FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – On Saturday morning the No. 7-ranked Arkansas women’s cross country team will compete in the 26th annual Chile Pepper Festival at Agri Park. While the Chile Pepper has been a staple for the running community in Northwest Arkansas for over a quarter century, this year’s Festival will hold special meaning to one Razorback runner.
Elkins, Ark., native and redshirt senior Grace Heymsfield knows all the hills and turns at Agri Park, where the annual Chile Pepper Festival is held, and why wouldn’t she? Heymsfield has been competing in the Chile Pepper Festival since she was in junior high school at Elkins, and Saturday will mark the 10th and final time she will compete in the event as a member of an amateur running program.
“The Chile Pepper was always my favorite race in high school and junior high, mostly because of the awesome atmosphere and the food,” said Heymsfield. “This will be my 10th Chile Pepper, and I am trying not to think of it as my last one, because I’m sure I’ll be back as an open participant one of these days.”
The Chile Pepper Festival has deep roots inside the Northwest Arkansas running community and it has become one of the premier running events in for not only local high schools, but for several area colleges. This year’s Festival will feature nearly 50 different college teams from 12 states on both the men’s and women’s side.
“The pride of the event has really accumulated throughout my career here,” said Heymsfield. “I am excited to represent the Razorbacks one last time at my favorite meet.”
Heymsfield has several fond memories at the Chile Pepper Festival. She remembers the first time that she ran in the event and learned that eating tacos before a race may not be entirely the best of ideas. But states that last year’s race, when she picked up her first collegiate individual title, is her favorite memory to date at the meet.
“Nothing can beat last year, it was cross country at its finest,” expressed the redshirt senior. “The course was extremely muddy and we ran the entire thing as a team. It was a huge confidence booster for the season.”
Heymsfield was the first collegiate runner to cross the finish line last year, as she completed the 5K course in 16:55.80. The sloppy conditions did not prevent the runner from setting a new a new personal-best time in the 5K, as she also earned her first career individual title to help the Razorbacks win the Chile Pepper Festival for the second consecutive year.
Despite being the defending champion, the Elkins native says she feels no extra pressure in this year’s Chile Pepper, and expects both her and the team to be ready for this year’s Festival as Arkansas prepares for the championship season.
Heymsfield’s senior season has been a unique one thus far, as she has only been able to compete in just one meet (adidas/UCI Invitational). However, it was an impressive showing as she posted a second-place finish, just behind teammate Dominique Scott, with a 5K time of 17:18.20. The fact she has only competed in one race this season has not diminished her expectations for herself or her team in the 2014 season.
“I’ve been excited about my training this year and more excited about our team’s potential. We have a good group of girls and we are not afraid to set ambitious goals for ourselves. It really make things exciting and fun.”
Heymsfield missed out on the last meet (Missouri Southern Stampede) while attending the SEC Symposium serving as a University Ambassador. The SEC Symposium is designed to address a significant scholarly issues while utilizing the range of disciplines represented by the SEC’s 14 member universities.
Though she said it was different being away from her team on race day, she knows that her experience at the symposium will benefit her in the next step of her academic career as she applies for grad school.
Saturday marks just one of two remaining races for the Arkansas women’s cross country team before they compete in the SEC Championships in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Oct. 31. The team is currently ranked No. 7 in the USTFCCCA Poll and has already collected three team titles this season, winning the Hurricane Cross Country Festival, adidas/UCI Invitational and the Missouri Southern Stampede.
As she enters her final Chile Pepper Festival as a collegiate runner, the fact is not lost on Heymsfield that several Northwest Arkansas fans will be cheering on the local product on Saturday. She will fully embrace the cheers from the crowd and says she is proud to represent the Razorbacks one final time at the Chile Pepper.
“The support I’ve had from local friends and family throughout my four and a half years has been incredible,” she says. “Fayetteville takes great pride in all of their Razorbacks, local products or not, and I think that is one of the things that makes Arkansas incredibly special for any athlete.”
With the calendar recently turning to October, Heymsfield knows that championship season and the end of her cross country career is just around the corner. However, she states that if she can finish the NCAA Championship with a sense of pride in her training, feel like she has treat her teammates well and achieved all the goals she set for herself, then her final season in an Arkansas uniform will be a success.