Going the Distance – The Running Scene in Hot Springs

January 5, 2020 by David

I stopped to catch my breath and gazed out across the valley to the surrounding mountains. The autumn leaves glowed in the light of the setting sun. The scenery would have taken my breath away if I wasn’t already gasping for air. I had joined the local running club, the Spa Pacers, for one of their weekly group runs. Our route mapped out by Ken Freeman, trails coordinator for the City of Hot Springs, took us along various connecting mountain trails in Hot Springs National Park, for a total 4.75-mile run.

While I’ve hiked these trails many, many times, it had been a decade since I last ran them. Back then, I was training for a 5K road race – organized by the Spa Pacers as part of their annual Spa Running Festival. I’d written about the event for a local magazine and felt inspired to participate. Around that time, I’d also written a story about author Stephen Altschuler and his book, “The Mindful Hiker: On the Trail to Find the Path.” A resident of California, he was coming to Hot Springs to lead a “mindful hike” in the National Park. I’d considered going along but ended up training that day and inadvertently zoomed right past them as they stood to study the moss growing on a rock (or presumably something like that.) I wanted to stop and introduce myself, as our interview had been by phone, but I felt a little embarrassed that I was racing through the woods as he was encouraging people to slow down and observe them.

All of that was running through my mind during my recent run with the Spa Pacers. As we ascended the mountain, I noticed the ground change beneath my feet from hard and rocky to soft and grassy – something I’d never noticed while hiking – and it occurred to me that running itself is a form of mindfulness and mediation. Lulled by the cadence of our breathing and our bodies in motion, our minds become free to wander, to examine our thoughts and our surroundings. As I ran through the towering trees, past ancient rock formations and expansive views, I couldn’t imagine any surroundings better than this.

Hot Springs’ quaint and historic downtown is surrounded by nationally protected forests that offer miles of trails and endless natural beauty. The area also hosts high-quality racing events that attract runners from all around the country who come to compete and enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer – like post-run soaks in our thermal pools!

The Spa Running Festival

A family-friendly, nationally-recognized road racing event, the Spa Running Festival is held each November with multiple races through downtown and the Hot Springs National Park. The festival began with the Spa 10K in 1981 and has since grown to include a half marathon, a 10K, a 5K walk/run, a 5K for junior and high school students, a 1K for children 2-10 years old. It kicks off with an expo on the day before the races and wraps up with a Finish Line Festival area that includes hot soup, pizza, and a beer tent.

About 1,800 runners from more than 20 different states are expected to participate in the 2019 festival which will be held Saturday, Nov. 16. Race Director Cindy Baswell credits the festival’s growth to several factors including the tourism industry of Hot Springs, the opportunity to run through a national park and the caliber of the races.

The “Summit 2 Summit” Half Marathon takes runners over both North Mountain and West Mountain in the National Park and through Hot Springs’ historic neighborhoods and downtown. A challenging but beautiful course, it’s a great way to see the Park and the heart of the city.

“There are half marathons in Arkansas that are much easier as far as the course, but ours provides something different because they do get to run through the National Park which is pretty special,” Baswell said.

A longtime member of the Spa Pacers, which organizes the Spa Running Festival, she began running just before turning 50 and has since competed in over 20 half marathons and a couple of full marathons. She has been a racing director since 2014.

“We put on a fantastic race,” Baswell said. “It’s a coordinated effort among many different groups – the city police, the National Park and our volunteers that make it happen that day.”

The Spa Pacers is a nonprofit running club and member of the Road Runners Club of America. In addition to the Spa Running Festival, the club hosts two free-running clinics each year and a variety of weekly group runs with something for all levels of experience. There are walking groups, easy runs, long runs, trail runs and pub runs. The group has been active since the early 1980s and comprises over 200 households.

“Running with a group makes you more accountable,” Baswell said. “[It] makes you want to show up when you know someone else is going to be there to run with you.”

In addition to their local members, the Spa Pacers are sometimes joined by visitors, she said.

“We get calls frequently from runners coming in on the weekend and wanting to run,” Baswell said. “We welcome all visitors to come run with us and we get to show them our beautiful downtown.”

Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.