The Tiffin Cross Country Carnival can be intimidating.
Oh, sure, for the runners it is, I guess. But imagine covering it.
All those kids. All those schools.
All that chaos.
Or at least, that's how I imagined it when I arrived in Tiffin in 2005. Through that winter and spring, when a night or event seemed especially hectic, there would be a familiar refrain:
"Wait for the Carnival."
And yet, while I've always been involved in writing the previews and typing up the results, I've never actually had to cover it.
In fact, my entire experience even being at the event consisted of about 20 minutes. My former sports editor, the late Dave Feltner, had me covering a Tiffin University football game that day in 2005, but wanted me to attend, just to help out for a little while and get a sense of the event.
It was my first fall here and confidence hadn't exactly seeped into my repertoire yet.
I arrived, saw the people, got overwhelmed, and left.
Since then, I always had a reason not to go to the Carnival. Usually I was lucky enough that a Heidelberg or Tiffin football game fell on that day, and so I escaped the assignment.
And some years I made sure I escaped it.
One time, when Heidelberg football was in the midst of a 36-game losing streak, I volunteered to drive more than an hour to Oberlin to cover the Student Princes' opener there.
Dave agreed, but the night before told me it might not be a good idea and I'd be better served helping at the Carnival. He also was worried I'd burn myself out on an already busy day.
"But Dave," I said, only half-believing the words as they left my lips, "Heidelberg could end the streak. If it does, we need to be there."
Dave acquiesced, and I went to Oberlin, where Heidelberg did not end its losing streak. It added to it.
I even got pulled over in Republic on the way home, and to me, it was still worth it.
But as the years passed and I got to know some of the area cross country coaches, it was impossible not to feel that I was missing out on something. Coaches tell you the Carnival is just another race - or at least they try to convince their kids of that - but how can it be? Last year I interviewed a coach from Cincinnati who told me his squad snubbed a meet of a school a few miles away to come here.
For one day, the home of cross country in the state, the region, even the country is Tiffin, Ohio.
And here it is, my town, and I'd never really been there.
That changed Saturday, as I went for the first time and stayed for a few hours. On the walk to Hedges-Boyer Park, there were buses from familiar schools (Sandusky St. Mary) and ones from schools that I never knew existed (North Adams?).
There was a man standing in centerfield of a baseball diamond, yelling encouragement to a runner as he passed. There were T-shirts with clever mantras on them (what is it with runners and phrases on T-shirts? One said "Date a runner. The rest are just players.")
There was a team of runners wearing shirts with Batman logos. "What does Batman have to do with running?" asked Tommy, the newest member of our staff. I had no answer.
There were two people dressed as Wendy, as in the restaurant's namesake. Red wigs and everything.
But most of all, there was running. When the boys in the Division III-A race came down the hill, they left a strong breeze in their wake. It was appreciated.
Then I went with fellow writer Tony Maluso to another spot, where we watched the top two runners - Seneca East's Jason Willman and Jared Stockmaster - go by.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now," said Tony, who despite being in Tiffin only two years has become a seasoned Carnival veteran, "we run to the finish line."
Like I said, the Carnival is intimidating.
But I'd tell anyone to go. It's hard to believe Hedges-Boyer Park can hold so many people, so much running.
But it can. And until you see it, you never really know what the Carnival is all about.
And those of us that live here should.
There is nothing like it.