Trail Running’s Southern Roots

How trail running below the Mason-Dixon Line grew from a curiosity to a world-class destination

When you think of trail races, the iconic peaks and valleys of the West surely populate your imagination: the Dipsea, Western States, the Moab Marathon, the Leadville 100, and the Rim to Rim.

But trail running also has deep roots in the South that date back to over a century ago. With a topography ranging from grassy alpine-like balds to white coastal sands with all manner of labyrinthine forests, hollows, and prairies in between, it’s a natural venue for supremely rewarding backcountry exploration. It’s surprisingly easy to access, too.

While there are records of native tribes and settlers alike who took to the soft trails, forests, mountains, and swamps below the Mason-Dixon, organized competitive trail running started in the late 19th century. Here’s a breakdown of the South’s most notable, historical off-road highlights.

[1894, Nashville] The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), a college athletic conference, was established in 1894 by Vanderbilt chemistry professor Dr. William Dudley. A handful of southern schools, ranging from Georgia Tech to Chapel Hill, held cross-country meets as part of the conference.

A 1919 article in the sports section of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper highlights the immediate success of SIAA meets:

Information received from officials of the Birmingham Athletic Club show that over a dozen colleges and athletic clubs have already entered teams and that this race will probably be larger than any held in the past. [Georgia] Tech will run up against some pretty stiff opposition in the shape of the University of Alabama, LSU, Mississippi A&M, Marion Alabama Presbyterian College, [the] YMCA from Birmingham, New Orleans, Sewanee, and others. Alabama has already won the trophy twice.

By 1928, the SIAA dissolved to form the Southwest Conference (the first cross-country conference championship was won by Texas in 1920 in College Station) and the Southern Conference (North Carolina claimed the first conference championship in 1928).

[1937, Stillwater] In 1937, the Oklahoma Territorial Agricultural and Mechanical College (now less as a mouthful as Oklahoma State University) launched an inaugural cross-country invitational at a local golf course. Dubbed the “Cowboy Jamboree,” it lays claim for being the longest-running collegiate cross-country invitational in the United States. Now run on manicured trails, the original race course featured creek crossings and a fence partition. This invitational has run uninterrupted save for a four-year period during World War II. That’s right–only a world war has stopped this race.

[1963, Boonsboro] It wasn’t until decades later that distance trail running took the South by storm. The John F. Kennedy 50 Mile, which starts in Boonsboro, Maryland, is America’s oldest ultramarathon—and one of the Southeast’s oldest trail races. A good piece of trivia to have at the ready as a trail runner.

The initial inspiration for the event came from John F. Kennedy challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had proclaimed decades before: All military officers had to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. When word got out about the “Kennedy Challenge,” non-commissioned military personnel also wanted to test themselves—as did civilians. Other trail ultras soon followed.

JFK 50 Mile Medals

[1974, Gainesville] Across the country, America’s Running Boom hit in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the notable names and races came one of America’s most famous racing clubs out of Gainesville, Florida. The Florida Track Club, inaugurated by University of Florida track coach Jimmy Carnes, turned out Olympic notables like Jack Bacheler, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway, and Marty Liquori.

Florida Track Club: Jeff Galloway and Jack Bacheler with the legendary Steve Prefontaine

From 1969 to 1975, Shorter and Bacheler won eight nationally held cross-country championships (then contested twice a year), with the Florida Track Club earning team titles five times.

Even Tom Carter, a well-known East Coast competitor during that period, pursued his dream of heading south:

Winter of ‘77, my sister Debbie and I were at a bar talking one night. We said, “Hey, you know, this is just bleak around here…do you want to go down to Florida?” And I knew somebody down there so we just picked up and left. We moved into this house with Steve Foster [a 3:55 miler] and… I was flabbergasted. There was him, there was Marty Liquori, there was Barry Brown, and there was Ken Meisner—there were four guys who had run sub-four (in the mile).

The thing was, you weren’t going to get paid to do this. I didn’t mind. I got my college degree, I was certified to teach. I didn’t do that. I didn’t have the energy to teach gym classes all day long if I wanted to train the way I wanted to train. The first place that I lived… a front porch. $22 a month.

For much of that period, the American South was a hotbed for distance running. Collegiately, little-known Houston University, East Tennessee University, and Western Kentucky all featured prominent talent that competed on the trails of their respective locales—and were also featured nationally in cross-country.

Before long, one of the fixtures of running lore and a prominent dynasty of endurance running appeared at the University of Arkansas: Coach John McDonnell. Beginning in 1972, and lasting more than 30 years, Coach McDonnell led the Razorbacks to 11 national titles in cross-country and 25 consecutive conference titles (including the SEC and now-defunct Southwest Conference).

Female talent also fared well. Deena Kastor ran for Arkansas and went on to win numerous national cross-country titles and compete internationally. She’s an inspirational figure for a generation of female runners. Shalane Flanagan, an Olympian and World Cross Country medalist, ran for North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jenn Shelton (below), who also attended North Carolina briefly, became famous in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, reporting an impressive resume of endurance-trail race wins and still holding the record for the fastest 100-miler run by a woman on trails, ever.

Jenn Shelton | Photo: Andy Batt

[Today, the South] After the explosion of trail running, athletes began to pound trails well after the college cross-country season ended. Today, many travel from across the country—and even the world— to run some of the most notorious races in the South. And there are many. Some enter the Hellgate 100K, a 66-mile sufferfest held deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains that boasts 13,500 feet of elevation gain. Others run the Double Oak Trail in Pelham, Alabama, a 17-mile rolling singletrack loop in Alabama’s largest state park. Some log their miles in Asheville, North Carolina, on the 18-mile “Shut-In” trail, built by industrialist George Vanderbilt in the late 1890s. With 3,000 feet of climbing on rock-strewn technical singletrack, this trail was named for the tunnels of rhododendron and mountain laurel through which it passes.

Other Southern notable events have established reputations. The Quest for the Crest, held in Burnsville, North Carolina, is known as the hardest 50K in the world thanks to its constant, punishing uphills for thousands of feet (the race consists of three 3,000+ foot climbs followed by 3,000 to 4,000 feet of downhill). By the end of the race, runners will have completed 11,300 feet of gain and 11,700 feet of loss. Race director Sean Blanton designed this course to be, what he calls, “the grand tour of the remote trails of the Black Mountains.”

Quest for the Crest | Photo submitted by Trail Run Project contributor Eric Heistand

Blanton also directs the Georgia Death Race, which covers over 68 miles and 37,000 feet of elevation change. “We have some really beautiful yet nasty trails out here,” said Blanton. “And there’s nothing like them anywhere in the world.” A fact that ensures Southern trail running will continue to build upon its rich history.