This summer, the City of Huntsville’s Parks & Recreation Department has encouraged residents to “Come Out and Play.” The message was shared throughout July during its annual Parks and Recreation Month celebration.
A new Parks & Recreation centerpiece drawing fans locally and nationally is the John Hunt Park (JHP) Cross-Country Course. The manicured grass-surface course is located on the south side of JHP and is open to the public all year long. It’s also a competition-ready venue specially designed to draw large running events to the City.
With the City’s sports industry bringing in more than $10 million in the first half of 2021, all eyes will be on the nation’s best runners this fall as they head to this fast track in hopes of bringing home a regional or national championship.
“The JHP Cross-Country Course is not only a way to drive new dollars into the City, but it’s also a local facility that is useful to residents 365 days of the year,” City Administrator John Hamilton said.
Preparing for champions
In the early stages of the course, one goal was clear – planners wanted to know what a championship caliber cross-country venue should look like. They wanted the City to be a top-tier site for the sport in the U.S.
In 2017, the City tapped area college and high school cross-country coaches to advise Bostick Landscape Architects in the design of the course. The result of brainstorming was that everyone wanted the course to be fast.
“That means having even turf to provide sure footing to make things quick,” said Community Events Supervisor Eric Enchelmayer. “We also wanted it to be spectator friendly. One where a fan could see the runners, then, just a few steps away be able to see the pack once again on a different section of course. That would be a rare feature in a cross-country course.”
Featuring long straightaways and plenty of wide spaces to sprint and make turns, the course comes competition-ready for meets of all levels.
“A lot of dirt was moved in 2018 to make this a reality,” Enchelmayer said. “Keeping runners off the sides of hills and in stride for every turn were goals of this course. Since the first race three years ago, the course has continued to outdo itself with every meet.”
The course’s record-breaking results were evident in November 2020 when cross-country standout Jenna Hutchins of Johnson City, Tenn., put the course on the radar of the running world. The 16-year-old phenom made headlines at the RunningLane National Cross-Country Championships by becoming the first high school girl to ever run a 3.1-mile cross-country event in under 16 minutes. With more than 260 other runners in the field, Hutchins beat the next competitor by nearly a full minute.
Setting a course
While the RunningLane event returns to Huntsville on Nov. 20, it’s the week before that will have many watching what happens at the JHP Cross-Country Course in 2021.
“We were selected to be one of nine regional sites (South Region) for the 2021 NCAA Division I Cross-Country National Championship,” Hamilton said. “Then, we will also be hosting the South Regional for the NCAA Division II Cross-Country National Championship in 2024. Thanks to the work of the Huntsville Sports Commission, as well as host institution partnerships with the University of North Alabama (DI) and the University of Alabama-Huntsville (DII), we are going to see some of the biggest names in the sport compete this fall.”
Also bringing attention to the Rocket City will be the Southern Showcase. In fall 2018, the meet was the first to be held on the course. What started as an event bringing 40 high school teams to compete will now host more than 100 teams from across the Southeast. Additionally, the Gulf South Conference, the collegiate league in which the University of Alabama-Huntsville competes, hosted its conference championship at the facility in fall 2020.
“The quality and capabilities of this course, accompanied with great customer service, is what will continue to attract large events and conferences to Huntsville,” said Mark Russell, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission. “This course runs fast. People continue to break personal and national records on this course. And that, in addition to the many other things it has to offer, makes this course so attractive.”
The quality and capabilities of this course, accompanied with great customer service, is what will continue to attract large events and conferences to Huntsville.”
The cross-country course provides running distances of 2 miles, 3K, 4K, 5K, 6K, 8K and 10K. The venue can accommodate meets for high school, NCAA and USA Track & Field-level competitions.
For more information, visit HuntsvilleAL.gov/parks-recreation or contact Enchelmayer at 256-883-3296 or firstname.lastname@example.org.