What was once tall grass and dense woods has become a runner’s paradise.
Call it a modern-day, cross country take on “Field of Dreams.” They built it and runners – as well as their families – have come to Tallahassee.
FSU track and cross country coach Bob Braman remembers first stepping foot on the Apalachee Regional Park and it was very much a blank canvas. Braman as well as Brian Corbin from Gulf Winds Track Club began painting a picture while often hacking away with a machete to make the dream venue a reality just eight miles south of the Florida State Capitol on Apalachee Parkway.
Braman, Corbin and others were guided by three principles.
Make it a fun course for runners: “I think a lot of the courses in the country are just not set up that way,” Braman said. “They’re just kind of for convenience sake, rather than something that would be interesting, like running through the woods. What you rarely get to do in a racing situation, you get to do it in a training situation, but very rarely do you race through the woods. And we do.”
Make it easier to navigate for coaches to move from point to point: “The other goal, selfishly, as a coach was to make it coaching friendly. Because one of the things that happens with major NCAA and major cross country meets is that people are running all over the course. And the coaches are running all over the course. We’re almost in a battle with the crowd to try to get to coach our athletes. It’d be like putting (Duke men’s basketball coach) Mike Krzyzewski up in the stands. I didn’t want that to be the case. I wanted a situation where we could make it where coaches could give coaching advice and information to the athletes.”
Develop shortcuts so that fans can enjoy more of the race: “How do we make this interesting? Maybe people aren’t locked into cross country. So we set it up as a rectangular course, where you could cross it in two places, and get from one side of the course to the other, whether you’re walking, jogging, you don’t have to sprint around the course, to have the opportunity to watch your athlete, your alma mater. We set it up that way where you could get from point to point without having to be really fit to do that.”
Those principles were the vision more than a decade ago. A collaborative effort between Braman, FSU athletics, Gulf Winds Track Club and Leon County officials helped produce a course that’s as friendly to the runners and coaches as it is to parents and fans. And they enjoyed the course again in October as college runners participated in the FSU Invitational.
The initial investment was relatively minimal. FSU athletics put forward $10,000 and that was matched by $10,000 from Gulf Winds Track Club, said Amanda Heidecker, a former FSU cross country runner who is now Director of Sports at Visit Tallahassee.
And the dividends have been nothing short of incredible for FSU’s cross country program but also local businesses.
Apalachee Regional Park (ARP) has been a revenue generator for the city’s hotels and restaurants. Leon County Director of Tourism Kerri L. Post said the economic impact from four meets held at ARP in 2017-18 produced nearly $4.5 million in economic impact. ARP has accounted for steady growth in the number of participants in Tallahassee, with more than $24 million being funneled into the local economy from 2009-18.
The next five years will continue to see an escalation. Visit Tallahassee estimates that ARP could reap $24 million in direct visitor spending in the next five years, which includes future ACC meets as well as the 2021 NCAA Championships – the first cross country national event to be held in Florida.
“To have the national championship was one of our ultimate goals,” Heidecker said. “It’s one of the best courses in the country. I’m biased and I’ve run on a lot of different courses. But from an athlete, coach and a spectator experience we have something that you don’t get anywhere else.”
What you don’t think of with cross country is revenue generation. The FSU Invitational won’t charge an admission to parents or fans. But it has been a financial positive for Tallahassee businesses, especially when meets are scheduled on weekends when FSU football is playing an away game.
“This is about bringing visitors with their money, hotels, restaurants, things like that,” Braman said. “And it’s been it’s been a really, really good partnership.”
There were nearly 2,700 finishers in the 2017 FSU Invitational, the largest in meet history. The 2018 meet was canceled due to Hurricane Michael.)
Leon County is also investing more than $2 million for extensive upgrades on the course, including a permanent structure, operations building, concession area, restrooms and awards stage beginning in December as the preparations ramp up to host the NCAA Championships in 2021. Braman and Heidecker areoptimistic that Tallahassee could be awarded future NCAA championship meets.
The other bonus for Braman and FSU cross country is that the course has hosted the FHSAA meets. When the state’s top high school runners step foot on ARP, they typically like it. And as much as stadiums or arenas help recruit top student-athletes in football, basketball or baseball, ARP does the same for Braman’s program. Parents know they can watch their kids run in Tallahassee, an enticement to stay “home” rather than go out of state.
And it doesn’t hurt to state the obvious: “It’s a beautiful course,” said FSU runner Caleb Pottorff.
“It’s knowing that you’re running on a course that college guys and college girls are running on,” said Pottorff, a sophomore from Fort Pierce who won a Class 2A state title at ARP in 2016. “That was a big deal to me. Coming from Florida I didn’t run on any other courses that colleges ran on, so it was a really cool thing to come run where another college athlete would run on.”
Because of that familiarity, runners get comfortable at home on the course. They have run it for years in high school and another four years in college. Landing an NCAA Championship meet in 2021 was long a goal for FSU and ARP has delivered that, too.
Even for those who can’t make it to Tallahassee for a race will enjoy the fact that fiber-optic lines were installed early on to allow for a better television or Internet broadcast. It’s more than just a guy sitting on the back of a cart, following the lead runners for the duration of the race.
The dream that Braman and others saw 11 years ago continues to pay dividends.
“I felt like it’s something we could do,” Braman said. “I just felt like with the right support and the right vision, that we could build something that would be better than what’s out there. It’s just really cool to finally have a national championship here.
“It can only get better. Each year we do more and more fencing and more and more infrastructure. And by the time you get to the 2021 meet there’s not going to be a place like it in the country.”