Largest cross country event in state returns to Holloway Park

The Invitational returns to Holloway Park in Lakeland Sept. 28-29, when its growing number of runners will be exposed to an improved course in tiptop condition.

Last year, the event happened just weeks after Hurricane Irma roared through Florida. This year, thanks to improvements made on the grounds as well as Central Florida having been spared the wrath of a passing hurricane, the newly refreshed course is in prime shape.

The Invitational has been a staple on 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. Last year, Holloway Park hosted 191 schools, including various colleges, from which there were 376 teams and more than 3,000 athletes who finished the 20 different races, making it one of the largest annual cross country events in the nation.

“Holloway Park is basically transformed into a running Bedouin village,” said Marc Zimmerman, senior sales and events manager for Polk County Sports Marketing (PCSM). “Teams and families will cover the lower area with tents and pop-ups. Then, after two days, it is all gone.”

Until last year, the Invitational had called Titusville home for the previous decade. But the combination of Holloway Park, with its vast number of spectator viewing sports and larger size, combined with the variety of area accommodations, helped bring the event back to Polk County. It didn’t hurt that Byrne was once an intern with PCSM either.

Zimmerman forecasts that the meet will bring more than $1 million of direct economic impact.