by T.J. Murphy
Be it the mission of a business trip or the draw of a tourist getaway, traveling to the southeastern part of the United States holds special meaning and opportunity for the runner. You can order up New Orleans crawfish and have a cold beer after finishing the Mardi Gras Marathon or run on the cypress-shaded Neusiok Trail on the east side of South Carolina's Croatan National Forest. For a more relaxing venture, you can kick back after an afternoon run in Memphis to live blues on Beale Street or take an easy jogging tour past civil war landmarks like General William T. Sherman's headquarters in Morningside Park in Atlanta. The southeast simply offers countless opportunities to mix fitness training with regional fun. In addition to lush national parks, history-rich towns and white sand beaches, it's the friendliness of the southern locals that makes a visit to the region something to be looked forward to.
It wasn't too long ago that distance running in the southeast was taken up by only an intrepid few. "In the 60s, there were about five people who ran road races in Atlanta. And we all knew each other by name," recalls Jeff Galloway, a native Georgian who would go on to compete in the 1972 Olympics. Back then Galloway could not know that Atlanta's Peachtree 10K road race would zoom in participation numbers to where it now stands at about 55,000 singlet-wearing souls. A boom that Galloway, through his books, running programs, and running camps, would have a good deal to do with.
Now the running scene in the southeast is stronger than ever, with hundreds of road races attracting countless numbers of entrants. Local runners are ferreting out and establishing training routes on road, trail and beach. Plus there are a number of all-abilities-welcome running clubs that make a great resource for a visiting harrier. When planning a trip, consider contacting a local running club in advance. On their websites you'll find schedules for group runs, maps for popular routes and schedules of nearby races.
Southern Strides: Favorite Running Spots
If you're looking for running spots that locals love, here's a sampling of some of the favorites in popular destination cities in the Southeast to help you find your stride when you're heading south.
Charlotte, North Carolina
McAlpine Creek Park is the hot spot for trail running. There are also many paved trails, a 1.5-mile nature trail and a 5K championship cross-country course. This community park is huge with 462 acres of land and a three-acre lake. The Dowd Family YMCA is also a meeting place for group runs throughout the week. Club Contact: Charlotte Track & Triathlon Club.
The hot spot for running in Nashville is Percy Warner Park according to VIP RAC member, Frank Schmidt. Situated in the hills on the west side of Nashville, the park offers both road and trail running. The 2000 acre pedestrian-friendly park offers paved loops of 1.6, 5.8 or 11.2 miles. The main trail criss-crosses the park and can be run alone or combined with the road routes. On the east side of Nashville is the Shelby Bottoms Greenway run and bike path. This 8 mile out and back undiscovered gem is both peaceful and gorgeous. Situated on the east bank of the Cumberland river, this Greenway is the first part of Nashville's new Greenway system. Club Contact: Nashville Striders.
Piedmont Park was designed by the preeminent landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers (of New York's Central Park fame) in 1912. These days, a visit to Piedmont Park can include biking, blading, running, tennis, Frisbee free-for-alls, swimming, softball, soccer and picnics. It is also a classic for people watching, especially on weekends, holidays and during festivals when it can feel like a sea of humanity. But there's almost always some tranquil solitary spot to be found somewhere. If you'd really like some ultimate trail running, venture out to historic Kennesaw Mountain National Park, about a 30-mile drive northeast on I-75 out of Atlanta. Club Contact: Tri-Atlanta.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Fort Lauderdale, of course, is known for its golden beaches. Stretching for 23 miles, you are sure to find the perfect one to run on. Central along the beach strip is Fort Lauderdale Beach, with its crisp, new, wavy-walked promenade separating the beach from the low-rise lodgings, restaurants, and beach shops. Then there's Hollywood Beach's six miles of sparkling beachfront featuring sand dunes, protected sea turtle hatchery and 2.5-mile walkway called the "Boardwalk." Club Contact: Greater Fort Lauderdale Road Runners.
New Orleans, Louisiana
As the bayou city continues to rebuild and bounce back after Katrina, the running community is still going strong. Running through the neighborhoods really allows you to understand the blend of the mysterious and magical with the majestic and historic. You can run alongside rollicking streetcars through the centuries-old French Quarter, by Victorian mansions with incredible settings in the Garden District, or by picturesque cemeteries guaranteed to catch your attention. For a quick overview of the city, take a round-trip sightseeing tour on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar then put on your running shoes and retrace the route. You can even run along a path that borders the infamous Mississippi River. Club Contact: New Orleans Track Club.
Winter Park tops the list of hot spots for runners like VIP RAC member Terry Back. A runner-friendly community just to the north of downtown Orlando, Winter Park is one of the oldest parts of the Orlando area. It has very mature trees that offer cool shade for running during the hot summer months. Other areas that attract attention are: Windermere/Clermont and Lake Monroe. The former is rural with nice rolling hills (although a few are short and fairly steep.) Lake Monroe has a 25 mile loop course around the lake. It is very scenic and, in sections, very tropical. Club Contact: Orlando Runners or the Lake Monroe Roadkillers.
The city of Savannah, no doubt, is a center of Southern charm. Its leafy streets are laid out in a perfect grid graced by 21 historic squares, each a little green oasis shaded by lush magnolias and filled with Greek fountains and statues, perfect for scenic running. A mile away from downtown, via a jaunt through the historic squares, is Forsyth Park where runners venture out on the park's 1.2-mile perimeter pathway or 1.5-mile interior pathway. Also worth checking out is the one-mile path around Daffin Park, a few miles southeast of downtown. Club Contact: Savannah Striders.
Hilton Head, South Carolina
Hilton Head Island is one of the most popular resort destinations in the United States. With 12 miles of beautiful sandy beaches, marinas, and nature preserves at hand, it makes a great place to blend running into a golf vacation. A 4.8-mile run called the South Forest Beach Loop starts off at the Park Plaza shopping center and tours the south end of the island. Starting from the same point, Club members also frequent the six miles of the Shipyard Run, which trolls the beach and passes through the Shipyard Plantation. Club Contact: Go Tri Sports.
Tampa Bay, Florida
Long before the Buccaneers claimed the 2003 Superbowl title, the team's first, Tampa Bay was established as one of the best places in the country to be a runner thanks to the Gulf of Mexico climate. Tampa Bay Runners' Larry Olsen suggests Bayshore Boulevard and Flatwoods Park as great picks for a visiting runner to get their run in. There is also the creme de la creme for trail runners: the Croom Forres, 10 miles down Croom Road off of Highway 50, near Brooksville. Club Contact: Tampa Bay Runners.