A popular topic last fall on a message board for cross country runners and coaches asked board members which was the toughest cross country course in Georgia.
Among the names mentioned most often was Blanchard Woods Park, which on Wednesday will play host to Columbia County's first high school meet of the season.
Greenbrier cross country coach Kati Smallwood said the park was the only one in the state with a dedicated cross country course, and that the course was the first priority when the park was established.
"All the other parks, if there is a cross country course, it was an afterthought," Smallwood said.
Each of the county's cross country programs is expected to run Wednesday. The course is the class of the area, but there are many other options for practice.
Smallwood's team met outside West Dam Park in Appling to run Bartram Trail, about a 6.5-mile course, depending on the path. Afterwards, the Wolfpack planned to swim in life vests as part of a cross-training exercise before eating in the picnic area with the team's parents.
The same evening, at Savannah Rapids Pavillion, Lakeside's boys and girls stretched near the Savannah River as they prepared for practice. The Augusta Canal towpath is a popular spot for area teams, as well as the Augusta Striders running club.
Lakeside coaches said the area was great for practice, but that competing at Blanchard Woods gave the Panthers and other local teams an advantage when they travel to courses elsewhere in the state.
"The kids know they're training on the hardest thing they'll ever race on," Panthers cross country coach Jerry Meitin said. "That mentally gives them an edge that makes them feel better about themselves."
Smallwood said Blanchard Woods is unique in that it is maintained by the county and that the county handles all race preparations. County employees mark the start and finish lines and define boundaries as needed.
And between races, county employees focus on making improvements to the course.
"That takes a load off us as coaches," Smallwood said.
Smallwood, who was among a group who helped spearhead the creation of the course, said officials did their homework while designing the layout, ensuring the course met guidelines of the sport's governing bodies. And the final product was a challenging layout worthy of Internet fodder.
"It's one of the toughest we've ever ran," Greenbrier senior Robert Blackwelder said. "We definitely focus on it a lot."
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