In a half-century of competition, innumerable legacies and memories are built, but not all sporting events last 50 years. This October, the Alexandria Lions Meet of Champions will reach that milestone. And just as they’ve done every year since helping to launch the event, the Alexandria Lions Club will be there on its 50th anniversary helping every step of the way.

Photo5 A26I1359 Runners Start Line MarkRipley ALT

Each year, nearly 2,000 runners ages six to 18 from as many as 28 cross country programs participate in the eight events of the meet, which has become one of Minnesota’s largest cross country invitationals. In addition, 3,000 to 4,000 spectators attend, creating an electric atmosphere. “The stands are packed,” says Jaelyn Miller, a junior with the Alexandria Cardinals girls’ varsity team. “It’s so loud you can’t even hear who they’re cheering for.”

Keeping Pace with the Times

The Meet of Champions has evolved quite a bit since it began in 1973. In the early years, the race took place in a city park with Lions manually recording the runners’ times. Today, runners compete on a well-manicured 3.1-mile (5 km) course at a nearby resort with a professional electronic timing system recording their results.

“We used to have a half-dozen Lions waiting in the chutes,” says Lion Ron Branch, the Alexandria club’s treasurer. “We had to get the numbers from all of the runners when they crossed the finish line.”

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While technology has modernized the event, it could never replace the heartbeat of the event: the Lions.

Lion Jerry Hansen has volunteered to help with the Meet of Champions since 1982, his first year as a Lion. “I make a lot of calls,” says Hansen, the club’s event chairperson for the past 15 years. “Everyone knows what needs to get done. And we get things done quickly.”

Preparation Begins in the Offseason

The Lions’ involvement begins long before the first starting pistol fires on race day. The club does year-round fundraising. Hansen estimates the club holds at least 12 to 15 waffle feeds during the year, often as part of local church events or private graduation parties, to raise funds for the Meet of Champions as well as the Lions Eye Bank. The fundraisers are such a success that the club has a trailer, branded with the Alexandria Lions Club logo, that’s fully stocked with equipment to feed up to 300 people.

Proceeds from the waffle feeds help cover vital aspects of the race, including the trophies and medals. Hansen estimates the Lions purchase around 100 trophies each year at a cost of nearly US$1,500. The most meaningful of the Lions’ trophies is a travelling plaque that goes home with the winning team each year to display until the next race. Countless memories of victory and camaraderie are represented in that plaque.

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“The trophies are a starting point to attracting great runners,” says Jerry Amundson, Alexandria’s assistant cross country coach for 42 years. That comes as no surprise when you see them on display during the event, stretching across two tables in blue-and-gold columns that evoke a city skyline. The Alexandria Lions are committed to making sure the runners leave the event feeling like champions.

A Well-Oiled Machine

In addition to buying the trophies, the Lions pitch in wherever they can. Over the years, they’ve secured land-use permissions, found parking solutions, rented portable toilets and hospitality tents, and paid for the electronic race timing. On race day, dozens of Lions help set up the course, which usually involves clearing the colorful fall foliage to make way for the runners, and assist in almost every aspect of the event. Some help direct traffic in the parking lots while others act as guides on the course and finish line judges.

“My daughter runs cross country,” says Hansen. “We’ve seen disorganized meets. People are impressed by how well run the Meet of Champions is.”

Teamwork Breeds Champions

It’s clear the Meet of Champions has left a deep impression on the city of Alexandria. “After 50 years, the event is embedded in the town,” says Hansen. “It becomes part of the fabric.”

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The Alexandria Lions Club is just as ingrained in their community’s fabric as the cross country event that bears its name. While the Meet of Champions is their most prominent event and their waffle feeds have become a mainstay, their service in the community is continuous and unwavering. And it does not go unnoticed. “The Alexandria Lions are interconnected everywhere in the city,” says Amundson.

What started as a Lions club connecting with the school to create a sporting event 50 years ago has become much more. According to Travis Hochhalter, head coach of Alexandria Cross Country, “The Meet of Champions is a culmination of who Alexandria is.”