Nov. 7, 2012
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Apalachee Regional Park Cross Country Course has been the host to meets big and small since 2009, but Friday's NCAA Division I South Region Championships closes a circle that began with big dreams and a couple of guys wielding machetes four years ago.
More than 400 cross country runners, with NCAA Championship aspirations, descend on the course for Thursday's official inspection and practice sessions. On Friday, they will begin chasing those dreams when the gun sounds at 8:30 a.m., signaling the start of the women's 6-kilometer race. The 10-kilometer men's race follows at 9:15.
The NCAA South Region is one of nine regional meets that will be run throughout the country on Friday, and includes the Division I programs from the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. It is the penultimate event of the collegiate cross country season, with only the top two teams in each race, and the top four finishers who are not a part of those teams, guaranteed a spot in the Nov. 17 NCAA Championships in Louisville, Ky.
In short, it's the meet FSU men's cross country coach Bob Braman and Brian Corbin of the Gulf Winds Track Club, had in mind when they set out to design the dedicated racing facility with the blessing and support of Leon County officials.
"It's been almost four years from when we walked out there and said, `OK, how does one design and build a course?'" Braman said Wednesday, before heading out to place kilometer signs on the course. "From the very get-go, we knew we could attain a regional championship course and we also knew we weren't too many years away from having our turn hosting the ACC Championship, which is coming up in the next two or three years. ... We knew that there was a real need for it and we knew regionals were attainable because it was a meet that moved around a little bit."
Four years and countless hours of work later, that dream will become a reality, thanks to the collaborative efforts - financially and in physical labor - of Leon County, Florida State University and the Gulf Winds Track Club.
The NCAA South Region is the first of two major championship meets which will be held at Apalachee Regional Park (ARP) in a span of eight days. On Nov. 17, the ARP will serve as the host site for the Florida High School Athletics Association State Championships.
"This has been a very proud moment for us to be able to partner with Florida State and our local running community through the Gulf Winds Track Club, establishing a venue that's worthy of attracting such events," said Leon County Administrator Vincent Long. "We would not have been able to do that without that partnership. It also opened minds perfectly in everything we're trying to do in our community in the area of tourism. This is just a great fit and we're happy to be a part of it.
"One of the things that makes me most proud about this is I don't think this could have happened if there had been a year-long plan, or a consultant's study or 35-point plan. This happened because people could talk to each other and staff at the university and staff at the county were really able to look at what would work. We would have not had the level of expertise if we had gone out and created this facility ourselves."
Make no mistake, the course came to fruition because of passionate members of the running community like Braman and Corbin, but its value to the community is far-reaching. More than 2,000 high school and collegiate runners - the largest running event ever contested locally - pumped money into the local economy when they competed at the FSU Invitational meet in early October.
The course and the meet, which served as a preview for both Friday's regional and next week's state meet, drew rave reviews. Duplicating that success over the next two meets could be the launching point to draw major events to the ARP in the future, which is certainly a plus in the eyes of local officials.
"We think, because of the collaborations, we are going to be able to attract events like the NCAA Region into the future," Long said. "The Board of County Commissioners views this as a real investment. It's a relatively small investment, but we think it's going to have a big economic return."
Leon County has approved a $250,000 improvement project for the course, with work set to begin in the spring. The goal is to have the course meet NCAA specifications to host the national championship meet in the near future.
"We are not that far away from making that transition to meeting the NCAA specifications for a national bid," Braman said. "It's also going to bring events of a world-class nature to Tallahassee - probably an NCAA meet and the Pre-National meet and then you could look at the World Cross Country Trial, the USA Club Championships. All of those events are extraordinarily attainable with the weather and the support that we've got from the county and the community."
As for the immediate future, both Braman and FSU women's coach Karen Harvey, are excited about the prospects of running at home on Friday as they attempt to lock down NCAA Championship appearances. The meet provides an avid local running community with a rare opportunity to see the Seminoles best runners compete at a high level in a championship setting.
"Obviously a great purpose is that we need to officially qualify for NCAA's and what better place to do it than here in Tallahassee on a fabulous course that's challenging, but fair, and also will not beat us up going into nationals," said Harvey, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the country for the second consecutive year. "We're racing to win. They are going to see our top kids and I think it's exciting for us, and I think it's exciting for the community and families. I'm glad it works out this way. We have so many seniors and what a special moment for them, to go out with this great race and a win at home.
"We know we're going to have to earn that win, but we're ready for it. We're really coming into incredible fitness and a lot of confidence right now. Everything's coming together real nice."
Braman won't have a lot of time to soak in the atmosphere on Friday as his men's team, ranked No. 23 nationally, chases its 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships. The Seminoles have the seventh-longest active streak of NCAA appearances in the country.
"I'm going to get quite a few goose-bumps watching people compete at a really high level on that course," Braman said. "It was such an adrenaline rush to watch over 2,000 kids complete in that FSU Invitational, between college and high school. It was a really neat deal and for me, and the South Region is the culmination of it. The fact that the state meet is going to be eight days later is great for Tallahassee and Leon County Schools, but I won't be there. This is a big deal for me. We've gone all-out. Our administration has been behind it 100 percent."
Braman, who has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1983, takes special pride in the course and the way it has taken shape. Before joining the FSU coaching staff in 2000, he put on numerous races in Tampa as the head coach at USF, working closely with municipalities to prepare courses.
"This has been an unbelievable partnership," he said of the collaboration. "Gulf Winds, with Brian Corbin, Bill Lott, Judy Alexander and all of their people, have done the work days and supported it financially to build the thing. Obviously, FSU's been very supportive, putting a lot of money into it, as well as work days with our cross country teams.
"And then the county - the extraordinary support we've gotten from them - has gone above and beyond what we've asked for with the crushed oyster shell (trails), the fencing and the course maintenance. The neat thing is that because everybody has worked so hard, we're actually ahead of where we thought we would be maybe six months ago."
Friday's races will includes plenty of bells and whistles, with a GoTron scoreboard providing live scoring on the course for fans to monitor.
"We wanted to do something huge, so it was the best region meet even put on," Braman said. "That was our goal. The county has done more than their share in preparing the course. If we put on a good show, we're going to have 40 different college programs say, `Hey, that was the best region meet I've ever been to and I hope they're going to be bidding for a national meet someday. I would certainly throw my support behind it.'
"There's a long-term goal."