I thought it’d be nice to do it while he’s still coaching and just kind of surprise him with it.”
Carr has been coaching cross country at Ballard since 1983. He was the head of the program until seven years ago, when he graciously turned it over to Barth, who had been his assistant since 1992.
Carr has stayed on as an assistant coach. His presence helped turn the Ballard Invitational from an eight or nine-team event when he started coaching to a 45-46 team extravaganza that featured upwards of 2,500 runners.
“It’s nice to see it take off,” Carr said. “It’s nice to see the people continue to come and want to come. And the quality of the meet — my goodness.”
Due to safety concerns along Lincoln Highway, the meet saw the number of teams nearly cut in half in recent years. But it still remains one of the premier meets in the entire state with around 1,400 runners, including a plethora of ranked individuals and teams.
“I always, in my mind, wanted it to be an elite meet,” Barth said. “That’s why this year you have 15 ranked teams and 25 ranked runners. People come here to see how we are doing on our way to the (state qualifying) meet and state.”
Barth said he owes a lot to Carr for making that possible.
“Coming in as a new coach, you don’t realize all the details that need to be covered,” Barth said. “When I was an assistant, I just kept mental notes and seeing everything he was doing to get ready for this meet. Then gradually he was just handing it off, but he still shows up for everything. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t had him to role model it for me.”
Carr said it wasn’t always easy putting things together in the weeks and days leading up to the meet, and then multitasking on the day of the event to make sure everything ran smoothly.
“There’ve been a lot of meets when I was the head coach where I didn’t do much coaching at this meet,” Carr said. “(I’d say) you get (the runners) ready because somebody wanted me for this and somebody wanted me for that. I was here and there and everywhere.”
Being able to sacrifice so much of his time and put so much attention to detail in order to make the Ballard meet such a memorable event has earned Carr praise and admiration from a lot of people over the years.
“I don’t know if I could have handled all the stress that came with putting on such a large meet, but my dad sure did,” his daughter Kristy said. “He dedicated so much of his time to get volunteers, recruit workers, set up the course, and not to mention, train his runners. There were many late night phone calls and a lot of trips made to the golf course to make sure everything was just right.”
Carr was quick to credit Barth, Doug Schroeder, the Ballard Golf and Country Club and many others for helping make the event a success year after year.
“There’s a long list of people that have contributed to making this meet what it is,” Carr said. “The workers are a big part of that.”
But Carr has been at the center of it all. And his dedication to putting on such a stupendous meet has left a lasting impact on many former athletes and students.
“This is our home meet, where we show our fans (who normally don’t travel to other meets) what we can do,” former runner Anna Eklund said. “This is cross country. You only get one home ‘game.’ You have to push yourself to make it worth it!”
“I can still feel the sensation of running on the lovely kept green grass on this beautifully kept golf course,” Rachel Scott said. “I enjoyed winning and celebrating teammates as they ran across the finish line. Coach Carr was always in the thick of things, cheering on the whole team. Sometimes, I had no idea how he got from one side of the course to the other.”
“There were so many teams that were there,” Luke Bennett said. “It was fun to have the different divisions involved all running at the same event. The course was well planned and just difficult enough. The final hill right before the finish made it all that more exciting.”
Anders Dovre enjoys how the meet brings so much more to the table than just an ordinary sporting event.
“It was buzzing. The sheer amount of people. The community. The cheerleaders. I think the band has been there,” Dovre said. “The attention paid to a sport that may not have had the cachet of other sports, but (one) that I loved. In a sense, it felt like a validation of the sport.”
And that makes it all worth it to Carr.
“It’s amazing how many places I go, if I have on a Ballard shirt, I’ll talk to somebody that says ‘I’ve run at that Ballard cross country meet,’” Carr said. “They usually have pretty good things to say about it.”