Back in 2016, the folks at Adams State made one of the most daring moves in the history of high school cross country in Colorado.
That was the year they moved the Joe Vigil Open from the weekend before Liberty Bell to the same weekend as Liberty Bell. Granted, the Joe Vigil is first and foremost a college meet, with middle school and high school divisions added on, but it was still an audacious move.
In terms of cash flow, the high school portion provides the lifeblood of the meet. The middle school portion of the meet is relatively small, and mostly limited to programs from the San Luis Valley. Renting the golf course in Alamosa would be a stiff financial burden for the Adams State cross country program without the influx of funding the high school meet provides.
But moving the meet from its traditional Labor Day weekend slot to a week later meant going up against Liberty Bell and, at the time, the St. Vrain Invitational as well. It looked for all the world like a kiss of death for the Joe Vigil Invitational.
Only things didn't work out that way.
In 2016, 409 high school athletes competed at the Joe Vigil. In 2017, the number jumped to 448. By last year, it had climbed to 477. We await the final count of participants for 2019, but number of teams entered has jumped dramatically. Expect the high school participant count to exceed 500 this year. It may threaten 600.
Also in 2018, meet management fixed one of the long-standing problems of the high school race. The Joe Vigil had a long reputation for turning out astonishingly fast times for the high school race. Even though the meet is at better than 7500 feet, people pointed to the flat and even terrain to justify those times.
Last year, however, meet management let out the word that they knew the old high school course was short and extended the course distance by about 150 meters. Immediately, times fell much closer in line with what would be expected.
There are those who maintain a similar problem haunts the Liberty Bell layout, but, if so, meet management has remained mum on the issue.
In any case, it doesn't take a very high level of awareness to realize there aren't many meets left along Colorado's Front Range that compete with the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell has upgraded its game in the last couple of years (including going to a Saturday morning time slot instead of the old Friday afternoon time slot). All up and down the Front Range, only Standley Lake's Thursday meet competes against Liberty Bell these days. And there are even a few competitors who run both of those meets!
If you got your entry in in time, you can scoot across the northern border to run at the University of Wyoming's meet. Twelve Colorado teams are doing that. Nice, but not exactly a groundswell of programs, yet.
Or, on the Western Slope, you can take your pick of the Grand Junction, Hotchkiss, and West Grand meets.
But, if you're located somewhere up and down the Front Range and wanting to compete close to home, your options have now been reduced to the Liberty Bell or run on Thursday at Standley Lake (or both).
And, in that environment, the Joe Vigil Invitational has begun to thrive as nobody could have anticipated. Dakota Ridge is headed there. Thompson Valley is making the long trip down. Schools are sneaking out of Colorado Springs and Pueblo to descend on Alamosa.
Even the New Mexico crowd is getting in on the act. The long-standing premier programs of the Land of Enchantment, Albuquerque Academy and Los Alamos, are pointing their buses to Alamosa this weekend.
The Joe Vigil and Liberty Bell are both alike and yet very different.
They're alike in the sense that competition is now keen at both meets. Yes, it's definitely keener at Liberty Bell than Joe Vigil, but you certainly don't need to feel as if you're sacrificing anything these days by heading to Joe Vigil.
They're alike in that both draw crowds from across state lines. Joe Vigil draws from New Mexico, while Liberty Bell draws from Wyoming and Nebraska. Liberty Bell formerly drew from New Mexico, but it looks as if Joe Vigil has cut the supply line.
Few other Colorado meets ever see more than a token team from across any state line.
But, the meets are also different in several important ways.
Liberty Bell is a road race. Two-thirds of the course is asphalt or concrete. It yields screaming times (and was designed to yield screaming times), but at a certain cost. Joe Vigil is entirely soft surface. Liberty Bell finishes about 50 feet lower than it starts. Joe Vigil is a net zero on elevation change.
The post-meet dining choices are a bit more expansive at Liberty Bell than Joe Vigil.
The starting line at Liberty Bell is as cramped as a starting line can get (unless you're willing to entertain the idea of placing teams behind other teams on the starting line). There's still room on the Joe Vigil starting line. It's getting more crowded, but a fairway still boasts certain advantages over a city street.
Joe Vigil uses a criterium kind of course, allowing spectators to see racers at multiple points. If you're fit, you might see racers three times, tops, at Liberty Bell. And, you get to dodge a few cars to do it.
At Joe Vigil, it doesn't matter who you are. You still get to line up on the same starting line as Dakota Ridge, Albuquerque Academy, and Los Alamos. Though those days may be numbered, we're still a long way from the multiple divisions of Liberty Bell.
Yes, the nation will wait breathlessly for Liberty Bell results in a way they won't wait for Joe Vigil results, but for those who look for something different in cross country than what Liberty Bell serves up, the Joe Vigil is an increasingly attractive option.