Running opportunities continue to grow for New Orleans-area athletes _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON People run in the French Quarter during the Crescent City Classic on April 4.

When Chuck George began directing local road races more than a quarter century ago, he said the public’s pickings were much slimmer than they are today.

“I’d say there are more than 100 races in the metro New Orleans area today,” the longtime racing aficionado said. “There may have been 40 races about 20 or 25 years ago — maybe.”

George, who operates New Orleans Running Systems, offered several reasons why the racing scene in south Louisiana has seen a boon in recent years. Some are obvious; others not so much.

“I think the popularity is in the demographic,” he said, pointing specifically to the 18-39 year old crowd. “You’re seeing younger men and women, women in particular, take an interest in running. ... That’s a major change from even a decade ago. You can draw the eyes of a younger crowd. We weren’t doing much of that back then, but I think people realize now the entertainment dollar (in a race event) is a very good value. You want to participate with people of a like mind. It’s exciting.”

George also said that as the population grows in parishes outlying the city, bigger and better races are cropping up in those spots.

“Take the north shore, for instance,” George said. “Thirty years ago, you had one or two races up there. Now, they have organizations and race management of their own, plus a population that can support it. ... Everyone used to have to drive from all over to run in New Orleans. That’s not the case anymore.”

The city is, of course still the epicenter of road racing and on the Gulf Coast, for that matter. And as avid runners know, winter and early spring bring many of the best (and certainly the biggest) races locally. That includes, but isn’t limited to, the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic 10K, the New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon, and the 8K Shamrockin’ Run.

Most, if not all, upcoming races are expecting larger crowds than in 2015, and some new events have been scheduled, too.

Jennifer Neil is director of the New Orleans Track Club, the area’s largest running organization. In the next couple months, the NOTC will host the city’s third-oldest race (the 49th annual Al Briede Gold Cup 10K, 3-mile and 1-mile,) a second-year event (the Bursting With Speed 5K and ½-mile) and the inaugural Smoothie King 5K.

She’s excited about all three, and expecting at least 500 people to participate in each.

“Smoothie King is having their annual convention in New Orleans, and they wanted to put on a race to kick that off,” Neil said. “It’s going to be a cool event in Lafreniere Park. The ½-mile race part of it will have neat things, like prizes for kids that beat a guy running in a Smoothie Cup costume. ... And Bursting With Speed was awesome for its first year. We had bands on stage and we were giving away $300 checks. There’s going to be plenty prize money ($7,350) this year.”

“These events are fun,” Neil said. “That’s part of it.”

George agreed, saying the novelty of running in New Orleans brings out extra folks. Oddball locations, big post-race parties with live music, costume contests — it’s part of local running culture.

George will add to that scene with a first-time event of his own called the Louisiana Paradise Bridge Run. The 13.1K (8.2-mile race) will take place on the U.S. Hwy. 11 Bridge from Irish Bayou to Slidell on Feb. 20. He’s expecting at least 1,000 people to take part, and has worked with a half-dozen local, state, and federal agencies to get the bridge closed temporarily for the fund-raising run.

“That’s a big number for a first-year event, but we can get it,” George said. “Our Run on the Bayou (in Bayou Segnette State Park on Jan. 30) had registration up 40 percent. And that’s a 28-year old race. So I think the sky’s the limit.”

Wanna run?

The following is a list of some of the area’s upcoming races. More information can be found online:

Feb. 20: Third annual 504K, supports Youth Run Nola, Marigny/Bywater. 8:30 a.m. www.504krun.com.

Feb. 20: Louisiana Paradise Bridge Run, 13.1K and 2-mile events, supports Slidell Memorial Hospital Foundation cancer patients and children. New Orleans to Slidell. 7:30 a.m. www.nolarunning.com.

Feb. 27: Academy of the Sacred Heart “Heart and Sole” 5K and ½-mile runs. Audubon Park. 8:30 a.m. www.nolarunning.com.

Feb. 27: Crescent City Schools Run for Excellence 5K, Algiers. 10 a.m. http://crescentcityschools.org/run-for-excellence-registration/.

Feb. 28: Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon and Half Marathon. 7:30 a.m. A 10K will begin at 7 a.m. www.rocknroll.com/new-orleans/.

March 5: 49th annual Al Briede Gold Cup 10K, 3-mile, and 1-mile Runs, Lake Pontchartrain Lakefront, Metairie, benefitting the Chris Briede Fund and the Louisiana SPCA. 8 a.m. www.runnotc.org.

March 5: Tulane Athletics 5K, benefitting Tulane Athletics Fund, Tulane Uptown Campus, 9 a.m. 504-314-2410.

March 6: Uptown Classic 5K and Family ½-Mile Fun Run, presented by the New Orleans Jewish Community Center. Uptown New Orleans. 8:30 a.m. www.nolarunning.com.

March 12: 36th annual Henry J. Calamari Memorial 2-Mile Run/Walk, supports Our Lady of Lourdes School. Slidell’s Westchester Neighborhood. 8:30 a.m. Email calamarihenry@gmail.com.

March 12: Tulane NROTC Fallen 5K, supporting the Lone Survivor Foundation. Audubon Park. 10 a.m. http://www.active.com/new-orleans-la/running/distance-running-races/fallen-5k-2016

March 13: Allstate Sugar Bowl St. Patrick’s Day Classic, 2-mile run benefitting the Crescent City Fitness Foundation and Pontiff Playground. Metairie Road, 10 a.m. www.ccc10k.com/st-patricks-day-classic.

March 13: 8K Shamrockin’ Run, National D-Day/WWII Museum to Audubon Park, 9 a.m. www.shamrockinrun.com.

March 20: Smoothie King 5K and ½-mile, benefitting CASA Jefferson, Inc. Lafreniere Park, 8 a.m. www.runnotc.org.

March 26: 38th annual Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic 10K, produced by non-profit Crescent City Fitness Foundation which supports numerous local charities, downtown New Orleans to City Park. 8 a.m. www.ccc10k.com.

April 9: Bursting With Speed 5K and ½-mile, benefitting Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Bucktown Lakefront, Metairie. 8 a.m. www.runnotc.org.