Everyone knows that Lakeland is the Swan City.
But when it comes to competitive cross country, Holloway Park has earned the moniker of Run City.
More than 5,000 runners from throughout the state – from elementary school to collegiate athletes – competed at this weekend’s flrunners.com Invitational, presented by ASICS, making it the largest event of its kind in the state.
The FLrunners.com Invitational has been a staple of the Florida cross country calendar since it started in 2000. Jason Byrne, who founded the meet while a sophomore at Florida Southern College, held the first annual race at Polk Community College in Winter Haven. The event flourished there for three years, doubling each year during that time span from 450 to 900 to 1,800 athletes. The meet then spent a few years split between Ed Radice Park in Tampa and Little Everglades at Dade City, growing to over 4,000 annual participants in the process. For nearly a decade, it has called Titusville’s Chain of Lakes Park home, returning to Holloway Park in 2017. Since then, it has grown into the largest cross country event in the state.
“Holloway Park is basically transformed into a running Bedouin village,” said Marc Zimmerman, senior economic development manager for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing (PCTSM). “Teams and families cover the lower area with tents and pop-ups. Then, after two days, it is all gone.”
Returning to Holloway Park and working with PCTSM is a homecoming of sorts for Byrne.
“When I was a sophomore in college, I interned with Marc Zimmerman and the Polk County Sports Commission. I love those guys and that is part of the reason I encouraged FLYRA to put the middle school state meet in Polk County,” he said. “When I heard about the possibility of a permanent cross country course at Holloway Park a few years back, I jumped to be involved in its birth and had a sense that eventually it was going to be a viable option for us.”
Races started at 3:30 p.m. Friday afternoon with the JV high school boys. By the end of the day, nine races in total were run, including a mixed race of elementary school students. The last race, for college men, was an 8K run, the longest event of the day.
Saturday focused on high school age runners for the eight races.
Zimmerman forecast that the meet brings in more than $1 million of direct economic impact.