More Than Just A Race: Invitational 19

The trophies were missing, but that didn't matter.

The team scores were hand calculated.

Teams all over the state traveled to Winter Haven to race. Gulliver, Vero, Maclay, Flagler Palm Coast, Winter Park, Bishop Kenny, Spanish River, they were all there.

They were there for the beginning.

It was Oct. 7 2000 when athletes from all over the state lined up for a race that was unlike any other -- a race designed specifically to foster a passion for the sport and to create an experience.

"I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe I was too naive to be afraid," said Jason Byrne, founder. "I just knew it had to be about the sport and the people it could impact."

In the midst of his fraternity pledge week, Byrne found the invitational trophies missing -- stolen by a rival fraternity. A problem only a college student turned race director could imagine.

The stolen trophies were a mere blimp in the plan, there was racing and timing to do. Byrne had spent months reaching out to coaches encouraging them to travel and have their teams compete.

"That was the turning point in my life because I realized this little thing I was doing as a hobby, really meant something," Byrne said.

What would follow after Oct. 2000 is unlike anything else. The Invitational would become the premier in-season championship race. It would host future professional athletes and Olympians like Jenny Barringer-Simpson and Nicole Schappert-Tully.

At the same time, it would host athletes of all abilities. An in-season championship meet with races for all levels and abilities. From a race of champions to invitational, varsity, junior varsity, middle school, and college races. It became a meet where coaches could bring all of their squads -- that everyone could have an experience.

"We started to double in numbers every year. It was always personal. It was the personal relationships that made it possible," Byrne said.

The location and competition has changed over the years, but what hasn't, is the heart behind the meet. It is an event designed to be an experience, a memory.

Read: How The Invitational Shaped My Running Career

Coaches, athletes, and parents get to be part of a meet that is inclusive, upbeat, and inspirational.

"This is an experience that we want you to engage with, and feel the pulse of the sport while you are here," Byrne said.

We don't know who will be the next Florida Olympian one day, but this meet has the potential to spark those dreams for some of these athletes.

"It's more than just a race," Byrne said. "You have all these races on the calendar. Flrunners is not another mark. It is the one thing that athletes can look back on after they graduate, and say 'Wow, that was so much fun."