For the fourth year now, Cindy Baswell has taken lead of the Spa Running Festival in the position of race director. Coupled with her prior years serving on the festival committee, she has become a fount of both information and enthusiasm.
This year will mark the 36th annual event, set for Nov. 18 in downtown Hot Springs. The four races include a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and a children’s race.
Begun in 1982 by a group of local business professionals who wanted to draw in tourists during the fall season, the first race began at Oaklawn and finished downtown. Now, each race begins on Convention Boulevard, then takes athletes either to Whittington Park, or toward West Mountain.
The 5K welcomes participants of any fitness level, as both walkers and runners can register.
The Spa 10K is part of the Road Runners Club of America Grand Prix Series, and will be the next to last of the 20-race circuit for 2017. This year, it has been selected as the Southern Regional Championship Race, which covers 11 states from Kentucky to Florida. Baswell said, “We’re very honored and excited, and hope it will draw some of our running friends from across the Southern states.”
The Summit2 Challenge half marathon was added in the festival’s more recent years as a way to draw in more participants and to showcase the West Mountain route. Runners will climb toward the mountain road’s peak twice, surrounded by natural beauty and with little to distract them from their own breath and sounds of shoe on pavement.
The Squirt Race is for children ages 2-10, and parents will be able to run or walk with their youngsters along Convention Boulevard. All racers in this event will receive both a commemorative medal and T-shirt.
The maximum number of participants for the half marathon is 400, so early registration is recommended. The other races have no cap, so runners can sign up through the morning of race day. Altogether, around 1,400 people are expected to be wearing racing bibs that day.
Participants from 22 states took part in 2016, and so far this year, residents from 11 states have committed to one of the races. Baswell said, “Running through a national park is pretty special,” especially at that time when autumn leaves are changing.
Organizers have upped the number of perks this year in several ways. One is through the addition of an expo, which will be open the day before in The Hot Springs Hotel & Spa banquet room. Some 18 vendors will have booths with information and products related to all things running. Another new thing will be finishers medals for all participants in the 10K. And the post-race area near the finish line will have heartier foods, including soup, chili, pizza, fruit and chocolate milk, along with a beer tent.
But race day isn’t the festival’s only offering for those who want to increase their personal level of fitness, as the 10-week Pace for the Race C25K Training Clinic began Sept. 12. Thanks to sponsorship by Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, participation in the clinic is free. There will be both beginner and intermediate levels for runners, and a walk- ing group. This “Couch to 5K” health initiative will also have an educational component each week. Registration will remain open through Sept. 19.
Baswell started running 11 years ago because she wanted to do something good for herself before age crept up. She got involved with the local Spa Pacers running club, and said the experience was love at first step. In the beginning, she couldn’t even run a minute, but has since finished marathons and said, “There’s an excitement you get knowing what you’ve allowed your body to learn how to do.”
She deeply appreciates being around other runners, who she said are all positive people and are there to cheer each other on. And she’s witnessed people’s gains in confidence made through running spill over into other areas of life. “It really makes you feel good in so many different ways.”
Proceeds from the festival will go to three organizations — Friends of the Park, for help in expanding the Greenway Trail, Teen Challenge of Arkansas, as they supply hours of assistance for the event, and the Spa Pacers, who award scholarships to athletically involved high school seniors within Garland County.
Community members who don’t wish to don a pair of running shoes can get involved that Saturday morning by lining the route, especially along Broadway, leading to the finish line.
Registration, race times and route information can be found online at http://www.sparunningfestival.com.