For Laura Harris, trekking south from Pensacola to Key West for the Keys 100 relay race two years ago was a no-brainer.
A friend in the military recently had been transferred to Key West from Pensacola, so they agreed to form a six-person team for the relay. Aside from the camaraderie the trip would bring, there was something else that Harris, vice president of the Pensacola Runners Association, found desirable: traveling for a race and sticking around for a few days to see the sights a new city had to offer.
"For most of my friends, this is something they've always done," Harris said of traveling to run and explore a new city. "Putting on races, we see a lot of people from out of town. I think we get a lot of seasonal snowbirds doing some of our races. People go, 'Oh gosh, I can go to Pensacola in the wintertime? Yeah!'"
Harris, who also has run half-marathons in Virginia Beach and 10K races in South Carolina and Louisiana, is one of many runners who travel around Florida – or make Florida-destined vacation plans from other states – with the twin goal of participating in a road race and enjoying a new venue for a few days afterward.
The trip allows runners to enjoy some competition before hanging out with friends at local restaurants, checking out museums or spending the day at attractions such as Walt Disney World.
With warm weather, abundant sunshine and an outdoor culture centered around athletic events, Florida offers more than enough for avid or recreational runners to choose from year round. Among the events:
- Half marathons from Miami Beach to Tallahassee
- Races like the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, tied to a larger event that includes a popular parade
- Five-kilometer races that benefit the YMCA and other local organizations
Meanwhile, running groups are sprouting up all over the state.
Joe Fernandez runs Florida Race Place Magazine, which provides running schedules and information on local sports clubs and events on its website, flraceplace.com. He said runners often travel to Florida and take advantage of local attractions after running races.
"There are thousands of races here," he said. "Other than California, and maybe Texas, this is the No. 1 running, biking and triathlon state."
Runners like Harris say scheduling a running trip ahead of time with friends makes it worthwhile. For instance, Harris and her relay crew rented a Key West condominium that overlooks a marina, and hung out after the Saturday race before leaving on Monday.
They ate dinner in the heart of the city and saw live performers there. They went to Hog's Breath Saloon and stopped by the famed Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. They shopped on Duval Street and checked out the well-known "Southernmost" sign indicating they were only 90 miles from Cuba.
Harris said she enjoyed the scenery during the race, in addition to the opportunity to bond with runner friends in a new city.
"None of us were particularly fast runners, but we wanted to have a good time," she said. "We didn't go out with the theory of winning. We just wanted to have a good time, and we had the right mix of people to do that."
And it's not just Florida runners who are part of the running tourists movement.
Justin Lewis, an Arlington, Va., runner who works in Washington, D.C., ran the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend series, which was held in January near Orlando. He competed in the Disney Family Fun Run 5K, the Walt Disney World Half Marathon and the Walt Disney World Marathon.
Lewis and a group of friends flew to Orlando for the races and stayed for about five days. Lewis, who began running in 2009, stayed at the Walt Disney World Dolphin.
"After I completed the marathon, they picked me up from my hotel and drove me to downtown Orlando," said Lewis, 30. "There, we dined, drank and danced. It was an amazing experience."
JaNelle Ricks, a runner from Lexington, Ky., ran the St. Petersburg Women's Half Marathon in November 2010. Ricks, 29, said a friend who lives in Florida suggested traveling to run the race as a way for the group of former Ohio University classmates to bond, stay in shape and see a new area.
Ricks, who said the Tampa Bay area race was her first since high school when she ran cross country, enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with friends after the race. The group didn't have much time before heading back to their hometowns, but had brunch before flying home.
The warm weather in November didn't hurt, either.
"When I left Kentucky, it was very cold," she said. "It was nice to run down there in a warm climate."