My 2021 Garmin RunningLane Experience: You Had To Be There

* The finish line abuts next to a bank that acts as a grandstand for spectators to view runners coming down the final straightaway. (Photo: Bobby Reyes)

My Experience


I'll start by saying, outside of a state cross country championship, I've never been to a "big" event like I went to on Saturday. Other than perhaps Memphis Twilight, Tennessee doesn't have an invitational that is a staple meet on the calendar that attracts national caliber talent to the level of a Great American, a Bob Firman, or a Desert Twilight. So when I decided to make the short drive down to Huntsville on Saturday, I didn't know what to expect. The intent was to just cover some runners and teams from Tennessee and maybe get some interviews and b-roll clips to use for social media. I did not expect to be spectator to the fastest high school cross country event of all time.

Short History


But how did we get here? How did the Huntsville, Alabama become the center of the high school cross country universe? I pieced together (from information I could find) a short history of RunningLane, John Hunt Running Park, and all the factors necessary for a consolidation of the top teams in the country to descend upon Northern Alabama on the first Saturday in December.

  • 2012: RunningLane begins as a training/timing company by Coach Will Rodgers and Sean Allan, alumni of University of Alabama-Huntsville.
  • 2018: The City of Huntsville invests $9,000,000 into John Hunt Park repurposing part of a golf course for a dedicated running course capable of hosting large high school and NCAA level events.
  • 2019: Huntsville High School hosts the first Southern Showcase event at John Hunt Park. Fifty schools, mostly from Alabama, are in attendance. Ethan Strand runs the fastest boys time in 15:03 and Lainey Phelps runs the fastest girls time in 17:36.
  • 2020: Team Nationals, their regional events, and every Foot Locker, now Eastbay, event get cancelled. RunningLane schedules a National Cross Country Championship. Jenna Hutchins becomes the first high school female runner to break the 16-minute barrier on grass winning in a time of 15:58. Parker Wolfe wins the boys race with a time of 14:26. Prominent teams in attendance include Niwot, American Fork, Bolles, Skyridge, and Mountain Vista.
  • 2021: Team Nationals get cancelled again. Regional events to go on as scheduled. RunningLane changes championship date to December 4th to accommodate more team's schedules. Garmin becomes title sponsor of the RunningLane Cross Country Championship. Nationally ranked teams and runners start committing to attend the championship event. Southern Showcase grows to 124 teams from six different states. 

So that brings us to yesterday in which one of the runners from Tennessee who ran in the Silver Division tweeted this:

    I'm honestly having trouble describing it any other way.

    While most of my mentions since yesterday have been along the lines of "mEaSuRe ThE cOuRsE" let's just take a moment to examine all the factors that contributed to the outcome of yesterday's race.

    Best runners and teams in the country, check.

    Best running terrain in the country, check.

    Best running weather conditions you could ask for, check.

    Incredible crowd atmosphere, check.

    All the elements for something incredible to occur were there. The starting stretch was half a mile long and at every point of it there was a spectator standing and as they all migrated from one check point of the race to the next you could feel something special was about to occur by the time the lead cart came into the view of the finish line.

    The video speaks for itself. 

    Next Year?


    The question now becomes is this sustainable? Has Garmin RunningLane, in two years, captured enough notoriety and enough of the market share to compete with the other team national race (if it ever returns) or was December 4th, 2021 a lightning in a bottle moment that can't be duplicated? Based on everything I've seen on social media since, there isn't a runner or spectator that regretted making the trip yesterday but if we assume the latter and this was a once in a lifetime dream field of running talent, then I feel privileged that I was in attendance and I hope you take the opportunity to come when it happens again. There simply are no words. You had to be there.

    Post-Race footage from the Girl's Gold Division race.

    Post-Race footage from the Boy's Gold Division Race.