Charlotte Hinson and Laura Nanda pause for a second and then attack, their heads bobbing up and down in the dark as they work their way up one of Shreveport’s steepest hills.
At the top, they drop and perform several pushups before trotting back down Gilbert’s “Thrill Hill” to start their next repeat. After four trips to the top, Nancy Clark joins the group. By the end of the trio’s 10 repeats, around 5:30 a.m., the hill is full; about 20 runners are tackling the hill, sprinting up, then recovering back down.
“It’s almost an addiction at this point,” said Nanda, who has been running in Shreveport for 25 years and has run the Boston Marathon nine times. “If I’m not out there running every morning, I feel terrible. It’s almost programmed into me at this point. It’s something you can do anywhere, no matter where you travel. Just get your shoes and head out the front door.”
Hinson, Nanda, and Clark have been running hill repeats each Tuesday morning on Gilbert for years, part of the five-at-five group.
“It’s therapy for me, and it’s like an adult recess,” said Hinson, whose mother made her run to burn off energy when she was young. “Shreveport is special, because it’s not a huge city. Here, everyone is welcoming, and you know exactly where everyone is running.”
Shreveport’s running community has grown in the past few decades, with multiple racing options each month and weekly club and group runs.
“We have a very active community,” said Matt Brown, owner of Sportspectrum, a running specialty store. “These groups have done a great job getting more and more people out running on the roads, people who wouldn’t have chosen to sign up for a race or attend a group run without encouragement.”
Brown has been a part of the local running community for more than 30 years. He became an avid runner after moving to Shreveport at age 19 and has put on more than 2,700 races in the area in the past 33 years.
“Running is still an individual sport, but people enjoy coming out, participating and being a part of something bigger,” Brown said. “In all of the years I’ve been involved in running, I’ve always enjoyed the community that runners bring. People are always in a good mood. It’s a great group of fun, interesting people.”
Many area runners are motivated by the social side of the sport.
“It’s a bonding experience,” Nanda said. “When you run with someone, you learn a lot about them. You could swim next to someone and not know their name. People feel better when they finish a run. It’s a sport where you can progress at your own rate. People can start, and a lot do, walking. And then walking and running, and before you know it, they are running half marathons.”
Other area runners picked up the sport for fitness reasons. Jim Miller dreaded his military physical fitness tests. But when he switched jobs and started sitting behind a desk about 11 years ago, he decided to start running more, a move influenced by coworker Doug Skelton, a local running leader.
“Knowing someone else who was passionate about running really made me excited about it,” said Miller, who has grown to love trail running. “I’ve gotten a huge amount of health benefits from running. I was starting to slow down, and I knew eventually I would put on weight and my health was going to decline. Now, I’m five years past retiring from the military, and I’m in the same or even better shape.”
Miller ran the three-mile loop at Sportspectrum’s Trail Run in January and hung out to talk to friends after the run.
“When you go out to these races and runs, you are getting to meet so many different people from the community,” Miller said. “Some are transplants like I am, and others have lived here their entire lives. It’s always a blast to see who is going to be out.”
Wednesday mornings at Captain Shreve’s Lee Hedges Stadium deliver another example of Shreveport’s running drive. Anywhere from 15 to 30 plus athletes will show up to participate in a track workout that starts at 6 a.m.
Mike Hutcheson, who, like Brown, has been a part of the local running scene for more than 30 years, coaches the group for free.
“People enjoy coming out, participating, & being a part of something bigger”
“We’ve been doing weekly track workouts for 20 years or more,” said Hutcheson, who owns No Limits Timing, a race company based in Shreveport. “People want to improve and get better. It’s all about being competitive. That’s the main reason people come out every week and work so hard. They want to get a trophy on Saturday, and when they see improvement weekly and their intervals on the track keep getting faster, that’s the motivation.”
Each week, after runners warm up, Hutcheson will deliver the workout information and then call out splits as people of all ability levels circle the track
“I enjoy seeing people accomplish goals,” Hutcheson said. “When people set new PRs or win their age group at a race, they just feel better about themselves. When they keep coming back, that’s what makes me feel good.”
According to runningintheusa.org, race participation in America skyrocketed more than 300 percent from 1990 to 2013, with more than 19,000,000 race finishers nationally in 2013. Around 18,750,000 runners finished races across the country in 2014.
“There are a whole lot more events for people to run than when we were starting,” Brown said. “Back then, there was maybe a run each month for people to train for. Now, we have some weekends with three races and options across different locations in the community. Our races have grown, especially in the past 10 years.”
But what makes Shreveport’s running community special?
“There are some areas, and I’m going to single out the Highland area, that are just a joy to run in,” said Miller, who often runs through the heart of Bossier City and Shreveport in the middle of the night. “The community has really embraced running.”
Miller also pointed to running paths on Clyde Fant and Teague Parkways, on either side of the Red River, as a crucial reason for the area’s running growth.
