Running Fever: The 863’s Running Culture
By Meredith Jean Morris
For David Bryan, it started with a funeral.
“My mother passed away a few years ago, and I couldn’t even comfortably fit in the pew because of my size and my inability to kneel without bad leg cramps,” says Bryan, of Lakeland. “It was this point that made me begin to realize I needed to do something.”
Through his weight-loss journey, Bryan discovered running, and joined an exercise movement that is increasing in popularity throughout Polk County.
“Truth be told, I never thought of running at all,” Bryan says. “My wife and I joined a weight loss group and worked on our weight slowly.”
After adding walking to his daily routine, he began to want a bigger challenge.
“This new person I was becoming needed more, so at the coaxing of some friends, who I met through my weight loss journey, I recently decided to join the Lakeland Runners Club and Galloway Lakeland Members,” he says.
The Lakeland Runners Club encourages running and fitness for runners of all ages and abilities in the community through fellowship, education and formal and informal running events.
“Running is definitely growing in the area,” says Rich Wills, the founder and president of FITniche running store in Lakeland. “I think it’s for a few reasons. It’s simple, it can be very social, and we have a very committed and large group of running advocates in the Lakeland Runners Club, the greater community and in our store.”
Wills says FITniche is associated with local pub runs, as well as the races put on by the Lakeland Runners Club and others.
“[These events] are good bell-weather markers for the community’s enthusiasm toward running and walking,” Wills says. “It’s not unusual for our weekly pub runs to draw 120 runners or more participants, and it’s not unusual for established races put on by the Lakeland Runners Club to draw 1,000 or more runners.”
The ultimate sign of how enthusiastic Polk County is toward running and walking is the heavy usage of the Lake Hollingsworth pedestrian path, a 3-mile loop around the lake, Wills adds.
“Up to 2,000 people a walk this path,” he says.
Cole S. Bataille is a seasoned runner, who says he enjoys the Lake Hollingsworth atmosphere.
“Lake Hollingsworth in Lakeland is a great place to run,” says Bataille, who has been running since May 2009. “I also enjoy running the hills on Cleveland Heights. Winter Haven is my hometown. When I run in Winter Haven, I typically will just run the neighborhoods near my home and Cypress Gardens Boulevard. You have to pay attention on Cypress Gardens Boulevard, though. Drivers are certainly not looking for you.”
Bataille says in addition to Polk County offering a variety of good running routes, the 863 also has a good selection of races for runners with a competitive spirit.
“I love Mayfaire,” he said of the annual Lakeland 5k. “It draws a huge crowd and some great competition. I have to put a plug in here for the race that I direct, the Jingle Bell Classic 5K and 10K. It is Winter Haven’s only 10K.”
For this race, Bataille says Winter Haven’s Central Park and library is the start and finish area.
“The race runs down one of our beautiful trails, and next year, the 10K will make use of the new pedestrian bridge,” he says. “So, the Jingle Bell is certainly one of my favorite races. And, if you are looking for a challenge, sign up for the Red Ribbon Half Marathon in Lakeland. The course is beautiful, and challenging. Those are all unique races that showcase what Polk County has to offer.”
Marianne George also is a Winter Haven runner who says she enjoys the local atmosphere.
“Polk County is a great place for runners,” she says. “There are many races within the county, so you don’t have to travel far. I also like that we have morning races and evening races, such as the Polk State College Joggin’ for the Noggin’ 5K. That race is around Halloween.”
George says she started running about two years ago, needing a form of exercise that didn’t take her away from her family as much as other types of workouts might.
“Most of the time I run in the early morning while my husband and children are still asleep,” she says. “The ‘Couch to 5K’ movement was really popular with friends, and I knew that I was very sedentary and just didn’t feel that great.”
Since mastering the 5k, George has progressed to the 10k distance, and currently is training for a November half marathon.
George says the key to her success with running was setting goals and staying challenged. Bataille agrees with this running philosophy.
“Running is a great way to challenge yourself, meet other like-minded people and get in shape,” he says. “Polk County has a great foundation of runners and is a great place to run. We should take advantage of that.”