The Flrunners.com 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.
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. Over the past decade it has witnessed many historic races and called Titusville's Chain of Lakes Park home. But for the 18th edition the meet will come full circle, returning to where it all began: Polk County.
"We're excited to announce Holloway Park as our new venue and George Jenkins as our partner school," Byrne said. "It is an awesome place! It's an interesting course for the runners. Plus while giving spectators many easily walkable points to view the race, it is a single loop and course, and at no point do fans need to cross the course. So traffic control is easy. That opens up a lot of flexibility."
Byrne saw the potential in Holloway Park from the venue's humble beginnings in 2012. He along with Paul White, Marc Zimmerman, and Laura Frederickson were involved in the original course layout and visioning with owner Ed Holloway.
In addition to its beautiful and well-shaded setting, one of the biggest perks is Lakeland's central location and easy access to highways, dining and hotels. Based on the state's population centers, Polk County is the exact center of the state and within easy driving distance for the majority of teams.
"It is right off I-4 and the Polk Parkway," Byrne explained. "There are so many things going for Lakeland and this course. It's pretty close to ideal. I think Holloway Park and Apalachee Regional Park are perhaps the two best courses in the state when you combine all the factors. And Holloway is so much easier to get to!"
Despite the move, the Titusville community has been a lovely host and welcoming home over the last ten years. Byrne says the toughest part about moving to a new venue will be leaving behind the great team they built.
"Titusville High School, Terry Hayden, Marty Winkel, and their supporting staff have been the most amazing team you can imagine," he said. "After working together for so long, we barely had to communicate because everyone knows what they are doing and trusts each other. I'm really sad to leave those guys and leave a community that has become almost like a second hometown to me, but it was just time for us to move on."
The meet will be held on September 29th and 30th, and it replaces the Holloway Park Jamboree (which was also hosted by George Jenkins). Marc Zimmerman, Senior Sales and Events Manager for Polk County Sports Marketing, says an event of this caliber is the next logical step for the cross country course.
"We've hosted the Middle School State Championship, districts, regionals, and some college events, plus the D2 regionals coming this year, but getting an event that has the recognition like the Flrunners.com Invitational has improves the quality and visibility of events we host," Zimmerman said.
Not only does the change in venue impact cross country teams and athletes, but also Lakeland and the surrounding communities. Zimmerman estimates the meet will bring in over a million dollars of direct economic impact. He adds the event has been on their radar for some time.
"Anytime an event has a good reputation and that many people are going to attend, we want to go after it and ensure that it's going to be as great as it has been and make it even better so that people enjoy coming to Lakeland, Polk County, and this event every year," he explained.
Holloway Park becomes the fifth venue in the meet's eighteen year history. For Byrne, who attended college in Polk County and grew up in Sebring (just to the south), he always knew eventually the time would come to return the meet back "home."
"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."
Just like Byrne is happy to bring this meet back, Zimmerman and Lakeland are happy to welcome him.
"We feel that this event is a little more special than any other because we feel we had a part of getting it going from the beginning. It's something we are happy to see return to the community and hope is here for all eternity," he said.
Laura Fredrickson, the well-known meet director of FLYRA Cross Country State Meet (also at Holloway Park), will serve in the same role for the Flrunners.com Invitational. Assisting her will be co-director Dale Meskimen, girls coach at George Jenkins High School.
Stay tuned to FLRunners.com for more details about FLR18 including registration, team announcements, celebrity guest reveal, and much more!