For that one weekend a year, downtown Johnson City explodes with everything good it has to offer and it comes all at once during the Blue Plum Festival. It’s fun to be a part of it.
Food, music, interesting company and stellar beer typically make for a good time, but when you throw in my very favorite pastime — distance running — then we’re getting into “best weekend ever” status.
The Blue Plum Fast 5K recently changed its course but has always been storied as being one of the best in the area, boasting some of the best up- and downhills in the downtown neighborhoods, as well as showing off historic and developing parts of the city. I’ve lived in Johnson City for four Blue Plums now, have competed only twice in the race after this past weekend and I’m proud to say I can safely compare the old course with the new course. To get to my conclusion ahead of time: they’re both wonderful.
If you’re anything like me, when you’re on the starting line, you like to feel that energy around you that you can only experience when there’s a buzz in the air. The buzz collects best in high-population areas and right next to the Lady of the Fountain Saturday morning, just before the 9 a.m. starting time, was that buzz that distance runners crave. When the race starts, the buzz is my favorite first burst of energy, which is well-needed because in the first quarter of a mile in the race, you’re taken by The Lady and directly up the entirety of the Spring Street hill.
One-way downtown roads tend to bottleneck when about 550 road runners are aiming for the first inside corner, so to run the shortest tangent, I like to get out early. And I’m not the only one.
I found myself in the top five heading up the hill with some spry young gentlemen who went to school and trained at Science Hill. The hill, great moderators of speed as they are, gave me some separation as we reached Maple Street, with one Science Hill graduate, Ryan Becker, just ahead — a lead he would ultimately hold through the finish line.
What happened between is the stuff my dreams are made of. My wife and I own a house in the Tree Streets, and we both put in many miles up and down each direction, but Saturday’s tour was different than any other time I’ve been through in my running shoes. The buzz, I tell you, had permeated out of the downtown area into the Tree Streets, with countless wonderful individuals shouting and supporting us runners as we attempted to fly by.
Through the Tree Streets neighborhood and onto East Tennessee State University’s campus and the buzz was still there. Up the hill to the Mini Dome, the hard way we went. With the uphills finally in the rear view mirror, Blue Plum’s 5K course provided some relief in that it was completely flat and well attended down Walnut Street, all the way to Buffalo Street, which provided a left and a splendid gradual downhill to the finish next to the intersection where Buffalo meets Main Street.
You couldn’t finish in a more central downtown location, in the middle of it all and exactly what I want in a race. That being said, the old course, which, in my opinion, might have burned up too many miles running competitors up and down West Main and West Market Streets, did have the fun downtown finish, but was often dangerously split in half when a train would roll through, thus one of the main reasons to change the course, according to Hank Brown from local timing company We Run Events, who laid out both the old and the new course.
This course is a bit slower than the older one, but as is the case with a lot of races where you get to tour an area during a race, it doesn’t matter how quickly you finish sometimes. It’s more about the experience than anything.
Standing near the finish line, this was evident as I was congratulating runners as they finished, getting a chance to chat about the course between heavy breaths and gulps of water or Rita’s Ice. I got the same impression from the other racers that they enjoyed the course just as much as I did, but it could have been their buzz talking.
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