Columbus recognized as a Runner Friendly Community

Alicia Roubicek jogged on relatively new territory Tuesday afternoon.

"We actually just found this. It's a great place for strollers," said Roubicek, 28, referring to Columbus' Fall Line Trace rails-to-trails route.

Her 28-year-old husband, Nathan, and 15-month-old daughter, Stella, joined her on the portion near Hilton Avenue. The military family moved to Columbus in November 2012.

Their discovery of the route highlights a goal uniting many local running enthusiasts: establishing Columbus as place with unique options for runners of all experience levels.

Now, the city has a national distinction supporting that goal.

The Road Runners Club of America has named Columbus a Runner Friendly Community. The honor comes with a plaque and royalty-free use of the RRCA Runner Friendly Community logo for five years, among other benefits.

But its significance goes deeper than signage.

"It makes me proud to see that the community has grown so much. I want to continue the growth of health and fitness," said Dr. Ed Lopez. The podiatrist is a past president of the Columbus Roadrunners and a current member of the organization's board of directors.

He spent an estimated 80 hours working on Columbus' application to become a Runner Friendly Community. His application included a video, letters of community support and more.

How important is the distinction? Lopez estimates two to three communities receive the honor each quarter. Joining Columbus in this round of selections: Peachtree City, Ga., and Eugene, Ore., a city often called "Track Town, USA."

Lopez remembers seven years ago, when the Columbus Roadrunners had approximately 50 members. Now, the group encompasses nearly 700 people, he said.

For local road races, that means an increase in frequency and participation. "There is a race just about every weekend, especially in spring and fall," said Carolee Luther, president of the Columbus Roadrunners. Her husband is one of the co-owners of Big Dog Running Company, a store that's enhanced the running community in downtown Columbus.

Five years ago, organizers were excited about getting 100 people signed up for a local race, Luther said. There are already 350 people signed up for Saturday's Super Bowl races in downtown Columbus, she added.

Building a strong following of local runners isn't the only goal.

Recognition as a Runner Friendly Community could create an additional draw for out-of-town visitors, according to Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. Some local races already attract runners from outside the Chattahoocee Valley. Among those events is the Soldier Marathon and Half Marathon, now in its fourth year.

"Like any marketing, we're looking for a competitive edge. This (distinction) will be one of our features on our website and our literature," said Cecil Cheves, race director for the Soldier Marathon and Half Marathon.

The event attracted almost 2,000 participants in 2012, Cheves said. "I do expect our registration to increase and be over 2,000 this year," he said, adding that organizers are considering the possibility of adding a 5K race to the event.

Meanwhile, Luther hopes to eventually expand the distances offered for people who want to participate in other local road races. Her ideas include a 1-mile speed race and a 15K race (which spans just over 9 miles).

In upcoming weeks, downtown Columbus will host innovative 5K races like a couples' relay in February and the Color Me Rad 5K race in March.

"Those races open up a different runners' market," said Elizabeth Hurst, vice president of community relations and marketing for Uptown Columbus.

The "Runner Friendly Community" label might open the door for Columbus to be considered as a host city for additional races. "It more than gives us a seat at the table," Bowden said.

He added, "I think the sky's the limit."

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