Two years ago, Gabriella Jeter would have called running and participating in races impossible. But she started a health challenge, signed up for a race, and on June 14, 2014, finished her first 5K.
“It was such a physical and mental challenge, and finishing was such an adrenaline rush,” said Jeter, who now runs races with her brother Rodney. “We’ve been going ever since. We got hooked.”
Since that first race, Jeter has done a total of 46 races, a mix of 5Ks, 10Ks, 15Ks, and an unofficial half marathon. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, she tries to make the Red River Road Runners’ safe runs.
“It’s awesome to be a part of this running community,” she said. “You don’t know what to expect, especially for those who are going to be slower. You wonder if people will cheer you on or talk about you. But the running community here is incredible. We support each other, from the first person across the finish line all the way to the last. You don’t even know everyone’s names, but you’re still high-fiving. You don’t know how much support you have until you go out and do a race and see for yourself. I love it.”
The Red River Road Runners are the official area representative of the Road Running Club of America. By summertime, the club normally has more than 350 paid members to go with more than 1,150 members on its Facebook page.
“Having so many people supporting you keeps you motivated and training,” said Jeter, who participates in the Red River Road Runners’ winter and summer fun run series. “We stick together. It keeps you accountable. If you don’t show up, you’re going to get Facebook messages asking you where you were.”
In 2008, Hutcheson helped start USA Fit, a coach-led group that trains for half and full marathons each year. The group, now led by Kelly Silva, has grown from 90 members in its first year to around 250 this past Fall.
“Most of the people who come to us are wanting to learn how to increase their distance to be able to do longer race training,” said Silva, who has been a part of the USA Fit program off and on since it began. “It’s also the relationships and getting to run with other people that keeps runners coming back to our group. It’s harder for runners to be by themselves and stick to a training plan.”
Most of USA Fit’s group runs start from Betty Virginia Park and wind through South Highlands.
“You have so many groups running here and so many events,” Silva said. “It’s big, and it’s getting even bigger. With all of the groups working together, it will help us keep growing.”
The Saturday Morning Run group meets in Uptown shopping center’s parking lot every Saturday at 6 a.m., with different route options and many different groups with varying paces available. For many area runners, the hardest part of running isn’t getting out the door – it’s deciding which group to join.
“There are so many groups running now, it’s really exploded,” Nanda said. “When you run around here in the Highland area, you pass people all the time. It’s 5 a.m., and you are seeing people everywhere. I’m from the Northeast, so being able to run in shorts and a t-shirt in February is a huge positive. You can run in every season here.”
For those considering joining an area running group or thinking about picking up the sport as a beginner, Clark has advice: don’t wait. And you don’t have to start with hard-effort repeats up “Thrill Hill.”
Clark began running to get in better shape after the birth of her second child. It took her about three years to become consistent and realize she could compete at a high level. Since then, she’s finished more than 55 marathons with a PR of 3:02 at the Whiterock Marathon in Dallas.
“Pace yourself,” Clark said. “Take your time. And don’t start in the summer.”
WHERE SHREVEPORT RUNS
BEST SPEEDWORK/INTERVAL SPOT:
Lee Hedges Stadium at 6 a.m. Wednesday mornings, or repeats on Greenway around the south and east sides of Querbes Golf Course, which give a flat mile without cross streets.
BEST HILL REPEATS:
Hit Gilbert’s “Thrill Hill,” and tackle it with a group at 5:15 a.m. on Tuesday mornings, or run the longer uphill on Fairfield, starting at either Ockley Drive or the side entrance to Betty Virginia Park. Run up to Ontario Street from Ockley to get an 800m repeat.
BEST HILLY ROUTE:
Run east and west roads, weaving through South Highlands between Fairfield and Gilbert to get a rolling hill workout. Or use Centenary, Highland, Creswell or Fairfield north and south to get longer more gradual hills. Throw in a loop through Spring Lake (will add about five miles if you stay on the outlying roads) to get even more steep hills.
BEST LONG RUN:
Include the running paths on Clyde Fant and Teague Parkways. For added distance, start at A.C. Steere Park, run Preston all the way to the Clyde Fant path, and follow it all the way downtown. It’s also easy to design long loops that run through the South Highlands and Broadmoor neighborhoods.
Try out the trails at St. Matthias Episcopal Church near Cross Lake or the ones at Eddie D. Jones Park in Keithville, near Chimp Haven. Each has different distance trails marked. Eddie D. Jones presents a more technical challenge, however, especially if the ground is wet.
MOST POPULAR MEETING SPOTS:
On Saturday mornings, Betty Virginia Park and Uptown Shopping Center’s parking lot are the places to be for runners.
FLAT AND FAST MILES:
For a flat, quick-paced workout, run around Bayou Pierre and anywhere east, using either Greenway, Albany, Albert, or Ockley. For longer workouts, cross Youree on any of those roads and continue to Kings before circling back.