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A dream realized – and maybe an NCAA title – in Tallahassee

The course that was once a dream is now a source of pride for the Florida State cross country program. And on Saturday it will host the NCAA cross country championships for the first time.

FSU cross country coach Bob Braman recalled this week how, 13 years ago, he and local runner Brian Corbin walked through the woods with machetes and began planning of what would become a course at the Apalachee Regional Park, located south of Tallahassee on U.S. Hwy. 27. He and local runners were guided by three principles: Make it a fun course for runners, make it easier for coaches to navigate from point to point and develop shortcuts for fans.

“I want to look at it as a runner — What would I want to run? Where would I want to be on that course? What would I want to experience?” Braman said. “And so the goal, No. 1 was, ‘Can we do something through the woods? Can we actually run through the woods?’ It’s kind of forgotten art. We run in fields and we go up and down bowling alleys and some golf courses and a little bit of scenery. But can we do something a little different where we have fields and woods and turns and dips. And so I think that that’s been accomplished, and the county has done a great job with it just making it like a racetrack to the woods.”

Apalachee Regional Park (ARP) has hosted Florida high school meets, including just a week ago, as well as college invitationals through the years. But the NCAA championships, which are the first to be held in Tallahassee since women’s tennis in 1996, will feature about 1,000 of the nation’s top men’s and women’s runners.

The women’s 6k event begins Saturday at 10:20 a.m. with 31 teams running two 3,000-meter loops. Afterwards, the men’s 10k event starts at 11:10 a.m. as 31 teams will run two 3,000-meter loops and two 2,000-meter loops. ESPNU plans live coverage, in part utilizing fiber-optic lines that were put in place years ago for just such an event.

FSU’s Adrian Wildschutt is among the favorites in the men’s race. A native of Ceres, South Africa, Wildschutt has won five races, including the ACC title, and took second at the pre-nationals. Wildschutt and teammate Ahmed Muhumed took gold and silver, respectively, at the South Regional championships. The duo was the first 1-2 finishers from the same school since 2012.

Lauren Ryan of FSU had three top-5 finishes in the fall season, including a win at the Covered Bridge Open and a fifth place at the ACCs. Ryan has the ninth-fastest 6K time in ARP history.

The home course, and the ability to sleep in your own bed the night before a race, can’t be discounted as an advantage. Wildschutt said there is comfort in running at ARP but knows the margins are slim against a field with the best in the nation.

“I think it definitely gives you a good feeling,” said Wildschutt, who has the third-fastest collegiate 8K time at ARP. “But I don’t think it’s anything that will separate me from anybody. I do think it’s beneficial to know even just in my mind exactly how the course is in exact moments.”

This is the first NCAA cross country championships to be held in Florida. ARP is a dream course for runners but it’s also delivered dividends for local hotels, restaurants and businesses. The ARP has hosted FHSAA meets for the last 10 years, and Braman called those “good rehearsals” for the NCAA championships. Leon County officials have invested about $2 million into the site as well as an operations building.

Kerri L. Post of Visit Tallahassee estimates about 7,500 spectators and $2.5 million in direct spending to local hotels, restaurants and other merchants this weekend. The pre-nationals event in October brought 1,250 runners, 4,000 spectators and $1.8 million in direct spending, while the high school meet last week brought 2,250 runners and coaches, 6,000 fans and $2.7 million to the local economy, Post said.