Great Cross Country Courses: The South

Yesterday I said I’d go to the Midwest next, and not until Monday, but I found some extra time. Here are the best cross country facilities in the southern parts of the USA.

The Unique: Panorama Farms

Nominated by Bill Hague, reader and Duke XC father

Mr Murray getting panorama farms ready for a race (uvacrosscountry.tumblr.com)

Panorama Farms is just a few miles north of Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts all of the Cavaliers’ home meets as well as many high school and open races. The University does not own it; the Murray family does, as it has since 1953.

I’m not sure that there’s anything like Panorama Farms anywhere in the country, but there should be. It’s a working farm…sort of…well, it used to be, and still is in a way. I’ll let Garden and Gun magazine* tell the story.

One night in 1995, Steve Murray went to bed a troubled livestock farmer facing a financially precarious marketplace newly skittish about beef safety. The next day he woke up a visionary: “I said, let’s start looking at these eight hundred and thirty acres as a resource instead of a farm. What can you do with that resource?”

Given that the property includes a mile of reservoir frontage and glorious views, for many people the answer would be “Build on it.” But Murray is not among them. “I was prompted by a love of the land—and a distaste for development,” he says.

And so began the transformation of Panorama Farms—where Murray was raised in a large family—from a working farm to a premier composting operation. It now manages some four thousand tons of city leaves annually and keeps scores of area gardeners and landscapers happy with its top-grade compost and mulch. Besides that, Panorama, host to eight annual cross-country meets, is outfitted with running trails that serve UVA and high school athletes all season long. Murray leases hay-making and hunting rights on the property, too. And he goes to sleep nowadays secure about Panorama Farms’ future.

(*Even a Yankee like me has heard of Garden and Gun and its Southern-centric “adventure-bound, art-loving, skeet-shooting lifestyle”. It’s a great magazine and a lesson to all in the precarious world of publishing.)

The property was dubbed “Panorama Farms” due to its sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, back when the Murray family bought it in 1953. Due to zoning regulations, Panorama Farms cannot hold more than eight cross country meets per year, nor can any have more than 200 entrants only one of which can have more than 800 entrants. That pretty much kills any shot at hosting a national championship meet, but it has hosted the ACC Championships.

Photo courtsey Bill Hague

Murray’s original plan was based around mountain biking trails, which are still a major part of his operation. He has recently partnered with the University of Virginia’s post-consumer food-waste pilot program, to add more raw material for his composting business, and has started renting space for weddings and receptions. About half of what allowed him to keep his land while abandoning traditional farming is selling the rural southern mountain lifestyle to those who don’t (or can’t) live it — and cross country running is one example of that lifestyle.

The Dedicated Course: Agri Park

Nominated by Wendell McRaven, Texas A&M assistant coach

Arkansas’ Agri Park was created in 1996, at a time when the Razorbacks dominated NCAA cross country at historic levels, but had no home course. One was created for them at Arkansas’ Agri Park, land owned and used by the university’s agriculture program.

The course hosts all of Arkansas’ home meets, including the annual Chile Pepper Festival, and has hosted the NCAA South Central regional twice. The strong tradition of excellence in running at Arkansas means that the crowds are bigger and more knowledgeable than usual.

View the Razorbacks’ page on their course at Agri Park

The Litte-Known: Piney Woods Country Club

Nominated by Lou Snelling, Bowling Green head coach

I had a hard time finding any nomination for a great cross country course in Texas. Much of the state is not exactly the best environment for running. But, as expertly explained in the great film Bernie, Texas is almost like five states, and each part is different. This course is in East Texas, “behind the pine curtain”, where the South begins.

Friend of the blog Lou Snelling is currently the head coach at my alma mater, Bowling Green, a decidedly un-Texas kind of place. But his previous stint was as head coach at Stephen F. Austin, and so he’s been all over the Lone Star State. His favorite Texas course is SFA’s home course in Nacogdoches, Piney Woods.

Lou calls it “one of the most challenging and interesting courses in the state, very hilly and good footing all around”, but notes that it’s not well known. It’s off to one side of the state and only hosts meets attended by Southland Conference schools.

Florida: Little Everglades Ranch

Nominated by Chris Nickinson, Runnerspace.com

Sunrise over Little Everglades (Runnerspace.com)

Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, a multipurpose outdoor recreation facility, was where the FHSAA held its state championships until this year. The course is based around a steeplechase circuit — the kind that horses race on. It’s got some hills but is also wide open for spectators. Working for Runnerspace, Florida native Chris Nickinson has been just about everywhere, so if he says it’s his favorite course in the South, well, that means something.

To get an idea of the course, check out one of last year’s state championship races.

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2 Responses to Great Cross Country Courses: The South

  1. mike says:

    Have you ever been to choctaw trails outside of Jackson Mississippi? fun course tucked away. great varying terrain, with log jumps and water crossings. once used by Miss. college and has hosted usatf junior regional XC meets.

  2. Steve Murray says:

    Thanks for the love for the Panorama Farms XC course. Just a minor correction: We are allowed by zoning to have 8 races, of which only one event can have more than 800 runners. That is the only restriction. Thanks again,