It was the Huntsville High School cross country team that broke the ribbon at the sparkling new cross country course at John Hunt Park. Perhaps fittingly, after running through the tape, they jogged toward the spot where the runners started the following day during the Southern Showcase, which was the inaugural event on the course.
You see, last Friday’s ribbon-cutting was more about the start of something new than the echo of the finishing touches being put on what should be quickly known as one of the finest permanent cross country facilities in the country.
“While it’s exciting to open this today, I will tell you we’re really just crossing the start line in this facility,” Huntsville City Administrator John Hamilton said while talking to the assembled crowd a few minutes earlier. “We won’t cross the finish line until we open the mountain biking course around this facility and until we’ve added a few other things like Disc Golf. Its same footprint, (where) multiple different sports, multiple different recreational pursuits will all be available on the same piece of property here at John Hunt Park.”
I think it’s second to none, with the options you have available. You’ve got 3K, 5K, 6K, 8K, 10K, all in one location, and all be ready at any point in time.”
On a sunny Saturday, though, it was about cross country runners taking their first competitive strides on a course that is destined to host events big and small. The event, which was hosted by Huntsville High and began with a community run, featured nearly 50 high school and middle schools team, including a handful from Tennessee. While there were some tremendous individual efforts, as well as a team title for the Huntsville High boys team in the star of the show was the course.
“I think it’s second to none,” said Huntsville High assistant coach Blake Borden. “I’ve been all over. I’m from Lawrence County, so my home course was the current state course in Oakville. We’ve been to Memphis, we’ve been to Cary and run the regionals course up there in North Carolina. Our guy who is doing the commentating is from California, he’s run all the California courses. I think it’s second to none, with the options you have available. You’ve got 3K, 5K, 6K, 8K, 10K, all in one location, and all be ready at any point in time.”
That type of versatility is the key to where Huntsville runs from here with the course. The first two weeks are a good example with the high school teams competing last weekend and UAH hosting a collegiate event seven days later.
“It’s very versatile,” said Huntsville Sports Commission Executive Director Ralph Stone. “Certain divisions of the NCAA require different things, women run a 6K, men run a 10K. High schools are 5K. I think we’ve met that demand for just about any group.”
The economic impact, which, obviously varies at the size and level of the event, could be significant for the city. According to numbers provided by the Huntsville Sports Commission, the Southern Showcase had an estimated room demand of 626 and the total impact for the event was projected to be $336,664.
“I think you will start seeing some of the bigger races,” said James Falcon of the Huntsville Track Club. “Right now, the state cross country meet is held at Jesse Owens, which is a great course as well. I think we’ll have the ability to compete with that race. We definitely have more facilities to hold kids for hotel rooms and stuff like that than out where Jesse Owens is. Drawing some of those high school level events and, with the different distances, you have the ability to get the college races.”
For the record, Kevin Betts was the first course record holder with a time of 17 minutes and 42 seconds in the community 5K, which was the first race of the day. Betts laughed when the subject of course record came up just moments after he was the first finisher.
“I know how short-lived it’s going to be but I’m going to relish it for the next 20 minutes or so until the boys get out here and smash it,” Betts said with a smile.
Sure enough, his record lasted until the Westminster Christian Academy duo of John Farmer (17:29.85) and Kyle Van Kirk (17:35.22) claimed the top two spots in the Small School Division, which was the first school race of the day. Eventually, it was Vestavia Hills High junior Owen Strand (15:03.13) and Huntsville High sophomore Will Pinson (15:25.91) had the top times of the day.
For many, just the opportunity to run on the course made it a special day. Betts was included in that group but it was also a family outing. Betts and his wife, Tonia, help coach the Brewer High cross country team, which includes two of his daughter. Kevin and Tonia both ran in the community race, as did their youngest daughter.
“It’s so nice,” Betts said. “It’s such an open course, it doesn’t pinch anywhere. It seems pretty fast from being out there on it. Honestly, it’s such a treat to get a run on it. Every time we’d drive by here, we’d look at it. They’ve been working on it for the last year. We were so excited about it.”
One of the best features of the course, at least for Huntsville folks, is that it’s more than a competition course. Members of the community can run on the course when there isn’t a scheduled competition. It can become a spot for a daily run.
“This is an example of the kind of facilities that we’re trying to deliver in terms of recreational athletics infrastructure,” Hamilton said. “We look at what do our kids, what do our adults, what do our citizens need every day of the year and how do we deliver that in a high-quality way. But, also do it in a way that can attract those big regional or national events that bring tourism to the city. This is an example of that. You’ll see people out here running every single day and you’ll also see things like (the Southern Showcase) where we shut it down and get high-end competition.”